Collective Mind Networks in Action
Accountability in networks
by Kerstin Tebbe, Founder, Collective Mind
Collective Mind hosts regular Networks in Action sessions to unpack critical network concepts with our global learning community. Each session focuses on a specific network concept and through a series of facilitated reflection exercises, builds out the concept by crowdsourcing ideas and experiences.
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In June 2022, Collective Mind hosted our Networks in Action on accountability in networks. The session, hosted by Collective Mind founder, Kerstin Tebbe, built from inputs shared by event registrants and followed the frame of “what”, “so what”, “now what”. The ideas shared here are a summary of the participants’ inputs and discussion.
What?: Defining accountability in networks
Participants’ definitions of accountability in networks fell into three key areas. First, accountability is about fulfilling the roles and commitments we sign up for such as those we all make to participate, contribute, and co-create. It means taking responsibility and completing agreed-upon tasks. It also means showing up, being present, and being respectful of others’ time and ideas.
Second, it means ensuring that the network works towards its shared purpose. This means keeping things moving in the right direction and ensuring that progress is being made towards shared goals. It also means acknowledging failures or mess-ups and course-correcting as needed.
Finally, accountability in networks was seen as being inclusive and equitable. Working through networks is about shared responsibility. Those most affected must be given voice and power to help them achieve their goals. This can also require consulting those outside the network who are impacted by the work we do.
So what?: What are the types of accountability in networks?
According to participants’ responses to the registration questions, we can view accountability from multiple angles. We should see it in terms of multiple lines of accountability that run bi-directionally. Staff, a Board or governing body, members, funders, and subgroups within a broader network membership are all accountable to one another. Specific constituents have specific types of accountability. For example, funders must ensure that funding is available, transparent, and disbursed in a timely manner. Working groups or project teams within the membership have a higher level of accountability as they have volunteered to contribute to a particular category of work. Staff and governing bodies must be accountable to members and members to each other. The network must also be accountable to the communities it engages with.
Beyond being accountable to others, we must also be accountable to timelines and commitments. We must furthermore be accountable for behaving in certain ways, like being open to collaboration and sharing information.
Now what?: What are the challenges and ways to improve accountability in networks?
Finally, participants’ responses to the registration questions about their challenges pointed to multiple means for strengthening accountability. On a practical level, follow-up and follow-through are key as are, for example, meeting deadlines, being responsive, and doing the necessary work. On a deeper level, definitions matter: we must seek shared understandings of accountability within our networks and clarity about who is accountable for what and to whom. This typically requires recognizing power dynamics and being explicit, transparent, and consistent in decision-making. Integrating shared accountability within a network also necessitates feedback mechanisms through which to communicate issues and hold each other to account.
Highlights from the conversation
This synthesis above was the basis for reflection and discussion during the session which raised additional thoughts and ideas.
Accountability is a complex concept with many layers and understanding it within our networks is key. As participants noted, terms for “accountability” in other languages can deepen our understanding of the concept. For example, the word “compromiso” in Spanish goes beyond a task- or time-bound nature of accountability to include empathy and sacredness in a circular, rather than linear, fashion. In this sense, accountability is an embodied concept: it is about how you show up personally and how that personal approach contributes to the dynamics of what we’re trying to accomplish together via the work of the network.
We can furthermore think about accountability as both explicit and implicit. It is explicit in the actions we take personally and the mechanisms through which we take collective action to achieve external outcomes. It is implicit in how we show up individually and collectively and how we do our work together to achieve a higher purpose or vision. To foster accountability in our networks, we must find the sweet spot of balancing explicit accountability, for example via leadership structures or as articulated in strategic plans, with implicit accountability, via relationship- and trust-building and our network culture more broadly.
Finding this integrated balance requires candid conversations within our networks about what accountability means to us and how we’re measuring it. We must surface the related issues and think collectively about how to understand and make accountability more integral to our work. We may also need to more fully recognize and address differences (e.g. gender, culture) as well as power dynamics and imbalances. We can determine together how to measure accountability to ourselves, the network at large, and those outside of our network that we seek to serve.
Miss the session? View the recording here.
Have your own experiences with accountability in networks? Tell us about it in the comments below.