15 Mar 2020

Does anyone get prosecuted for lying, misuse of public funds? Not even sacked ? Does it matter if they do or they don’t?

Accountability has an important role to play in sustaining any business, charity or community. If there is no accountability, how can we expect decent society to function ? – only as a pale imitation of what we might have called ‘fair’ a few years ago. 

Accountability. It all comes down to litter….. read on.

It would be naive to think the levels of lying and corruption (corporate or private interest > public interest ) have changed a great deal since 2016. They were probably there already, but less visible to the general public. But then politicians tested in 2016 to see if our democracy was bothered. If overt lying mattered. And they discovered, so far at least, our democratic systems have little or no real accountability. And the electorate had no appetite for prosecuting accountability. 

Politicians had just been holding themselves accountable for themselves, of their own accord. It had been an ethical veil, that has now been pulled away. Today truth isn’t valued or defended by politicians, in a way it was. Indeed it is attacked. 

Accountability has become ‘old school’. And for most people, political lethargy is elastic. It might snap, but it has not yet. A licence for politicians to say and do anything exists for a while.

The next generation of politicians will evolve according to the system they work within. We may find they have been selected for their obedience to the message. Rather than to public service. To success at any price. Rather than to truth or old school fairness. So don’t expect the next few years to magically go back in time. They will go forward.

And this will have an impact on business ethics. Will it cause a weakening or a rebound, a strengthening? That depends on you. On the individuals, the leaders. 

Bearing in mind a definition of leadership that suits today: that leadership used to be what leaders said, today it’s 1000 acts of leadership, everyday, all over the business. Everyone is a leader. 

This is why public and press vigilance becomes even more important than it already is. People with ‘public service’ motivation may have more power outside parliament than within it. 

Organising the crowdsourcing and whistle blowing of truth was the role of the media. It cannot be relied on to exist if the trade off for journalists is first dibs on a story (ultimately the commercial benefit in news metrics) in return for not challenging the story. We, the people, need investigative thinkers who act to reveal lies and stimulate us to break through the boredom of disseminated press releases and story lines. To look deeper and understand better.

But lack of accountability abounds. Facebook giving free licence to politicians to lie in return for their $$. Ego absolvo – I declare myself unaccountable. Newspapers attack the messengers, ignoring the information they should investigate, ignoring the hostility they generate. Absolvo ego. Politicians misspeak rather than get things wrong or lie. They deny accountability even for their own truth: “I didnt mean what I said”. They do not address let alone answer questions. 

It is the very opposite of public service. The volunteer, the local councillor or parish priest who takes on the humble requests of local people to look into and help resolve some small or not so small scale issue. They take on the responsibility willingly and hold themselves to account for doing something about it. Doing what they said they’d do.

Accountability all boils down to litter. 

Did you ever hear the Bill Bryson story about litter. He told it in a speech I once heard in Durham. The topic was what have you learned from your education. To be honest he was droning on a bit, then suddenly shouted like an extremist “kill people who drop litter”. He didn’t mean it literally, he was shocking his audience to demand attention. 

What he meant is that people who litter do not take accountability for their own actions. People who do not stop those who litter, are complicit in the environment around them.

It all comes down to the person who recycles or the people who litters. Takes responsibility for their own actions and holds others accountable for theirs. Education and upbringing are vital to this.

At my first day of work we were told two things that stuck with me. A story about how an immigrant built a company in Slough, Pasolds (remember Ladybird children’s clothes?) by recruiting by observation. Look for the person who crosses the road to put a piece of litter in the bin. Recruit them. (The other thing, irrelevantly, was to how to pick up a heavy box so you didn’t get a bad back later in life – very useful it has proven too !)

Accountability. It’s all about litter. 

“Public service” means a certain thing, an implied motivation to do good for others in society. We may have to remove that tag from political systems and media companies. We will need to look for a different source of public service in the 2020s. Optimistically? We will need individuals who pick up litter. Those who take accountability for their own and others’ actions. 

Investigative journalism will remain as vital as in any era. And a public service. But we are not all destined to do that

But we can all lead on accountability. Taking on responsibilities and holding people to account for their actions – we need the litter pickers in business and in society. Good societies need litter pickers. Holding themselves and others to account. These are essentials of fair work places and fair societies we want to live in. Accountability. Litter.

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