Beyond Blame: Accountability Now?

Throughout my career issues of accountability have been central to my work; whether in local government, the NHS, voluntary sector and indeed political activism. I was therefore drawn to a conference with the provocative title “Beyond Blame: Accountability Now? MODEM is the hub for ecumenical discussions about ministry, organisation and leadership and held its annual conference this week on accountability and I am a former Secretary.

MODEM conferences in recent years have moved away from the speaker followed by Q&A format towards a stye of exploration by presenters and participants towards shared learning and this conference usefully developed this approach. It was carefully curated by Dr Helen Cameron, practical theologian and ex-political lobbyist; whom I knew from my occasional participation in the RADAR group of church political affairs staff.

Three senior leaders who have to grapple with issues of accountability on a daily basis were interviewed by Helen. Christine Allen, Director of CAFOD (whom I knew from several gatherings of Christian Aid sponsoring churches where she formerly worked), Vic Rayner, Executive Director of the National Care Forum and Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol, brought their insights. Helen highlighted issues that needed to be addressed and theoretical approaches and managed the online transition from one session to another. We also had a couple of breakout groups enabling all voices to be heard. We finished with a grounded reflection by Rev Mike Long, minister of Notting Hill Methodist Church, drawing upon his experience of the Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry and a Call to Action from Helen.

MODEM managed to bring together an impressive event with lots of engaging discussion and there was a real sense of the MODEM community coming together in the midst of the Pandemic. That such high profile speakers agreed to contribute at a time when there are huge demands upon them illustrates high important the issue is.

Reflecting on the discussions the following are some personal learnings on accountability:

  • How structures can support or hinder accountability?
  • We all need to understand the influence we have and use that influence to support those with fewer privileges. We are not all equal. Our passivity will reduce accountability.
  • We need to take responsibility for our actions drawing upon the values and principles arising from our faith traditions or indeed other beliefs. Christine referred to the theological basis for CAFOD’s work grounded in Catholic social teaching, including the principle of subsidiarity
  • We should gain greater clarity on the meaning of terms regularly used in these debates; authority, ownership, influence, responsibility
  • Everyone is accountable but it’s easy to absolve ourselves from responsibility by blaming someone else! Most failures in accountability are usually shared in complex systems.

On several occasions I returned to a definition of accountability I have often used over the years to explain what accountability should mean to those in positions of power:

1. To give an account to eg in an annual report and account

2. Take account of eg through engagement with service users, wider community

3. To be held to account eg members, voters, against the purpose of the organisation

The conference reinforced these practical steps, particularly to think about how the most junior people or marginalised groups might have voice.

I also welcomed the recommendation to examine the theological and historical tradition of the faith group that I am a part of and how it addresses accountability. That’s been on my “to do” list for some time.

I look forward to the next MODEM Conference to take place at Sarum College, Salisbury on 25 and 26 November 2021.

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