AccountAbility…so what happened? and what can we learn?


A few people have asked me the question what can we learn from the demise of AccountAbility as an organisation governed for the public good. Others have asked me the more straightforward, but equally valid variant ‘what the hell happened?’ I’ll start with the second question, then have a go at the first.

As anyone who has read my first blog post on this subject will know I am not an impartial observer, and my thoughts may perhaps be dismissed as ‘hurt feelings and personal grudges’. However, since so little has been written about AccountAbility’s history, and we are already being urged to forgive and forget, I think it is worth putting a few facts onto the recent timeline, and reflecting, at least from my own perspective on what we can learn (Simon Zadek is also writing some of the history starting at the other end).

It is a somewhat embarrassing question: How did an organisation that set so much stock by governance and accountability; researching and advising other organisations on collaborative governance and investing so much time and resource its own accountability mechanisms, end up like this? How did its own governance fail to perform the most basic function of stopping people appropriating common assets for private benefit?

The very short answer is that the current management took control of AccountAbility at a moment when the organisation was particularly vulnerable. It was undergoing a transition from its original governance model to a new one, and at that point there were not strong safeguards in place. The longer answer is that there were embedded weaknesses which made the organisation vulnerable anyhow.

AccountAbility was originally set up as a member-governed organisation, with the staff formally acting as secretariat to its constituencies of NGOs, service providers, academics and businesses. It had a non-executive board and published Accountability Acounts of its performance and impacts. As the organisation developed, the scope of its work expanded from the initial focus on standards, professional development and accreditation to a wider remit of research and services; working with other organisations, businesses, public bodies, and multi-sector partnerships that were experimenting at the coal-face of accountability for sustainable development.

By 2008 the organisation had outgrown its original secretariat role but still depended on a network of stakeholders to help inform and deliver on its strategy. CEO Simon Zadek, the senior management team and the Operating Board agreed that it needed a new form of governance, to give the people running and representing the organisation on a day -to-day basis a stronger mandate to set strategy, while safeguarding the organisation’s public purpose and giving its stakeholders a means to hold it accountable. The decision was therefore made to transform AccountAbility into a not-for-profit partnership  with a Governing Council and a Standards Board (read the FAQs). The Council would not have fiduciary responsibility but would have a public oversight role in ensuring that the organisation remained true to its mission, and accountable in its operations.

The means to do this were laid out in the AccountAbility Charter in 2009  which committed the organisation to the principles of inclusivity, diversity, integrity and accountability. The idea was to put this into practice by publishing annual Accountability Accounts and holding a Forum allowing stakeholders to judge the organisation’s performance and help it evolve its strategy. The first (and, as it turned out, last) Forum was held in 2009 . The Council’s role was to oversee the accountability mechanisms for the organisation. The members agreed to this transition and the old non-executive Operating Board stepped down and handed AccountAbility to four Directors; Simon Zadek, Alex MacGillivray, Claire Head and Steve Rochlin, under the governance of a Council.

This was the moment of vulnerability. Still finalising the precise terms of the not-for-profit partnership, at this point AccountAbility was a basic company limited by guarantee with four directors, revenues of over  £3 million and over £1.7 million in reserve. During the course of the partnership negotiations, disagreements surfaced, relations broke down and, the other Directors terminated Simon’s employment on November 30th,  eventually leading to him  resigning as a Director of the organisation.

The three remaining directors, and those they later brought in, assured the Council that this was a painful but normal part of the organisational growing process. Organisations lose their founders and CEOs all the time. They told the Council that they would continue to follow the AccountAbility Charter. The Council stayed on to try to resolve issues and see the organisation through.

But, seeing no satisfactory resolution to their questions, Chris Tuppen, Kumi Naidoo, Ricardo Young, Ingrid Srinath, Isabel Hilton, Margaret Flaherty, Ricardo Melendez-Ortiz and Rob Cameron resigned from the Council by the spring of 2010.

In May 2010 the Sunny Misser, who had led AccountAbility’s service arm for a year, and before that had been a partner at PwC, became a Director at AccountAbility. In June 2010 he was made  CEO, of what they now described as a ‘global CR advisory and research firm’. AccountAbility Council Member, Vernon Jennings said: “We are delighted to have an individual with Mr Misser’s industry knowledge and stature moving into this very important role. His deep experience in the professional services field and passion for corporate responsibility make him the ideal leader for our organization.”

However by November 2010 Jennings too had resigned, along with remaining Council members David Simpson, Geoff Lane, Jennifer Iansen-Rogers and Mark Line. The Council members did not publish a letter and their resignation has never been publically acknowledged by AccountAbility.

Without a Council, and in disregard for the organisation’s charter, Sunny Misser and the rest of the current management have taken the organisation in a very different direction.  As an article in Ethical Performance magazine, and endorsed by the organisation says “a new organization is emerging, under the same name and brand, but with a changed ethos and purpose”. In response to questions from Toby Webb, an unamed AccountAbility spokesperson says that the organisation will no longer publish accounts to stakeholders, but will  only disclose what limited information is required by UK law. The organisation’s change of direction led to the Standards Board resigning in January 2011.

One key question is why the multi-stakeholder governance failed to act as a safeguard. Was just a bad organisational redesign, which gave too disparate a group of people too little responsibility, so that the only option left to them when they couldn’t hold the management to account was to walk away? Perhaps. In contrast , the Standards Board was a much more coherent group of self –confessed ‘standards geeks’ with a clearer stake in the organisation’s impacts. They were at least able to write a public letter. Maybe it was simply too early in the Council’s operations as a group, perhaps in a year or two’s time they might have matured into a stronger governing body, and been able to protect the organisation, it is impossible to know.

That is my answer to the structural question,as far as it goes,  but it still leaves the more human question (that David Bent from Forum for the Future gets the prize for asking most succinctly)  about what motivated the folks involved to take these steps, and many others to go along with them?

AccountAbility’s staff (with the notable exceptions of Fernanda Polacow and Kelly Yu) largely stayed at their desks, and went along with new leadership. In part, I think, many felt, that with Simon gone from the organisation they would be better able to shine. In practice, few lasted out the year, one of the directors Alex MacGillivray, has already left and no one in the organisation has stepped up into the role of thought leadership.

Certainly, AccountAbility was not an easy organisation to work for. Under Simon’s  leadership it was ambitious in driving forward debates on key questions that stretched beyond a straightforward upscaling of existing CSR practices. AccountAbility brought people and organisations together to tackle questions like is the information disclosed through corporate reporting any good for judging performance potential? How do you determine what is a material issue? Are company’s pulling in the same direction through their private lobbying and their public claims on social responsibility? What kind of organisations are needed for the governance of the atmospheric commons, and international climate finance? What makes multi-stakeholder organisations work, and what could make them work better? What does the economic shift to the East mean for CSR, and the network of voluntary initiatives that have developed in the West?

Were these questions worth answering? Yes I believe so. They  helped to push forward debate at the right time, earning AccountAbility a place working with governments, corporations and NGOs on responsible competitiveness, at the World Economic Forum discussing the future of global governance, in Project Catalyst advising governments on climate negotiations, advising Chinese Government think tanks on CSR standards and trade and working with the South African Government to design a practical industrial and financing strategy for unlocking its renewable energy potential.

But being at the front of the wave and unwilling to commoditise its approach meant that the organisation was continually operating in start-up mode, working at relentless pace, burning people out, and leaving others feeling that the personal pay-off was too little. I think this, in the end, was AccountAbility’s self-destruct button.

AccountAbility is part of a generation of organisations – from the Forest Stewardship Council to the Global Fund, from the Global Reporting Initative to the Ethical Trading Initiative, that have sought to catalyse collective action on ‘wicked problems’ through multi-sector partnership. Can we learn anything about the nature of multi-sector governance and partnerships (and indeed civil society organisations in general) from this experience?

My take-away is that multi-stakeholder organisations may be short-lived in their incarnations. They are volatile because they bring together partners who would not collaborate naturally, through market pull or organisational mandate, and in fact whose own governance and accountability systems are constantly pulling them in different directions.

They are extraordinary institutions that ask too much of people. Members of governing bodies give their time and put their reputation on the line for organisations they can never quite control and whose benefits don’t accrue to them. Staff put in hours and years when their husbands, wives, children, biological clocks and marathon running ambitions tell them to get a simpler, saner, better job.

Anyone who has been involved in a multi-stakeholder initiatives will know that you don’t do it for the good of your health. Multi-stakeholder organisations ask too much of people because it is the only way they can see to get the job done, when market failures and political economy drivers prevent existing institution with simple accountabilities doing it alone. They are ultimately unstable not just because of these forces pulling their constituents apart, but also because if they do the job right they should change the rules, so that markets are made or responsibilities are embedded, and institutions with more stable drivers of performance can take over.

This was AccountAbility’s model; to create standards, tools, ideas and mechanisms that others could use, not to hoard them, trade mark them, or compete with commercial players in the markest it helped to make. I don’t think AccountAbility’s current management understand this at all. They have changed the organisation’s strapline to ‘setting the standard for CSR and sustainable development’ and are seeking to build a mass market consultancy. The residual legitimacy offered by the connection to standards is a  swoosh on what is otherwise an undistinguished pair of running shoes.

The likes of Clay Shirky and Don Tappscott tell us that we are at the start of another wave of innovation in how we work together on wicked problems. The future of collaboration may be quite different from what has gone before, given the impact of the internet on the costs and benefits of collaborative action. The AA1000 Users Group is trying to work out how to do this for the AccountAbility standards, and I wish them all the luck.

Part of this future, I think, will be more people running barefoot, without an organisational swoosh, but with some sense of direction, and running partners along the way.

There is one other question I get asked a lot, ‘what do you work for?’….. I say I work for accountability.

5 Responses to “AccountAbility…so what happened? and what can we learn?”

  1. Hi Maya

    Pleased to see you made time to share your reflections on the learnings from AccountAbility.

    I think there is something more generic to learn from the situation you describe. Speaking of characters, management styles, agendas and a passing of a historical period doesnt quite do it for me. Instead, Im fishing for lessons on the difference between mandatory forms of accountability and chosen or voluntary forms of accountability.

    One of the key criticisms of the responsible business agenda is that it has ignored power relations, including this distinction between mandatory and voluntary mechanisms of governance.

    One of the criticisms coming from those people who work for more judicial power for stakeholders is that terms like “accountability” are being used in vague ways by some CSR and sustainability organisations, who do not look at power, and the key different between choosing to give an account due to one’s own views (on learning and organisational performance, or on moral interests), and procedures for being held to account by stakeholders whether one likes it or not. AccountAbility’s work appeared to mix these two notions of accountability. (I summarised these distinctions and AccountAbility’s approach in the UNRISD Paper Barricades and Boardrooms, in 04… free via internet search)

    Did AccountAbility’s staff not like or see the importance of this distinction between hard and soft accountability? Might the ‘need’ to use a technocratic professional language in order to relate well to business and accountants mean that staff avoided use of the concepts of “power” and “rights” and “judicial” process etc?

    And, in so doing, did the idea of switching from hard accountability to stakeholders to an optional form, decided upon by the will of directors, not seem such an important change?

    i.e. If following a Charter is optional, is it really a Charter? If a Governing Council can be ignored, is it really a “Governing” council? If a Standards Board can be ignored, is it really a “board”? Should one use such grand titles for what are entirely optional mechanisms, when the real power is held in other roles in the organisation?

    What, therefore, may be the implications for legal forms of incorporation that make accountability a procedural requirement not optional extra?

    Also might there be some implications for the marginalisation of considerations of ownership and accountability as terms like social enterprise and for-benefit organisation are popularised in the social space?

    So one generic answer to this could be:

    There is no such thing as voluntary accountability, it is an oxymoron. To wish to give an account, to receive advice, etc, is not accountability. To do such is to chose a form of responsibility and openness (depending on how its done). By not making this distinction and helping even to obfuscate it, AccountAbility’s stakeholders made decisions that lost them their real mechanisms of accountability over the organisation and so they came to experience what the difference between real accountability and “voluntary accountability” means.

    And one broader point could be:

    If organisations are to serve the public good then they must not rely on the moral character of their senior office holders. That is the basis of the concept of democracy and the separation of powers in a state. i.e. accountability to the people is key, not the responsibility of those with power. I discussed this in my UN report on NGO accountability in 2006 (google “debating NGO accountability” and also in the Barricades piece).

    Thx, Jem

  2. Thanks Maya, as the director of a start up multi-stakeholder organisation this picture of Accountability resonates only too well and is very helpful in helping me think over our approach longer term. Certainly working in start up mode the WHOLE time is correct, and tedious because there is never any certainty of funding if you are trying to drive the agenda. So, unless I find some sugar daddy philanthropist, which comes with its own problems, (though I’d love to find out what they are!), I am probably stuck in that.

    We are currently much more modest in our financial aspirations than achieving £3m turnover, but I do disagree that the ‘driven to distraction’ type mode that you describe, is a necessity of the model. I think that when people are excited and fulfilled they work hard, but this burnout mode is just bad management and bad fundraising and an inability to condition expectation.

    My current plan is to do interesting work in virtual mode with expert people who are excited by the issues and pay near their standard daily rate. We don’t have ambitions about size or number of employees, but think nonetheless we can have a significant impact in our field, but stay sane, give value to our Steering Group and Business Group and stay true to our values.

    One of my steering group members describes us as ‘rats at the feet of dinosaurs’, it doesn’t stack up as an analogy, but the gist is that small, nimble, dynamic, focused groups can make a big difference with a small footprint. Ask me again in a couple of years if it works!

  3. 3 Maya

    AccountAbility published a response from the management team to the resignation of the Standards Board on their website, but it appears to have now been unpublished.

    In case anyone is looking for it it is archived here

  4. Thanks Maya for this insight – is very useful for those of us who have been working on the common-goods work of accountability (AA1000 standards, etc) and now find something not in-sink as the AccountAbility “boat” is sailing away from the “common-goods territory” that has enabled so many to collaborate and contribute so much from their own resources.

    I wish the best to those trying to recreate this territory. I also hope that AccountAbility can help clear the way by simply stating where they are sailing to, or at least to what extent they are still willing to contribute to the territory they have left, if at all. Mostly, as a stakeholder, I look to AccountAbility to help the sustainability community by making sure others who are willing to foster this common-goods territory for the AA1000 series are not hindered by AccountAbility actions or inactions. From all I have read, heard and seen, we all seem to have the responsibility to cooperate to identify the new Stewards of this common-good territory. And like most changes – this is most probably an opportunity to rejuvenate; incorporating experience and today’s energy.

    Thanks again for your records and links – you have done everyone a service by their clarity.

  1. 1 Information for stakeholders: AA1000 User Group « Judy Kuszewski

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