Much ado about accountability limits creativity

1st March 1996 at 00:00
Don't get me wrong. I'm not against accountability. I don't think that performance indicators and critical success factors are terms necessarily unsuited to professionals. I don't think that professional means "accountable to no-one except on my own expert terms".

All the same, I do have some problems with performance indicators, targets and planning cycles. First of all, of course, it's hard to take them seriously when they have been imposed by a Government whose mission is fuzzy, and which seems, confusingly, to be able to owe accountability to the electorate and not to the people who make up the electorate.

What I'm really concerned about is that we seem to have been overwhelmed with plans of all kinds - strategic, development and action - arising from self-assessment, Investors in People and all kinds of forecasts.

Faculties and courses have them. Cross-curricular areas have them. All must fuse with the others or the "college mission". Each plan contains its timescales for the achievement of projects, its critical success factors, its review and evaluation procedures, which must be completed before the compilation of the next plan. Theoretically I have no difficulty with this.

But in practice there is a danger that "needs analysis" at one end of the cycle and evaluation and "review" at the other end may swamp the time which ought to be devoted to the implementation of the projects. In order to check that we are doing things properly, we are audited out of existence. This term, we shall have been visited by the external and internal college auditors and by the Further Education Funding Council auditors. Are we worried about impropriety? We should be so lucky.

The only impropriety may be that the whole accountability process leaves too little time for meeting the day-to-day needs of the students for whose benefit all this is taking place. For instance I recently received a telephone call from a store detective, who had apprehended one of our students shoplifting when she should have been at her work experience placement. The absence of other staff led to my dealing with this case.

The student returned to college and we had a longer conversation than I had planned because she appeared to be unable to a) listen and b) understand what she is hearing. Episodes like this disrupt our careful timetabling all the time, we've all got plans, and we've all got to-do lists.

We constantly remind our students that the qualities the workforce of the year 2000 will need are flexibility and adaptability. These qualities are exactly what over-rigid plans and a concentration on measurable outcomes steer us away from.

When we respond to emergencies, as we have to, or to the non-emergency but time-consuming agendas of the students, we feel bad that we have been taken from our planned activities. We go home at the end of the day thinking that we have achieved nothing, when we may have achieved exactly what the students most needed.

In the same way, job descriptions become, for those anxious to do their job properly, inhibitors of initiative. If new priorities appear between reviews of job descriptions, it takes a confident person to deal with those and to neglect tasks which are written down, and by which they might be judged.

How, for instance, would Shakespeare have fared in today's Britain. I bet he wouldn't have been able to write so many plays, what with the plans and the success factors and the targets. He'd have been in Hollywood making films, though.

Where is the potential for chance discoveries in all this? What leeway is for a ground-breaking invention such as a "post-it" note with glue that stays stuck, or for finding penicillin when we were looking for something else? Can we afford to let someone run with an idea that might work, knowing that it might not? What about learning by our mistakes? What about risk-taking?

Of course we don't want an organisation full of shooting stars, going off in all directions. Equally it's important that we all regard plans as guidelines and not blueprints, by which alone our performance will be judged.

If I go shopping, I do not choose a shop simply because it has a business plan or an appraisal system for its staff. In the end, it's better to be held accountable for successful outcomes than for the process which suffocated the vision.

Anne Smith is Principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon

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