Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Accountable or Responsible?

accountability, noun
  1. the state of being accountable, liable, or answerable.
  2. Education . a policy of holding schools and teachers accountable for students' academic progress by linking such progress with funding for salaries, maintenance, etc.
responsibility, noun
  1. the state or fact of being responsible.
  2. an instance of being responsible: The responsibility for this mess is yours!
  3. a particular burden of obligation upon one who is responsible: the responsibilities of authority.
  4. a person or thing for which one is responsible: A child is a responsibility to its parents.
  5. reliability or dependability, especially in meeting debts or payments.

A quick Google search of accountability and responsibility reveals two very distinct viewpoints on the words. Largely, people use them interchangeably. I can see why. But in the search for accountability, we find more about government, while responsibility yields ... less. Continuing further into the results for responsibilities reveals things like "social responsibility," whereas accountability is more about Federal programs (Canadian and otherwise) demanding more accountability, or, persons being answerable for their actions, as in government being answerable to the public for anything they do instead of being responsible in the first place to the public.

Looking at the two words, and actually thinking about them shows something.

When using the words in reference to action, one is more before-the-fact (responsible) and one is an after-the-fact (accountable). An action versus a reaction. Unfortunately, we're seeing more after the fact than initiative for a before the fact; i.e.: they've already committed the transgression. So, it comes down to the expectation that something will be done wrong, and instead of demanding responsibility from persons in power (consider government) to not commit a transgression, we instead ask for accountability (the assumption that, yes, the person will do something akin to large-scale corruption). But why the change in policy from one of responsibility to accountability? Is society itself less responsible now than it was fifty or even a hundred years ago?