Accountability

Within the school of “penny wise, pound foolish” management, there is a practice of “demand more, get more”. Proponents believe that everyone and every group can produce more if it is simply demanded. Often early results support this hypothesis. It should be no mystery then that if some “demand” worked, then a “lot more demand” should work even better. Hmmm.

Looking at Phoenix and Philadelphia, one might detect a hole in this argument.

In Philadelphia, five teachers have just been charged with fraud in rigging elementary school test scores. What were they thinking? Why would a large sophisticated school systems, operated by intelligent people, fall prey to the temptation of fraud?

Test rigging is a systemic problem. It involves everyone from top to bottom, some by commission, others by omission. Violation of public trust should be expected when the organization is asked to perform tasks for which it is not designed. Demanding higher test scores, with penalties accruing to the test givers (teachers) if the test results are not meeting some goal, is ready made for undesirable results.

If school administrators were serious about improving education outcomes, there would be far more investigation of the education process (involving all stakeholders) and determining what was working and what was not.

Simply saying “teach better” and if these test scores do not show improvement, there will be consequences, is both poor leadership and a prescription for failure.

But schools are not the only place this top down pressure can be seen.

The news this week, features the Phoenix Veterans Administration Hospital. Charges have been raised that many veterans did not receive medical attention in a timely manner, some actually died during the wait period. Headlines charge that the Phoenix VA Hospital kept a secret log where the back logged patients names were kept. If the patient died, the veteran’s name was removed (as if he/she had never been waiting for service) and the Phoenix facility received a better performance appraisal than it really should have.

How and why could this have happened?

Not too surprisingly, the VA had been trying to improve its service performance. The VA mandate was to treat more patients sooner, in other words, “work harder”. VA’s top management chose to measure performance by certain types of “test”, like how long was the waiting list. There was no increase in resources and no change in management practices. Result… fraud.

There is no absolute reason why demanding more must lead to fraud. While it is also true that some people will always seek to short cut the process, there seems to have been no effort to determine the root cause of poor service.

The attitude seemed to be, “why do the hard work of determining the causes of backlogs and convincing higher management that more resources are needed”, when “go along, get along” attitude would be just fine.

The underlying issues with school test cheating and with the Phoenix VA fraud lay with top management and each layer in between the top and those who cheated. This does not exonerate the “cheaters” but to assume these problems were about “a few bad apples” misunderstands the real problem cause.

Managing complex systems well is a difficult task. Senior management are in their positions for the purpose of “leading” the rest of the organization towards challenging goals, but goals which lie within the appropriate legal and ethical boundaries.

I wonder what would have happened had the Superintendent of the Philadelphia School District or the Phoenix VA Hospital top administrator gone to City Counsel or Congress, and said I can not meet these test scores or service this many patients with the resources you have provided. I tender my resignation?

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