PtG Article 05.04.2013

Accountability is a duty to explain

Accountability is a cornerstone of good governance. In this video and text interview, which is a part of the AGGIS project on good governance led by Play the Game, professor Barrie Houlihan from Loughborough University explains the idea behind the term and how international sports organisations could improve and become more accountable.

Video interview with Barrie Houlihan (click to watch)

This interview is an edited version of the original full length video interview with Barrie Houlihan

What is accountability and why is it important to put focus on in sports organisations?

“Accountability from the organisation’s point of view is a feeling of obligation to explain what they are doing and why they are taking the actions they are. Another element is the acceptance of responsibility for what they do.

So accountability is a duty to explain and an acceptance of responsibility. I think accountability is particularly important in relation to sports federations because they hold an almost unique position in organisational life.

They are, to a very large extent, legally permitted monopolies and it is very difficult to find another area of life, business life or organisational life, where it is accepted that an organisation can be a monopoly. If you want to participate in sport at even a modest or let alone a high level you have to work within the rules set by these international federations.

Therefore they have a particular duty to explain the decisions they make because they affect the lives of all those who want to participate in their sport.

To what extent do you think international sports organisations fulfil the obligation to be accountable? 

“In general very poorly. I think part of the explanation is a suspicion of the motives of the governments because governments often wanted to try to control what federations do.

And to be fair to the federations, the history of the manipulation of sport by governments is not a good history.

But I think the world is a different place today and given the economic power of the federations and their economic significance, in addition to their significance to for the lives of sportsmen and women, they now have a much stronger obligation to be open about how they make their decisions and to justify the decisions they make.

There are signs that the federations are recognising that obligation, but the signs of them acting on that obligation are still very weak.”

What can the organisations do to improve within this field?

“There are some very simple steps they could take. One such step is in relation to transparency: how do they organise themselves, where are their key decisions taken, who is involved in the decisions, how are their senior decision-makers chosen, what is the electoral process? Enhanced transparency, like many other aspects of good governance, is part of everyday practice in modern democracies.

A starting point is to reflect on the usefulness of their annual reports in informing their stakeholders about decision-making processes.

There are a lot of very simple actions they could take, which would not in any way threaten what they do, and the perhaps the most important point about accountability is that accountability generally equates to good business practice, good management. Successful organisations understand accountability and they understand that they need to manage their relationship with their key stakeholder groups.” 

Who can push them in the right direction?

“Many of the organisations do need encouragement, and I think there are some organisations that can be pushed in a very gentle way by setting a good example.

We should expect the IOC to set an example of what is good governance. It still has some way to go, but there have been considerable improvements in the way the IOC is organised and the way in which it deals with the issue of accountability. The IOC could play a role in encouraging federations to be more open. 

But there are other organisations such as WADA, which has required federations to change the way they make certain decisions in relation to doping cases, and international governmental organisations like the EU and the Council of Europe, which have been important in trying to encourage international federations to adopt accepted standards of organisational behaviour. 

So a number of agencies outside the federations can provide encouragement and support to improve the quality of accountability.

An additional group would be commercial partners, broadcasters or sponsors. If they want to be associated with a sport product then I think that is in their interest to have an accountable partner.”

What potential does the AGGIS project have in this perspective?

“When people talk about accountability they often say “yes it’s a good thing, but I’m not sure what it means in practice”.

The AGGIS project gives a benchmark by which you can assess the extent to which you are an accountable organisation. It gives you a checklist that you can reflect on within your organisation as well as providing a tool for external organisations to look at international federations and make their assessment of the quality of accountability. 

Such a benchmark in itself will hopefully encourage an internal debate within federations and also a debate with their partners, which should lead to improved patterns of accountability.”

Barrie Houlihan is a professor at Loughborough University, Sport Policy and Management Group, School of Sport, Exercise & Health Sciences

Links to other AGGIS video interviews: