"Accountability" Take 2

I have been getting another manuscript out the door this week and last, so have been absent from this page for awhile. Look for the new book next summer: Managing the Public Health Enterprise: A Practical Guide, ed. Baker, Menkens, and Porter, from Jones & Bartlett. It’s a collection of short essays from the “Management Moment” column of the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice, and some new contributions from our colleagues here at the NC Institute for Public Health and at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, all with the goal of giving short, practical advice for common management challenges. Steve Orton is in there multiple times – if nothing else, you’ll want to hear his inimitable voice again!

But I’m thinking now about his word “accountable.” Steve points out the root “count,” but there’s another meaning in there: “account” as in “story,” as in “narrative” – the “teller” at a bank counts your money, but a “teller” of a story describes something. When you are accountable, you give an account of, or answer for, your responsibilities – by telling about them.

So think of planning as telling a story. You gather data, put it together in a clear, open, way: and tell your story to the people that matter. Planners use facts about the past and an understanding of current trends, circumstances, and priorities to tell the story of what the future should be in both broad and deep detail. Evaluators are also story tellers: they use the information about how things worked to tell the story of process and outcome: what worked, what didn’t, and what were we able to accomplish. Yes, it's about counting, but how you report the numbers and to whom you report them matter as well. Your stakeholders, funders, and potential partners in the community cannot know unless you tell them.

Planners are often given less priority in some government settings: good planning takes a lot of time, and story tellers (both those who look to the future to plan new programs and those who look to the past to evaluate current ones) are often the first to get cut in budget crunches. We’re seeing it in our executive education programs: slightly fewer are enrolling this year because of budgetary insecurity around the country. But our students are the ones who go back to their organizations and tell the stories that get new partners excited in new programs. They’re the ones who try to resist the time pressure to demonstrate success: they know you can’t tell the story until you know what happened!

All this is to say: we understand the pressures that public health managers (and others) are under to demonstrate accountability while at the same time they’re not often given the time or tools to truly plan and evaluate their programs. We are thankful to the many public health departments from across the country that are investing in their employees by sending them to the Management Academy, and to the many community partners who are part of those teams. In challenging economic times, it is more important than ever to get the story out about the critical work being done in public health.

-- Anne Menkens