Hierarchical Responsibility

The Problem of Many Hands

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The Problem of Many Hands: The difficulty of assigning responsibility for wrongdoing in organizations in which many people contribute to decisions and policies. Who should we blame for failures of government? Where is the agency within the agency? Is anyone effectively held accountable for large failures?

Hierarchical Responsibility?

Where an agency head takes the blame◦“The buck stops here” The problem is that a leader “taking responsibility” can be merely ritualistic. ◦Makes the leader appear courageous. ◦May even benefit that leader if executed well. ◦Gains gratitude from subordinates. ◦Formal punishment quells future debate

Only Organizational Responsibility?

Blame and punish the organization. ◦But individuals still suffer many of the consequences. ◦And the people who have less agency may suffer more consequences. Ultimately, fails to ensure that organizations won’t repeat the mistakes. ◦What was called a “bad actor” was really a bad design

Individual Responsibility?

  1. Actions or omissions are a cause of the outcomes. ◦E.g., failure to take usual safety precautions in drilling an oil well ◦E.g., failure to follow standard procedures
  2. Actions or omissions are not done under compulsion or ignorance. But are the consequences disproportionate to the actions or omissions? ◦Fail to appreciate the enormity of the outcome

Individual Responsibility?

  1. Actions or omissions are a cause of the outcomes

◦E.g., failure to take usual safety precautions in drilling an oil well

◦E.g., failure to follow standard procedures

  1. Actions or omissions are not done under compulsion or ignorance

But are the consequences disproportionate to the actions or omissions?

◦Fail to appreciate the enormity of the outcome

Responsibility for Design

Fault the structure of the organization and its relationships. But this transfers to another problem of many hands

Solution: Separate the structural defects from the individual errors

◦Then, we are able to monitor the individual errors looking forward

◦Offices and institutions to oversee the correction in structural deficiencies


Failing to Learn


  1. Inadequate guide for individual decision makers in the future

◦Sends the wrong message to future officials

◦Fails to distinguish individual from systematic failures

  1. Impersonality weakened the recommendation for institutional reform

◦Retreats to passive voice and failure of universal virtue

◦Which roles or offices should be redesigned?

  1. Political commission is the wrong forum

◦Recommendations ignored

◦Experts and citizens, not political partisans


Individual moral responsibility is the best foundation to reform government

◦Understand individual role

◦Redesign institutions to ensure roles are executed correctly

◦Hold future officials accountable

Institutions should be redesigned to:

◦Ensure that there are incentives for individuals to prevent harms

◦Hold responsible officials who cause harms and act voluntarily


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