Can Collective Accountability Realistically Be Achieved?

By Rob Glenn

I recently saw a newsletter from an association of non-profit providers related to community health services. The association has made the recommendation for years that its members should be collectively accountable (i.e., self-policing). However, the newsletter argues that the job is not getting done and continued high profile cases of abuse will likely lead to increased government oversight and regulation.

This is true in the non-profit sector as a whole. The purpose of this article is to suggest a realistic methodology for achieving accountability as a feature of a non-profit association.

The newsletter points out the challenges of walking the fine line between being a whistleblower for the right reasons (accountability) and turning in a competitor for the wrong reasons (to get back at an adversary). As in most things, there are ethical issues to be considered when approaching accountability. A defined process is needed.

Quite coincidentally, I was recently researching a state-licensed service and ran across the recommended procedure for reporting abuse. I did not read the recommendation – that is not the point – but I did note that the state has a procedure and publishes it. With the trade association, perhaps it is not enough to expect its members to be collectively accountable. Organization A may well have a fear or reluctance of reporting Organization B. However, I have to wonder what role the trade association intends to play in the policing efforts? It seems like an appropriate benefit and a clear reason to belong, especially when so many trade associations are losing members in a challenging economy. Members look carefully at the benefits received when the renewal invoice arrives.

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Without any study to back up my thoughts (i.e., albeit anecdotally), it does not seem realistic for the trade association to staff itself to perform actual reviews, inspections, oversight, etc. for its members. The cost would simply be too great. However, it does seem realistic to provide a mandatory peer review process whereby every member is expected to go through the process every so many years and every member is expected to participate as a peer reviewer on a regular basis. If a peer review was made a requirement (benefit) of membership, the trade association could accomplish the goal of collective accountability and play a leadership role in the process. This seems entirely realistic to me.

A number of associations and professions utilize the peer review process. By conducting it at the association level, there would be an established process with appropriate checks and balances to assure fairness to all parties. A major benefit of a peer review is two-fold: not only will it help remedy potential problem areas, but it will enable the exchange of best practices that can benefit both the reviewer and the reviewed.

Any alternative to a peer review process is fraught with problematic issues. For example, the notion that anonymity would be preserved must be handled through a careful administrative process and the expectation that one peer organization would (or should) even know the details of another peer organization’s operations is not likely realistic.

Hopefully this article will stimulate dialogue on the subject of peer reviews as a means to industry-wide compliance and accountability. A membership association seems to be an impartial and appropriate host for a process that will be truly beneficial to all concerned. Given the fact the intent is to improve accountability in a non-punitive manner, the peer review process is a time-tested way to proceed.

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