We are all responsible to uphold accountability better
Accountability – not a pass down but maybe its a pass-back.
This is a long read. It has been a long write. If you invest a little time with this paper you may come away with new and challenging questions for your client or your boss. If you are the client or the boss, you may find reason to take these same questions and ask them to whomever that is to you.
The project management and organisational tool principally addressed in this article is collectively referenced as a Responsibility Assignment Matrix (RAM), of which the RACI is perhaps most generally referred. RACI is further detailed herein.
If you initiate a project – but have need of expert others to deliver it for you – what happens to the accountability? Who owns the success or failure in realising the change intended by this project aim? Is your accountability able to be delegated? Has your accountability been passed down from your boss? What about the responsibility for specific stages or tasks within the project? Is this the same thing?
As leaders or managers, if we do not clearly define roles and hierarchy in what we oversee, we fail. If delegations are assigned without defined parameters of autonomy, we fail. All attempts at management of projects, risk and people become incomplete. Implementation of internal controls; assessment of capability; adequacy of resource; assurance of governance; decision efficacy; all becomes inherently fragile, confused, and incomplete.
This article gives background to how our project literature, industry, and our academic class represent the means of defining roles between project actors. It highlights where some of this thinking funnels us into a colloquial interest mindset, and with some of the contemporary academic research to hand, I present what appears a rather dramatic example of modal confusion. Dramatic because it seems almost universally framed. The good news is, a simple solution is available, and one practicable without much change to existing tools or practices required. Tools such as RACI can be better framed, better contextualised, and keep us all actively part our project(s); not sitting at distance with our divided interests to defend.
One academic perspective
A clarity of what academic literature presents in addressing these questions has been prepared by a series of peer reviewed published work of Steve McGrath and Stephen Whitty from the University of South Queensland. Writing a number of related papers from 2015 to 2020 in the International Journal of Managing Projects in Business. In 2018, McGrath and Whitty outlined the sparsity of literature attempting to examine accountability vs responsibility. This paper specifically sought to clarify meaning for these two terms. Beginning with an extensive database interrogation of 48,006 search results; reduced to 426 peer reviewed original articles; each with relevant responsibility or accountability context. Of these 426 articles only two were determined to offer suitably generic definitions. These two articles were Ieraci (2007) and Cornock (2011), (McGrath et al 2018, pp689). Their 2018 paper was a follow up to McGrath and Whitty (2015), where the wider subject of definition confusion had been applied to governance more generally.
The following extract presents a useful context for this articles UK focus, taking us right back to historic origins.
The system of government in Britain, following sealing of the Magna Carta in 1215 at Runnymead, evolved over centuries by way of constant tension between King, Nobles, the middle class and the Church (Macfarlane 2000). There was a constant struggle for power within an institutional system where no one group could ever completely dominate the others, as happened with monarchies in Europe until the French revolution. So, accountability was embedded within the British system via a means of everyone protecting their interests, rather than via any moral obligation on a king to ‘be good’. The concept of accountability is highly relevant to organisations whose shareholders (or taxpayers or members) need to be able to hold their agents to account and with whom there is some form of obligation or contractual or legal relationship or responsibility. Introducing the concept of accountability at this point is a suitable means to accommodate the change in boundary conditions that adding the prefix ‘organisational’ to the word ‘governance’McGrath and Whitty, (2015 pp780)
This 2015 paper concludes that we need to account for hierarchy or levels of governance that exists. Therein, better definitions can “separate the how (governance and process) from the what (content and strategy); remove the incompatible influence of competing frameworks; [and] do not confuse or mix (subversive) democratic and authoritarian artefacts (competitive and cooperative structures)” (ibid pp785). Of the areas of potential definitional confusion, “responsibility and accountability” are stated expressly (ibid, pp786). This then connects to their follow up paper of 2018 from which I draw upon in application to commercial projects, particularly those of large scale construction..
Here are the definitions of accountability and responsibility McGrath and Whitty (2018) present. I short-cut over a significant and thorough examination of lexicographic and academically derived appropriation of best fit. Definitions as follows:
Responsibility: an obligation to satisfactorily perform a task
Responsible: accepting responsibility i.e., accepting an obligation to satisfactorily perform a task.
Accountability: liability for ensuring a task is satisfactorily done
Accountable: having accountability i.e., having liability for ensuring a task is satisfactorily doneMcGrath et al (2018 pp701 – 702)
McGrath et al (2018) then further indicate that sources of liability referred could reflect origins of organisational, legislative, contractual, or informal (in social setting) as a wide array of possible source. However, in attempting to reflect this transient nature of accountability through these levels of organisational or contractual management, this makes any universal tool open to misunderstanding or confusion (ibid pp702). It is therefore recommended by McGrath at al to exclude accountability from RAMs completely, separately noting formal localised accountability in a separate matrix if such a need still exists (ibid pp703).
Professional bodies perspective
In conclusion to the McGrath et al 2018 examination of accountability and responsibility, the 2018 paper’s constraints of enquiry are again presented, “…this paper dealt solely with the question of definition and made no comment on any other normative aspects of responsibility or accountability as applied to any field.” (McGrath et al 2018 pp705). For context therefore, I present some additional examination of industry text as applicable to UK Project Management.
What follows is critique I have prepared for contemporary context, plus summary of findings from McGrath et al of earlier versions. I have critiqued the most recent Book of Knowledge from the APM, 2019. McGrath and Witty (2018) have critiqued PRINCE2, and PMI, 2004 (as the earliest origins of PMIs use of RACI language defined below). A summary of each critique is offered here. I finish this section with some specific observations related to the UKs HM Treasury 2020 Construction Playbook.
Association of Project Management
The 2019 version of APMs Book of Knowledge (AMPBoK) principally addresses accountability as part of Governance. A responsibility assignment matrix is referenced as the tool which clarifies role accountability and responsible for activities and decisions (page 32). Governance informing delegated authorities and escalations. The term accountable is used 14 times, accountability 15.
The Sponsor is accountable for realisation of benefits and validity of business case. Potential for delegation or independent check is acknowledge (page 40, 44). In deciding to continue across decision gates, sponsor and the wider governance board are accountable (page 77), the sponsor is then accountable to ensure authorities are in place as compliance requirements of teams (page 77), governance (page 32, 40, 233), decision communication (page 200), tracking benefits (page 10, 92) and close-out reports, perhaps as delegated responsibility via a PMO (page 96). The transient nature of accountability that is permitted by this APMBoK therefore at odds with the shifting between organisational levels that McGrath et al are seeking to avoid (McGrath et al 2015 pp703).
In my view, the APMBoK is not intending to address the interface into construction. It instead parks up on the edge of the construction phase, but does not drop into this space. It separates the contractors ‘project’ (page 24) and Section 4.3.2 Contract Management presents a series of controls and contract management supports but with client in mind (page192, and figure 4.3.2). A principal contractor’s engagement of second or third tiers of suppliers is further acknowledged (page 38) but only considered in terms of balancing internal organisational talent development. This seems an important omission to raise, as I believe much of the modal confusion I write of elsewhere see construction folk talking to buyers of their services in the same language but with different levels of hierarchy on their mind.
To this end the APMBoK reference to a responsibility assignment matrix (page 32) is perhaps also intended to be through this narrower lens. The APMBoK use of the term Accountability presents further reason to suppose this is the case. Different people may have accountability for permanent and temporary organisational structures (page 46, 24), embedding change, or extending life-cycle, may require retained accountability of a project team (page 92, 211), accountability for achieving the project success criteria at time of project handover resting with the project manager and thereafter benefits realisation with the sponsor (page 154).
In APMBoK language this enables accountability to therefore be separately identified at two or more levels. First, the organisational level that much of our project management literature truly focuses upon. Second, the construction contract becomes an interface by which we can separate the “temporary organisation structure”, in place to deliver this phase. Accountability free to move across these interfaces. This is problematic, as McGrath et al would agree.
Defined roles and responsibilities are one of 7 principles of PRINCE2, it is also the focus of their organisation theme. In my opinion PRINCE2 is not a useful reference point for construction project management. It lacks a clear means to manage the interfaces of key project phases like Construction, where significant and influential factors of control would be passing over commercial boundaries. Notwithstanding, McGrath et al (2018) references to PRINCE2 conclude it is failing to make adequate distinction between responsibility and accountability (ibid pp689).
PMI 2004 and RACI
McGrath and Whitty (2018) present the PMI PMBoK (3rd edition 2004 pp206), in reference to the responsibility assignment matrix (RAM) commonly known as RACI. This edition being the first introduction of the RACI model. As McGrath (ibid) explain, RACI is coded:
R = Responsibility
A = Accountability
C = Consult
I = Inform
McGrath et al then offer a case study where the A for Accountability becomes problematic. The modal confusion I reference elsewhere evidenced by an example of a multi-functional Government Department. McGrath et al explain the department’s attempts to apply such a RACI matrix across management levels within the organisation was frustrated by the difficulty in applying accountability at more than one level. Only resolved when attempting to address RACI differently as it is expanded into a multimodal form.
HM Government Construction Playbook
UK HM Treasury, Infrastructure and Projects Association, “Construction Playbook” version 1.0 was issued December 2020. Herein “the Playbook”. This is the most contemporary document reflecting how government are now setting themselves up to procure construction. In the UK this playbook is how construction projects are intended to be brought to market. This is what it has to say about roles and responsibilities.
According to the Civil Service Chief Operating Office, Alex Chisolm, the Construction Playbook reflects upon the delegation of responsibilities and working together, aligning efforts, and ensuring actions are consistent and reinforced and is “the result of extensive collaboration from across the public and private sectors to bring together expertise and best practices” (ibid pp1).
I read the motivation in the Playbook to be not one of granular operational clarity, but rather of general representation of role allocation within Government areas. Policy 4 of 14, is “People and Governance” (pp28). This section addresses compliance, approval processes, Senior Responsible Owners (SROs), cross-functional teams, Major Projects portfolio, and opportunity framing workshops. This is supported by cross-reference to an appended introductory section (pp72 ff) which includes Figure 4 outlining roles and responsibilities (ibid pp73).
Accountable Senior Role Owners (SROs) are said to own the business case but the language used within the Playbook here indicates the same interchangeable use of both accountability and responsibility that McGrath et al had observed as a hitherto normalised conflation of different terms. Page 26 of the Playbook, the introduction of the Senior Responsible Owners and Cross-Functional teams, states “Project or programme senior responsible owners (SROs) own the business case and are accountable for delivery of the project or programme and its benefits and outcomes. They should fully understand the governance and approvals process and commit sufficient time to lead the project or programme through approvals and delivery.” (ibid, page 26).
What should also perhaps be noted here is the intended cross-functional interactions between central and local government outlined in the Playbook. Page 72 presents additional explanation as to whom the Playbook is aimed at, and the list reflects the areas of Commercial, Financial, Project Delivery, Policy, and wider professional parties. The Playbook addresses all professionals across the contracting authorities “who are responsible for the planning and delivery of public works projects and programmes”. These aims go on to state “the key is ensuring that we have joined-up teams with input from the right functions early in the process”. Nor is this Playbook to be read in isolation. Approvals follow HM Treasury Green Book and Orange Book requirements. Accordingly, the Playbook is also presented as a useful reference for others with decision-making, approval, or assurance need. This list includes Ministers, Permanent Secretaries, Accounting Offices, Commercial Directors, project sponsors and SROs (ibid pp73).
For this Playbook, the key delineations of ownership are within figure 4, pp71. The acronym OKUA is used: Owner (or Joint-Owner); Knowledge experts; Understanding; Awareness. Ownership can therein be split between several functions with J-O used to indicate cross-party sharing of Ownership. Reading from this figure 4, it is of some note that the Commercial function has at least part ownership to all but three of the 14 categories; sharing four of these with Programme and Operations, and two of these with Finance. McGrath et al (2018), advise us to avoid shared allocations as it relates to Accountability (to which I would infer Ownership within the OKUA best reflects).
The final observation to reflect here is that the OKUA matrix in the Playbook is therefore only representing the functions of Public Sector. The external delegations between contracting authorities and the supply chain are dealt with in Policy 6. This is entitled, “Effective Contracting” (pp38 ff). Allocation here is in the context of procurement strategy and specifically which party (e.g., contractor or architect or the Contracting Authority) is to be made responsible for design, coordination, and integration (ibid pp41). Contracting strategy thereafter requires documenting decisions on contractual roles and responsibilities (ibid pp42).
Combining these accounts into one
The Playbook is offering a distinction between what is being delegated by contract, and what is being allocated by the OKUA metric. If working from highest levels of interests to lower, the Accountability appears to be OKUAs “Ownership” as allocated, most frequently, to the Commercial department. Policy 6, “Effective Contracting”, the transferred Responsibility. Liability for a project phase may legally transfer across this boundary, but the distinction I make here is the accountability beyond what may or may not have legal application. It is from this position I believe we can seek to use RAM and/or RACI in a multi-layered way to these construction projects being procured via this Playbook. The interpretation of RACI however, needs to then be understood against these wider ownerships. Key to using RACI across these projects is how the Ownership aka Accountability is considered from layer to layer of project organisation, hierarchy, and onward transmission through an elongated construction supply chain.
Accountability only travels up | Responsibility is what is passed down
In cross-reference to both Ieraci (2007) and Cornock (2011), McGrath et al (2018) recommendation pp704 is to keep Accountability separated when using a RAM. Instead, we can adapt the A in RACI, to mean having the delegated Authority and/or power of Approval. The example by McGrath et al is a Project Manager in public sector who has authority to approve specific levels of work but not all. This is as distinct from being Accountable. Accountability does not feature in the RAM. I would argue nor does Accountability move from the Owner roles stated in the Playbook OKUA. What is delegated is authority, or approvals. As McGrath et al argue, attempts here are therefore to create universality of labelling not meaning (McGrath 2018 pp 704).
The context of project then becomes important. For purposes of clarity between contracting parties, the Accountability of the project success sits with the Project Sponsor. The Project Sponsor however is operating within the parameters of the authority or approvals the power above them has delegated. This continues back up to the OKUA level where the Ownership or Accountability still ultimately resides.
Stepping across this commercial boundary from Project Sponsor to the Construction Contractor, authority and approvals have also been passed via the terms of the contract of construction. This is when the recognition of project as having a nuanced meaning is important. It may be that the Construction supply chain deem this collective of construction activity to be their project. In which case any discussion by parties within this construction project will be looking to their most senior person as the accountable role. However, if responsibility matrices are being prepared that are to be shared with the Project Sponsor, and their engagement with this Construction supply chain as tier one, tier two, tier three, etc., it can only be the Project Sponsor who is being deemed to be accountable. The most senior person within the Construction supply chain is now the first recipient of the delegated authority to act on behalf of the Project Sponsor. They may have approvals to conduct their business as they see fit, and within legally defined terms they have accepted financial consequence in failing to do so, but that is not to excuse the Project Sponsor of accountability in the context of the project success. If this subtlety can be accommodated across the layers of project hierarchy, a RAM becomes a tool able to transverse these layers and become a shared tool accordingly. From within a project boundary the top most position may have accountability. But when looked upon from outside in, this is Approval or Authority, and the accountability sits there above.
Why is this so important?
This creates a clarity. Precisely what RACI as a tool is supporting across the project framework of critical controls . It is the antidote to what obfuscates defensive decision-making (Gigerenza 2014) or any attempts to filter blame. It places more demands upon the Project Sponsor which compels behaviour reflective of their role. They re-enter the discussion of what is to be reported but also what it is they can add to the process in what is to be monitored. What is to be checked by independent means, and why. Crucially, they are required to have interest and ownership of the control environment of which this RACI is a part. To be invested in the welfare and effectiveness of the project partners they engage. No longer is it acceptable to say, “I did not know”. If you chose not to look, not to ask, not to make sure, that is for you as the Project Sponsor to explain, not be the means to apply the blame. Accountability does not transfer with the contract, the interest in the contract succeeding becomes more important than how the contract can pass the blame.
Contracts remain, but alongside controls
We currently use contracts to replace trust. That is a poor substitute when the benefits of the project are necessarily put first. No legal changes to frameworks or duty of care are envisaged. However, the wider control environment becomes more important than the financial security of the contract.
v | b | t
This amendment to RACI is intended only to change behaviour and attitudes towards the wider project controls. Particularly in positions of leadership and authority. If we insist on knowing what the accountable person is doing to safeguard both project aims and all parties within, we can evaluate them based upon v | b | t .
We have means to ask more pertinent questions. As project sponsor what gives you adequate visibility? How has the project framework of controls been necessarily attended to, to identify the range of behaviours possible across the project actors? Are both appropriate to the level of trust you share? Has procurement strategy and control framework of project been considered to best protect both project aims and all actors involved. Demonstrate the concern for everyone’s well-being, not just your own.
McGrath and Whitty remarks to conclude
The extension of these same ideas are motivated from precisely the conclusions McGrath et al (2018) make themselves. The conclusions of McGrath et al read much better than I could offer. Accordingly, I will lean again upon them for the last word.
Adoption and use of the refined definitions developed in this paper, together with alteration of the “A” in the RAM RACI code from accountability to approve, can provide clarity of meaning, avoiding uncertainty, confusion, and misunderstanding. This can benefit the community in general and project management practitioners and researchers in particular, saving time, resources, and money.
Through providing greater clarity, these findings also have the potential to improve project delivery through benefiting organisational recruitment, selection, and induction process, providing a basis for motivating and rewarding employees and assisting with staff termination processes. They can also potentially result in greater clarity in contracts, potentially minimising disputes during and after project delivery.
Successful application of the definitional refining method also indicates its potential suitability for application to other contested terms.McGrath and Whitty, 2018, pp706
Credit and acknowledgements
Much of this article is influenced by the McGrath and Whitty papers of 2015 and 2018 referenced below. I would encourage a wider read of McGrath and Whitty’s work. Much of their recent work is freely accessible via Google Scholar, I also provide the link to the published version via Emerald of the 2018 paper. Access to APM PRINCE2, and PMI BoKs are subject to the terms of each organisation. The UK Construction Playbook is a matter of public record at Gov.uk
Stephen Keith McGrath, Stephen Jonathan Whitty, (2015),”Redefining governance: from confusion to certainty and clarity”, International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, 8-4 pp. 755 – 787
McGrath, SK., Whitty, S,J. (2018), “Accountability and responsibility defined”, International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, Vol. 11 No. 3, pp. 687-707. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJMPB-06-2017-0058
These notes are part of a wider ongoing enquiry into seeking better collaborative ways to facilitate more successful project outcomes. Using critical controls and tools beyond project contracts, of which a RAM or similar is assumed to be a central part. Additional research will revisit more specific construction industry literature and guidance. Wider modelling from psychology are also intended to be introduced. In the interim these notes are my current findings which have further highlighted where visibility | behaviour | trust also play a part.
It should be noted that these notes have been written with an intended academic rigour. No original work is claimed here, other than practical application of existing academic literature. This article has not undergone any form of peer review, nor subjected to supervision by anyone with Doctorial or equivalent qualification or experience, or therefore vetted by the ethical standards of a university body. Stephen McGrath has been made aware of these notes for information, but no representation is made to his approval, or my authority to write in his name. I have made all attempt to therefore present a visibility of sources and behaviours I consider appropriate to academic writing. However, judgements upon the academic merit or trust to all content herein, are yours alone to make.
About the Author:
Warren Beardall MSc, BSc (Hons) MIRM
Managing Consultant, MYR Consulting (Europe) PTY Ltd.
In my consulting work with tier one construction contractors in the UK, the clarity of role allocation is an integral part of the critical control environment being assessed. This paper integrates my own learning in facilitating this consulting, with the detailed examinations of the academic and industry practice I research. It presents an argument as to why I think modal confusion confronts our industry when these tools are applied.
For twenty years, MYR Consulting (Europe) PTY Ltd and our parent company in Australia, have been helping clients mitigate their risk of professional error. Often our engagements begin with an introduction via Professional Indemnity insurers. Sometimes we are invited in before such needs arise. I would summarise our involvement as helping highly capable people and their internal control environments to be a cohesive whole. The controls helping the people, the people challenging and determining best practice the control environment reflects. Both aimed toward the consistent success of the design management processes they support, and the projects they form part.
Within this consulting work, role clarity is an integral part of de-risking process for the benefit of both the company and the wider project outcomes they serve.
In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.