Independence and Accountability

Does acting in an independent capacity mean that you are not accountable to anyone for your actions and decisions? How can we safeguard the independence of review processes but still ensure the reviewer is acting with integrity?

I was recently involved in an organisational review where I encountered an Internal Auditor who took their role very seriously and particularly prized their independence from senior management and the Board. Unfortunately, they misunderstood  the concept of independence in their context and embraced it to such an extent that it began to supplant their accountability. The reporting on their activities was very sparse and light on detail.

Thankfully, modern accountability is less brutal than that exacted on Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170AD for defending the independence of the Church from the King’s sway.

In the Macquarie Dictionary the meaning of “independent” includes such terms as “not subject to another’s authority or jurisdiction”, “not influenced by others“, :”autonomous” and “free“. There is a tone in these meanings that implies total freedom and separation from oversight by any other authority. We know however that, at least in our democratic society, there is no such extreme interpretation of independence. There is, and should be, always some recourse to bring to account any poor or negligent exercise of judgement or indeed misuse or power.

Resorting again to the Macquarie Dictionary, the definition of “accountable” includes terms such as “being able to explain and justify one’s actions“. This is the key to forging the link between independence and accountability. In the case of the Internal Auditor, there was obviously no intention to constrain his ability to inquire and investigate issues or to recommend remedial action as his professionalism saw necessary. However this does not mean that his activities should not be themselves subject to scrutiny for transparency and reasonableness.

The same issues arise with all reviewing roles, such as Review Panels, Regulators, external Certifiers, Ombudsmen, Appeal Boards etc. Just because we expect them to be objective, impartial and unbiased does not mean we will extend to them unfettered discretion that is not subject to the responsibility to demonstrate the integrity of their processes and judgement. Most commonly this is done by appropriate reporting to substantiate their conclusions and findings.

Having said that, it is the responsibility of Boards and their Management to demand that accountability.

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