Responsibility and accountability

Introduction

Responsibility and Accountability are terms commonly used in management, in particular  in connection with the Responsibility Allocation Matrix, or RACI. However the precise meaning of these words gets confused with the colloquial use and in many cases people are not really sure how to use the RACI matrix correctly.

Responsibility Allocation Matrix

This idea has its origins in Goal Directed Project Management (GDPM) which is a precursor of all modern project management methodologies such as Prince2 and PMBOK. Dating back to 1984,  it defined a matrix where various project roles were allocated to stakeholders addressing the need to separate duties into eight functions:

  1. Who executes the work
  2. Who makes final decisions
  3. Who contributes to decisions
  4. Who manages the job
  5. Who provides tuition
  6. Who must be consulted
  7. Who must be informed
  8. Who can provide advise

Although this original form and several variants are still in use, a popular abbreviated form is known as the RACI matrix that identifies 4 key functions and two rules. The functions are:

  • Responsible – Who executes the work
  • Accountable – The owner of the equity (assets and liabilities) of the work produced
  • Consulted – Who contributes to decisions and provides advice
  • Informed – Who is affected by the work and has a need to know.

The rules are:

  1. There must be at least one Responsible party
  2. There must be only one Accountable party

By comparison with the original eight functions one can easily see how the RACI model is just a compact variant of the GDMP model, and its application should be straightforward. The only noteworthy variant of he model is CAIRO, an anagram of RACI plus Omission. In this version parties that should be excluded from the process are identified. This is useful in sensitive situations when information must be kept confidential.

The complication arises from the specific meaning that RACI gives to words that are used in general language. In RACI the words “Responsible” and “Accountable” have a precise meaning, which sometimes conflict with the general use.  To investigate this we shall refer to the Oxford Dictionary,  albeit any dictionary provides similar definitions.

Responsibility

  1. The state or fact of having a duty to deal with something or of having control over
  2. The state or fact of being accountable or to blame for something
  3. The opportunity or ability to act independently and take decisions without authorisation

Accountability

The fact or condition of being accountable; responsibility

Accountable

Required or expected to justify actions or decisions; responsible

In general these words capture the ideas intended in the RACI matrix, but with two fundamental differences. Firstly the words are used somewhat as synonyms, they are interchanged to provide cross-definitions. The etymology of both words suggest the same idea of having to respond or give account for one’s actions. Secondly the idea of having to answer for one’s actions seems to be associated with accountability rather than responsibility. This is an inversion of from the use under the RACI model. where the Responsible answers to the Accountable.

A well established management principle is that delegation of authority creates responsibility. From this principle one can derive a precise relationship between the person exercising the authority in performing an activity, the  responsible party; and the person that is the source of that authority, the accountable party.

A better Acronym is then formed by the following definitions:

R (Responsible) The mandatory party or parties that have been given authority to perform an activity and have responsibility for the outcome.
A (Authority) The single party that owns the authority to achieve a result and create responsibility through delegation of that authority.
C (Consult) The optional party or parties that together with the Responsible party make collegial decision on how to discharge authority to achieve an outcome
I (Inform) The optional party or parties that need to know about the outcome but bear no authority or responsibility.

Normally there is a hierarchical relationship between several parties, with a chain of delegations where each level is accountable to, or has the authority over its subordinate(s) and responsible to its superior. The important relation from the RACI perspective is at the point where the activity takes place, and that is the last pair of Accountability – responsibility in the chain.

Conclusion

The terms Accountable and Responsible have different meaning in different contexts.  When used in management (Primarily in Project Management but also extended to other management disciplines) they become Operational Definitions with their meaning strictly defined. One should always provide the definition of the roles employed in a RACI model or any of its variants such as RASCI, CAIRO, etc.) and if used in general discussion with the intended meaning discussed here, this should be made clear to avoid confusion and misinterpretation.