In his 2009 article Placing the Normative Logics of Accountability in “Thick” Perspective, Alnoor Ebrahim examines the genesis what he calls the “normative logics” of the accountability revolution. Specifically, Ebrahim is concerned with the “conventional wisdom” that accountability reforms have in fact produced more meaningful accountability. For Ebrahim, an evaluation of the political and social context that nurtured these reforms and the actual impact of these reforms on nonprofit behavior are necessary to develop a more substantive understanding of what meaningful accountability might look like. Ultimately, meaningful accountability enables and enhances a nonprofit organization’s ability to build a vibrant civil society and address social problems rather than serving as a straitjacket on human agency.
Ebrahim begins his analysis by pointing out that nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations have traditionally been regarded as pillars of integrity and ethical behavior, a vital “third sector” in democratic societies. Following some high profile cases of malfeasance, mismanagement of resources, and/or outright corruption, public confidence in these organizations began to diminish. This atmosphere of mounting distrust prompted the public, lawmakers, regulators, contributors, and even nonprofits to demand more accountability. Yet, as Ebrahim ponders, in the push for accountability, has rhetoric replaced substance?
To answer this question, Ebrahim suggests that a unique blend of empirical and interpretive methods is needed to explain this rise of accountability mechanisms, tools, and techniques and develop an intersubjective understanding of the reasons why the public, political leaders and nonprofits believe these accountability regimes or “signals of good housekeeping” will solve the problem and restore legitimacy. For example, the normative logic of performance based accountability calls for the implementation of a range of technocratic measurements that reward clear outputs and outcomes. Ebrahim points out that by reducing ambiguity, these mechanisms become attractive to other organizations, leading to mimetic isomorphism. Likewise, he urges his readers to remain cognizant of the political context. Politicians frequently propose quick fixes to irreducibly complex problems. In this case, the problem (lack of accountability) and the solution (accountability tools, metrics, mechanisms, regulations) fit into a nice equation that can be easily understood by voters: If organization X adopts solution Y, the problem will be solved.
This research program recommended by Ebrahim is particularly useful not only for scholars of nonprofit organizations but leaders of those institutions as well. His emphasis on understanding how the accountability revolution emerged from within a specific social and/or political context should guide leaders in their interactions with political leaders and donors. In other words, nonprofit leaders must first know how to ‘speak the language’ of accountability with policy makers by understanding its normative underpinnings and the social and political conditions that sustain it. Ebrahim’s research also serves as a reminder that nonprofit leaders should not conflate means (accountability mechanisms) with ends (mission statement, serving the public).
Alnoor Ebrahim, Placing the Normative Logic of Accountability in “Thick” Perspective, American Behavioral Scientist, Volume 52, Number 6, February 2009, pp. 885-900.