Holding power to account: how to avoid the disconnection syndrome

David Stephens

Many years ago, the late Kim Beazley Senior complained that his Australian Labor Party, which had once contained the cream of the working class, now consisted of the dregs of the middle class. These people represented neither the mass of the party nor the majority of voters.

That was in the 1970s – when Labor still had a mass – but the problem of a disconnect between voters and the values espoused by the party’s leadership is, if anything, more acute now than it was then.

While we need not necessarily agree with every line of Beazley Senior’s philosophy, we can see that there are two key elements in the disconnection syndrome, regardless of the type of organisation. The first element is the proximity to the levers of power of people with lots of ideas and passion, but sometimes a lack of scruples and principle. Some of these people may never have had a large organisation at their disposal. They often approach the job with emotions akin to the legendary small boy in the tart shop (that’s tarts as in little pies with jam inside).
The second major strand of the syndrome is a lack of transparency and accountability. In the Labor Party, executives and conferences were once upon a time too dopey, and more recently too large, to hold the leadership to account. Similar things can happen in a government authority or commission or a university or hospital.
There are at least three ways of inoculating these organisations against the disconnection syndrome. The first way is to have alternative centres of power. This addresses the accountability issue. Where problems arise, we will usually find also boards or councils meeting too infrequently and being easily manipulated. Executives with favourite schemes, delusions of grandeur, an eye to history or to bulking up their résumé, or simply with scores to settle, will too often have a free hand and an open field.

Board members, too, may be more concerned with prestige or sitting fees than with making executives accountable. What boards should be doing is testing and questioning, withholding support until the evidence is in that an executive’s favourite idea is good for the organisation, its stakeholders and its objectives. (In this sense, boards may fill the accountability role for appointed officials that voters play for politicians.) By such a process, pet schemes become the property of the collective and are almost certainly improved and strengthened along the way. Or they die – deservedly.
Boards may also have a role in ensuring there is a cadre of strong executives in the organisation who can ensure that, before ideas percolate to the top, they have been thoroughly tested. This leads us to the second way of avoiding the disconnection  syndrome: knowing where an executive has come from and making appointments accordingly. Like an idea, an executive who has been promoted through the ranks should have been tested in the cauldron and have more respect for the culture and traditions of the place than one who has been parachuted in from outside. On the other hand, the ‘scores to settle’ part of the syndrome may be particularly prevalent and poisonous where one of a number of feisty pretenders has graduated to the corner office.
Where potential executives come from outside rather than inside, someone who has previously run another organisation dealing with a wide range of interests may be more aware of the need to keep stakeholders informed and on side than a person who has been a law unto themselves, perhaps in a small organisation whose affiliates have low expectations. Or a CEO from a professional or creative background, perhaps as a sole trader consultant or running a family firm with nominal board oversight, may be used to cutting corners in a way that is not appropriate in a government organisation, or indeed in any body with institutionalised stakeholders and formal accountability mechanisms like those under Commonwealth financial management legislation.

Thirdly, there is the moderating influence of ethics and standards. Executives should wield power and implement policies within a framework of morality and an understanding of what is appropriate ground for the organisation to enter. Where there are codes of practice and guidelines these have presumably been put together for good and proper reasons and should not be set aside with impunity – or, in most cases, at all.

Government boards making executive appointments (and ministers oversighting them) need to keep the words of Beazley the Elder in mind. There is more to holding a responsible public office than keeping your fingers out of the till. This needs to be recognised both by office-holders and by those who look over their shoulders. Perhaps installing in boardrooms and ministerial offices a sturdy brass plaque engraved with that basic ethical injunction, ‘Public office is a public trust’, would help get the message across.

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