Building Ownership and Accountability are critical to successful IT Service Management, however building these in public sector organizations presents unique challenges.  Here are 10 ways to build accountability in the public sector.

I’ve spent more than 20 years at a major high tech company, and now nearly 4 years at a public agency. It’s not a good/bad thing,  the two just have very different challenges and constraints.

Accountability is a cultural facet, and changing culture starts with changing behaviors. Humans are highly complex creatures, and there’s never a single root cause for a given cultural aspect. Sadly, many of the elements indigenous to public sector lead logically to some less-than-desirable outcomes – like low accountability.  However, some elements are in our control, and offer the greatest opportunity to effect change.

Here’s some things that can help improve accountability.

1. Model Accountability

Principle: Actions speak louder than words – staff follow the example leadership sets.

Leadership has a powerful opportunity to set cultural expectations, to reset the norm, so to speak.

Follow through. Do what you say. Deliver results. Take ownership – own both good and bad results. In his book Speed of Trust, Steven R Covey gives 10 behaviors to build trust –  number 10: practice accountability.

“Accountability breeds responsibility.” – Stephen R. Covey.

The degree to which accountability exists in a culture is directly dependent upon the degree to which leadership holds themselves accountable. Here we have a bit of a chicken/egg issue, in that accountability and risk are two sides to the same coin. Holding yourself accountable comes at a risk – to yourself, your career, credibility. It takes boldness to hold oneself accountable, but its perhaps the most influential key to building accountability.

2.  Management by Wandering Around

Principle: Work happens out on the floor

Being out and about, knowing what’s (really) going on, listening to people, and understanding the business builds accountability. Staff should expect to see you at any moment – in their space, where work’s being accomplished.  By building and maintaining this open dialogue, people feel less put off by your asking questions about their work, goals, struggles, accomplishments. Staff grow to know that you will be around wanting to know how things are going, what challenges you face, and how you can help them achieve their goals.

And, of course, it should be a two way street. What you talk about, and how (and to what) you respond sends very clear messages about what’s important to you.

3. Build relationships

Principle: People avoid disappointing those with whom they have an established relationship

Use wandering around to build genuine relationships with people. Find things you have in common. Treat them like real people, worthy of respect.

The gotcha here is that you can’t just ‘do’ this. It’s not a checklist item.  This has to be the real deal. If you really don’t like people, this will backfire on you. People can tell the difference.

4. Develop people

Principle: Give people every opportunity to be successful.

Be a champion for developing staff. Through good relationships,  understand peoples’ career goals and aspirations.  Look for opportunities for staff to be given new challenges and to develop in areas where they have an interest. Ensure all staff have the skills, training, and tools they need to be successful in what you want them to accomplish.

According to Deming, accountability without adequate training can only create fear and apprehension. (Edward Deming – Out of Crisis),

Development goes well beyond formal training, but everyone knows training funds are the first to go in budget reductions. Do everything in your power to  buck this trend; staff will take notice.  More is at stake here than just the foregone training.

(Side note – make your own development a priority as well.)

5. Empower people

Principle: Give people every opportunity to achieve success.

When people have the skills and training they need, time to get out of their way.  Hand over the reigns, and allow them to take ownership and be successful.

Make removal of barriers a top priority.  Approach every situation with the genuine belief that people want to do a good job and will do so, given the proper tools and support. (See HP Way) Actively seek out and sincerely recognize success.  Be their number one supporter. Take a personal interest in their success, and be willing to personally invest in it. Do Not micro manage.

Do everything in your power to give people what the need to be successful, and then get out of their way.

6. Develop  Clarity

Principle:  Clarity promotes accountability!

In a political environment, clarity can be a liability. Things change, and it’s risky to have “gone on record”, leaving little wiggle room. On the other hand, ambiguity leaves staff not knowing exactly what it is that they’re to accomplish. This makes it nearly impossible to build accountability.

Establish clarity in goals, expectations, roles, and responsibilities. Create written performance plans with clear expectations, outcomes, and dates. Review these plans and expectations with staff regularly (quarterly if not more frequent).  Update plans if they are no longer valid or appropriate.  Say what you mean, and mean what you say.

When you’ve relayed important information, follow up with an email reviewing the stated points.

Leverage best practices  from Service Management framework(s), and use terms, processes and roles consistent with industry practice (i.e. don’t redefine well established terms)

7. Encourage Risk Taking

Principle:  Risk-adversity rewards passive participants.

In order for staff to be accountable for  results, they must be allowed to take ownership for the approach. This involves risk taking. Staff should feel confident that they can take calculated risks in pursuit of established objectives, and know you have their back if things don’t work out as planned.

Yes, sometimes bad things will happen, but risk aversion can immobilize an organization. If staff are afraid of retribution (including mob discipline), they will not move forward quickly, if at all. Worse, they will have no sense of ownership or accountability (or urgency for that matter) because “they” didn’t tell them what “they” wanted done.

In a risk-adverse culture,  the downside of taking risk is so great that it’s not worth it. Better to ‘sit on the sidelines eating popcorn’, than get in the game.  (I was once told ” you won’t get fired here for doing nothing; only for trying to do something and failing”)

So, you have risk on one hand, but inaction and lack of accountability on the other.

8. Be Authentic

Principle: Accountability and Authenticity are directly related

People instinctively know if your words and actions are consistent with your values.  This is an especially tough one, because there’s often a punch in/care/punch out act being played out. Authenticity calls for the real you to get in the game.  When people are required to “go on record” with their real thoughts, they intrinsically know you’ll be held accountable.

Bring your energies, your values, your passion to the table.  Let people know who you really are.

This is especially powerful in public sector because it’s so rare, and why great leaders stand out so dramatically.

9. Understand Labor contracts

Principle: Knowledge is power

If you have unionized labor, take the time to read and understand the contract. These agreements define the terms of managing represented staff. Knowing the ‘rules of engagement’, puts you in the best position to apply appropriate means of remediation if that becomes necessary.  Labor contracts often contain a surprising amount of disciplinary steps and actions.  Knowing what your options are puts you in the best position possible.

10. Stay the Course

Principle: Changing culture is a long term journey

Changing behaviors and cultures takes a concerted effort over the long haul. Most organizations can name the management fads or eras they’ve passed through, and it serves as a strong antidote to any future ‘new things’.

This is not a ‘how to have accountability in six weeks’ effort. The culture wasn’t built overnight, and changing it will take a surprising amount of time and dedication.

That’s why all of these tips are things you do. It’s what you do day after day that makes the difference.


Building accountability is a long term investment that pays off in long term dividends. Focus on the things in your control, especially your own actions. It requires hard work and dedication, but the benefits far outweigh the cost, and it starts with you.