Personal and professional accountability: an ethical challenge
Dr. Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum
Paper presented at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21)
Side Event on Accountability after Paris
Netherlands Pavilion, Wednesday 9 December 2015
and IEF side event on Principles of Accountability for Climate Change Agreements
Thursday 10 December 2015
Presentation: https://iefworld.org/fl/cop21_9Dahl_accountability1.pdf, video: https://vimeo.com/152637286
Full report of IEF events at COP21 at https://iefworld.org/cop21
Agreements are negotiated and signed on behalf of governments and other institutions, but it is people who staff the bureaucracies that are responsible for implementing them. While staff rules impose certain obligations for performance, there is always some leeway for conscientiousness. Even disregarding intentional disobedience or obstructionism, there is a wide range of possibilities from foot-dragging, to the absolute minimum, to doing one's job, to doing what is expected, to doing one's best, to efforts above and beyond the call of duty, to outstanding initiative and performance, that are largely determined by the ethical motivation of the staff members concerned. Building an individual sense of responsibility and accountability within an institution can go far to support effective implementation of the Paris Agreement. Responsibility comes from an attachment to ethical principles such as justice, integrity, honesty, trustworthiness, solidarity, service to the common good, and a sense of world citizenship. Such values can be consciously cultivated, encouraged and transmitted, especially by example.
Agreements are negotiated and signed on behalf of governments and other institutions. It is the government or institution that is responsible for respecting its engagements, and that should thus be held accountable. Policies need to be set, legislation passed, and decisions taken and implemented in accordance with the agreement. One dimension that is often ignored is the people who staff the bureaucracies that are responsible for implementing the agreement. Civil servants are supposed to be faceless, performing their assigned tasks with no thought of personal acknowledgement or reward, simple cogs in the machine. However, they are in fact critical to the success or failure of the agreement.
While staff rules impose certain obligations for performance, there is always some leeway for conscientiousness. Even disregarding intentional disobedience or obstructionism, there is a wide range of possibilities from foot-dragging, to the absolute minimum, to doing one's job, to doing what is expected, to doing one's best, to efforts above and beyond the call of duty, to outstanding initiative and performance, that are largely determined by the sense of responsibility and ethical motivation of the staff members concerned.
Reward and punishment are the primary motivators of individual behavior. The tendency in most institutions is to focus on punishment for disobedience, neglect, errors or failures in performance, such that good performance is largely motivated by fear. This may lead to satisfactory results, but seldom much beyond that. Much less thought is given to rewards apart from a certain level of career advancement or the possibility of promotion bringing some financial reward. However, the most effective punishments and rewards can be internal: the punishment from a bad conscience and guilt for not having made sufficient effort, and the reward that comes from living a virtuous life and having made the best effort possible. In fact, for the individual with a strong ethical motivation for service, even recognition becomes optional. Good deeds that no one is even aware of bring their own reward. For those who are religious, the prospect of reward (and punishment) can be extended into the afterlife with even greater effect.
A highly motivated public servant applying all her/his capacities to see that an agreement is carried out successfully can make a significant difference. Those who are conscious of the full implications of uncontrolled climate change, the suffering it will cause, the development efforts set back, the multitudes displaced, the loss of biodiversity and cultural resources, and who feel ethically responsible to do everything in their power to prevent or reduce this, will go far beyond the minimum expected of them, looking creatively for every possible way to respect the terms of the agreement and to go beyond them if possible. The more such people are involved in the governments and institutions concerned, the greater the chance of success.
Therefore, building an individual sense of responsibility and accountability within the relevant institutions can go far to support effective implementation of the Paris Agreement. From a management and human resources perspective, acknowledgement that each individual employee is a human being with values and feelings, supporting these with educational activities and sensitization to the issues, and providing feedback on the collective successes of the unit's efforts, can provide positive reinforcement to each person's sense of responsibility and motivation.
Ultimately, it is each individual who decides what values to adopt, what is the purpose of life, what career to pursue, and what legacy to leave behind. This process is rooted in the values transmitted in childhood, the choices the pre-adolescent makes in emancipating from childhood and setting an individual course in life, and the accumulated experience through youth and adulthood. There may be a certain continuity in values, or a point of transition, perhaps in a negative sense from disillusionment with a path pursued, or confrontation with the "realities of the world", or in a positive direction under the influence of a role model, or perhaps religious conversion. A person without a strong set of convictions may simply drift with what is expedient or follow self-interest, where another with a deeply-held ethical or spiritual framework may resist all the pressures to compromise.
An individual sense of responsibility comes from an attachment to ethical principles such as justice, integrity, honesty, trustworthiness, solidarity, service to the common good, and a sense of world citizenship. Such values can be consciously cultivated, encouraged and transmitted, especially by example. Ethical leadership can have an important influence. Where a leader shows moral courage and a respect for human rights and social justice in whatever function, others are inspired to follow. Even where a person has no responsibilities of leadership or decision-making, an example of a virtuous life can be very powerful. Leadership can be intellectual or moral, as well as political or managerial.
A public civil service or other employer may not be able have much influence on the values of those it recruits, but it can influence the selection process. First, a reputation for employment that serves higher values, whether service to one's country at the national level, or service to all of humankind, justice and peace, for example in the United Nations organizations, will attract those with a strong desire to serve others rather than just to build a career and be successful. Second, values and ethics can be important criteria in the selection process itself. Then, within the civil service itself, a strong ethical motivation can be encouraged and appreciated. To maintain the reputation of the service, ethical failings and corruption should not be tolerated, as such service should be an example for all other employers.
A team with deeply-held values and a strong motivation to serve can make up for many kinds of institutional weakness and structural failings. It may well be the ultimate determinant as to whether an agreement is implemented successfully, driven by the internal accountability of those responsible at all levels.
Last updated 17 March 2016