Friday, January 28, 2011

The Accountability Regime

This post continues the discussion of the "accountability regime" or "audit society" that many of us find ourselves facing.  See previous post for background.

Just to give you an example of an accountability "rule" that affects me, let me describe what I must do to attend an international conference held on foreign soil.  First, I must get my name on a list well in advance of the date of the conference (months ahead) (and woe be unto you if you submit your name after the deadline for that quarter, for example, in cases where you are invited to speak in a special session only a month in advance by conference organizers).  Then, if more than five people from my agency plan to attend this conference, there must be a special memo requesting permission for our travel and that justifies our specific attendance at such a conference.  This is not just a formality, as we are often warned that "this time" the powers-that-be may deny the request--mainly because they question why scientists should be attending conferences held outside the country in the first place.  In the meantime, we must submit paperwork authorizing our travel in the event we are given permission.  This must be submitted at least 45 days prior to travel. Before I can set foot on foreign soil, I also must receive "country clearance", which is given by the US embassy in that country.  I can only travel with an official passport, which is held under lock and key at the "bureau international office" between trips.

All of these authorizations often do not arrive until the day or so before I'm scheduled to leave (in one case, I was sitting in the airport when the final approval came through--I would have had to cancel otherwise).  This all, as you might imagine, causes extreme stress, mentally and financially.  I must make air and lodging reservations in anticipation of travel--all of which must be canceled in the event my travel is disapproved.  The sums I've already spent on conference registration, lodging reservations, non-reimbursable airfare are lost.  I cannot just go on my personal time--this is not allowed.  Such hassle sort of makes you think twice about attending international conferences, doesn't it?

Why, you might ask, is all of this necessary just to travel to a conference?  The answer is government accountability. It can't appear to the public that government scientists are unnecessarily spending public funds. The paperwork we fill out not only includes an estimate of our travel expenses, but the portion of our salaries covering that time interval.  So a week-long trip might easily add up to $5,000 or more per person, depending on one's salary and the destination.  Ten people attending the same conference would thus incur an amount of $50,000.  Such a sum would sound outrageous to the average citizen, especially one who doesn't get to travel in their jobs.  Never mind that we have such travel budgeted in our grants, and that presenting papers at international conferences is expected of us.  In a few cases, I've had to provide increasingly detailed "justifications" for attendance at international conferences (just giving a paper is not sufficient).

The mind boggles at the money, time, and effort spent by government agencies and other organizations to develop and enforce an "accountability regime".  Why should anyone have to justify activities that are essential to developing or maintaining one's career in education and research--or, from a broader perspective, enhance the scientific credibility of the institution?  But that's what happens when accountability takes precedence over the mission of the organization.

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