Who's Accountable?

Who’s Accountable?

“The buck stops here” said American president Harry Truman. In other words he was unequivocally saying, “I am accountable”

The responsible person is tasked to do a job, but the accountable person is answerable (or in a negative sense, blameworthy) for the performance of the responsible party. One sometimes hears about being made “Primarily responsible”. To my mind this is the same as being accountable. 

Can one delegate accountability? Yes and no. For example, when going on leave, one could temporarily delegate accountability for your project to a colleague or subordinate. However if they turn out to be incompetent, then you remain accountable, because you appointed them.

A distinction should be made between accountability for project management failure, technical failure and product failure.

The project manager is accountable for bringing their projects in on time, within budget and to the required quality. If so, we have a project management success. There is no argument about that, right?

In most cases that is the case, but what if the structural designer from a functional department incompetently designs a floor slab which collapses during construction causing the project to end a month late. Functional specialists must be held accountable for the correctness of their designs. In this case we cannot claim technical success. After all, you can’t expect a project manager to be an expert in structural, electrical, mechanical and software design. However the project manager should ensure that suitable tests, reviews and sign-offs have been carried out according to company procedures. If not, they could be held accountable. Irrespective of where the buck stops, the project should still be considered a failure.

The Millennium Dome in London opened on time for the year 2000 celebrations, within budget, and was of high technical quality. It was a resounding project management success. However the Dome soon became a white elephant, lay unused for years and lost a lot of money - a dismal product failure. Here the project sponsor, client, or feasibility study consultant must be answerable for the product not performing successfully in the operational life cycle.

But who is accountable for the recent fiasco at HeathrowAirport’s Terminal 5 (T5) at the end of March 2008?  There appears to be a host of problems contributing to the chaotic start-up of operations – software bugs, untrained staff, insufficient parking. If the T5 projects where being handled as a programme, then one could look towards the programme manager, because they are accountable for realizing the business or strategic benefits of the programme, which can extend beyond the completion of the projects and overlap with the operations life cycle. However, when the dust settled in April, two senior British Airways managers from operations and client relations were held accountable and fired.

What happens if the project manager performs so badly on his or her project that it ends up in court and the complainant is awarded huge damages due to the PM’s negligence? Who pays? Well, this is where the concept of “ultimate accountability” comes in. The PM is still accountable, but the company or professional indemnity insurance will foot the bill as the ultimately accountable party. Enter Sarbanes-Oxley.

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (commonly called Sox or Sarbox) is a United States federal law enacted in response to a number of major corporate and accounting scandals affecting Enron, Tyco International, Peregrine Systems and WorldCom. These scandals, which cost investors billions of dollars when the share prices of the affected companies collapsed, shook public confidence in the nation's securities markets.

Sox mandates that senior executives take individual responsibility (accountability) for the accuracy and completeness of corporate financial reports. It defines the interaction of external auditors and corporate audit committees, and specifies the responsibility of corporate officers for the accuracy and validity of corporate financial reports. It enumerates specific limits on the behaviours of corporate officers and describes specific forfeitures of benefits and civil penalties for non-compliance. For example, Sox implies that the company board (Chief Executive Officer, Chief Financial Officer) should certify and approve the integrity of their company financial reports quarterly. This helps establish accountability.

Here in South Africa the King II code of corporate practices and conduct highlights the need for corporate entities in South Africa to move towards a more responsible ethos in corporate governance.

It is seldom easy to determine where the buck stops if a project fails, but the foregoing guidelines should assist in fairly attributing accountability.

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