Accountability needs both external consequences and intrinsic values

Accountability is a popular word at present. It represents many people’s solution to the crisis in service delivery, corruption and general lack of responsibility in public service. When there are no consequences the temptation grows to enrich ourselves or to get away with doing less than we might.

Some people have enough self-respect and learned responsibility to remain accountable even when no one notices. We should all be like that, but for most of us sustained accountability requires both rewards and punishments, underpinned by transparent assessment of performance.

Accountability is also key to success in business. Rewards are easy to administer when the outputs are clear, such as in sales, which are measurable and frequent. It is more difficult when the outputs are less obvious.

Executives may be incentivised with share options in the belief that return on equity in the company as a whole is the best measure of how well they perform, and because it is aligned with what the owners value. To try to reward specific CEO decisions is impossibly complex and in any case misguided – it is the executives themselves who are generally in the best position to gauge what actions will lead to company performance, and even they often get it wrong. The crucial exception is dishonesty. The board has to trust the CEO, so any lack of integrity is inexcusable.

It is for roles like this that accountability has to be an internal attribute and not just controlled externally. Many decades ago the psychologist Frederick Herzberg argued that external rewards tend to capture and then replace intrinsic motivation. People begin to focus on the pay and forget why they took on the job in the first place. Then sadly as soon as the rewards are withdrawn or lose their value for the recipient, motivation falls off.

That is what has happened in the public sphere. Politicians have for too long enjoyed rewards without consequences. It’s a tragedy – not just for the country, but even for them. Some may have amassed fortunes at our expense and seem to be living the good life we aspire to. But at what cost to their true selves? Their intrinsic motivation has been captured by the attraction of extrinsic rewards. It’s very easy.

You may point out correctly that among them are those who are natural crooks and just delighted to be rich. But what about the many who entered public life with the highest motivation, only to find themselves degraded and ashamed, or if they have remained committed and honest, disillusioned by the rot all around them? What a waste of great human potential and idealism. The result is that more crooks and fewer committed servants are attracted to public service.

Let’s rescue them. When we vote, don’t vote for someone who has been shown to be dishonest, however much you agree with their manifesto. You can’t trust them. You can’t trust them to do what they say they will do, and you can’t trust them with your taxes. Look at their lives, their humility, their strength in the face of temptation, their record of conscientious service, and elect people who represent the nation we wish to be.

Meanwhile we have to help create intrinsic accountability. So our engagement has to extend beyond a vote once in a while. We need to be active citizens who track performance and shout about what we discover, especially when it’s good. Even when it seems no one is paying attention, let’s keep the noise up. At least we will hear each other, and discovering we are not alone, gain courage to keep insisting that this country belongs not to the powerful few, but to all our people. This land is our land. Let’s own it.

Jonathan Cook, a counselling psychologist, chairs the African Management Institute. This is a coaching columns for Business Day, published on 30th April 2024 (https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2024-04-30-jonathan-cook-elect-accountable-people-who-represent-the-nation-we-wish-to-be/).

If you’d like to read previous columns in this series or ask Jonathan a question please visit

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