Responsibility and accountability

Accountability should not mean automatic decapitation when a mistake is made. If we oust our leaders when they err, we will end up with inexperienced leaders, making worse mistakes.

By
April 18, 2013 20:53
cabinet meeting

Netanyahu, Cabinet meeting_311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

 
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How do you say "accountability" in Hebrew? You don't. We not only lack a good word for it, but fail to implement what it stands for. We value authority and responsibility, but don't step up (or step down) to pay the price when we mess up.

The official term is Achrayut Divuach (Reporting responsibility) but this doesn't seem comprehensive enough. Another approved term is Achrayutiyut, which sounds something like "responsibilityness".

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The terms are similar in Hebrew, but should not be confused. Responsibility describes what we are obligated to do, and accountability means that we must answer to someone for the resulting consequences.

Another important difference is that you can delegate responsibility, but not accountability. You may appoint subordinates to do the job for you, but you are still liable and blameworthy if the outcome isn't sufficient.

In a special report by the State Comptroller following the 2010 Carmel fire, “special responsibility” was assigned to the Interior and Finance Ministers, and "overall responsibility" was laid on the Prime Minister and the Public Security Minister. The first term means nothing and led to nothing, and the second term is obvious but bore no ramifications.

Instead of accountability, we got deflection of responsibility and self glorification. In a memorial ceremony held a year after the fire, the narrator praised the PM's actions and described him as being "the first to understand the magnitude of the event." It was awkward and insulting.

The famous Israeli "Sentry Syndrome" (Tismonet HaShin Gimel) describes a tendency to make the lowest ranking person a scapegoat, instead of asking those in charge to answer for their faults. It was coined after the "Night of the Gliders" terror attack in 1987, when the blame was placed on the soldier guarding the gate, who acted poorly. Senior officers were only charged after public pressure.



5 days after the attack, before completion of the investigation, the late PM Rabin addressed the Knesset. Beginning with the words "The… security policy… has passed the test," He pretty much hinted what level would be blamed.

Following Israel's missed opportunities in the Second Lebanon War in 2006, the Winograd Commission imposed the primary responsibility on the Prime Minister, for failure in exercising judgment, responsibility and prudence. The PM himself gallantly declared that he would share the responsibility with no one.

But, looking back, what practical public or personal price did the PM pay? It seems only the military accepted responsibility and lost talented officers like Brigadier General Gal Hirsch. This talented and patriotic officer is now contributing to Israel's defense as a reservist, but hopefully we will see him back in the ranks, making it to the very top.

A recent example is Colonel Erez Viner, ousted from the IDF for his part in the Harpaz scandal. I believe the system once again found its sentry.

We make the same mistake after car accidents. It's easier to blame the driver and move on, until the next time, when we are again shocked that an overloaded trailer truck is driven for 12 hours straight by a serial traffic violator. Not enough is done to identify and fix systemic factors, such as company responsibility and external enforcement efforts.

There are times when this phenomenon is identified and prevented, as in the 2005 case of Border Policeman Wael Sabit, who used excessive force towards a Palestinian and then lied about it in court. Although clearly guilty, the judge revoked the prosecution's course of action of finding one junior soldier guilty for a systemic failure.

In a 2009 case, a judge refused to accept that a worker was to bear sole responsibility for causing death-by-negligence of a co-worker, when finding that his superiors were not even questioned by police.

Some say that in the past, leaders demonstrated accountability. Rabin resigned in 1977 after his wife Lea's foreign bank account was exposed.

However, other resignations do not prove this point, but the contrary. After the Yom Kippur War, Agranat committee amazingly laid all responsibility on the military and the Chief of the General Staff resigned. Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan resigned only after public criticism.

In 1983, the Cahan committee declared PM Begin responsible for not weighing all expected outcomes of allowing the Phalangist militia into Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. He did not resign until later that year, after deterioration in his mental state.

Back to our time. Wealthy Israeli "tycoons" draw huge salaries and bonuses even when things go south, while "haircuts" are implemented and the public loses its savings. It is totally unacceptable that they are allowed to gamble away people's money without personal accountability for their endeavors.

Accountability means that actions have consequences. When these actions are crimes, the price should be severe punishment. In Israel, there is a sense that sentences should be balanced and proportional, instead of serving as a deterrent. Financial penalties are too low and criminals are back on the streets too soon, after "paying their price to society." With our prisons managed so well, some may even calculate that the risk is worth it, for worse comes to worst, they will spend a couple of years getting superb medical treatment, good food and a college degree.

A key condition for accountability is the establishment of clear borderlines of responsibility. In our governmental system, too many areas are blurry and subject to interpretation. In a hasty and amateurish move, the Ministry of "Industry, Trade and Labor" was transformed to "Economy and Trade." Who is now responsible for Israel's economy?

While we're at it, may I ask who is accountable for our recently discovered 40 billion Shekel deficit? Apparently no one.

Accountability should not mean automatic decapitation when a mistake is made. If we oust our leaders when they err, we will end up with inexperienced leaders, making worse mistakes. Leaders should act wisely, humbly accept responsibility for mistakes, and learn from them.

Of course if radical deviation from reasonable judgment or negligence is identified, leaders should be expected to step down.

This is an era when politicians promise us a better future using vague facebook posts. Let us hope they live up to their promises and exercise accountability.

The writer is a former Israel Air Force pilot and founder of Cross-Cultural Strategies Ltd.

reuven@CCSt.co.il

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