On Accountability: The Buck Never Stops | Sojourners

On Accountability: The Buck Never Stops


It was a strange, but telling, spectacle when those who billed the government millions for working on its Affordable Health Care registration system denied any accountability for the portal’s astounding failure.

“The other guy did it,” as they say in court. The client kept changing specs, no one did any whole-system testing, other vendors are to blame — blah, blah, blah.

Whatever shred of truth lay in their blame-shifting ran up against another wall of non-accountability. The Republicans did it with their insane sequestration, said Democrats. The Democrats did it, said the GOP. Health and Human Services did it. The Oval Office did it.

In the end, of course, no one will accept accountability, for we live in an age when the “buck” never stops on one’s own desk, if it stops at all.

Consider JPMorgan Chase’s chief executive, Jamie Dimon. He has presided over a debacle of historic proportions, costing his bank $13 billion thus far and another $4 billion on the way, plus possible criminal indictments.

Is Dimon still occupying the corner office? Of course, he is.

In the church world, accountability-avoidance runs wild. Fifty years of relentless decline have left many congregations teetering on the brink. Who is responsible for that decline? Well, to hear today’s leaders spin it, no one is responsible.

They tried hard, say leaders in their 60s and older. So did their predecessors. The decisions they made might have been poor ones — clinging to a culture of small even as costs escalated, clinging to Sunday worship long after it ceased to build congregations, shunning the changes that might attract younger and more diverse constituents, refusing to look outward into a world whose massive needs would threaten comfortable pews. But they tried.

Hats off to those who try. But poor decisions remain poor decisions. Business as usual won’t cut it. Leaders have no responsible choice but to change direction.

Unfortunately, boards charged with handling accountability are too cozy with entrenched leaders. A network of business and social ties, fees and stock benefits would be at risk if they took board duties seriously.

Better, it seems, to let the bank crumble before regulators and prosecutors and join the chorus blaming overzealous accountability-agents.

Better to attack the pastor for decisions made before he or she arrived. Blame the outsider.

Better to defend a government procurement system that is broken but unimaginably lucrative for those who know how to game it. If Affordable Care’s hapless contractors felt actual heat, who would be next?

When leaders shun accountability, their minions do, too. Witness trader Bruno Iksil, the so-called London Whale, whose risky bets nearly brought down JPMorgan. His defense: He was simply following profit-at-all-costs risk-management rules set at higher levels.

Non-accountability spreads laterally, too. Eager troops at Google and Facebook, for example, declare war on their own customers: Obliterate privacy, monetize personal information, and remove commonsense constraints such as age limits for posting.

In Silicon Valley, for every brilliant idea that might actually improve the human condition, there are 10 new ways to sell fabulous merchandise to the fabulously wealthy or to make sex more available.

Accountability is such a drag on these proceedings. So, what the hey, let the good times roll.

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com . Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich .

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