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Strategy for accountability in a department

A large department in the transportation sector had struggled for more than 20 years with the implementation of rules and directions on accountability of building projects. Before starting a  fundamental change of the financial administration process, the head of the department wanted to search for factors for success and failure on implementation. The project was called "Historical Investigation".

The assignment for conducting the investigation was given to a friend of mine, called Leo. He worked for more than 40 years in that department and was involved in several projects of reframing and redrafting rules and notifications. Leo asked me to join the team, to bring in my experience on research and change methods.

What we did:

  • Select 15 key persons for retrospective story telling interviews
  • Study and analyze a pile of documentation, two meters in height
  • Make notes of our observations and reflections in a journal
  • Look and ask for artefacts
  • Analyze data with a qualitative method, with the use of hundreds of sticky notes (see picture)
  • Distillate sensitizing concepts, quotes and narratives in a two column structure
  • Made a time line, an historical overview of documentation and events
  • Looked for driving forces in the patterns of dealing with accountability of legitimacy in the past, with the aid of causal loop diagrams and flow diagrams
  • Organize a member check with the key persons
  • Conduct meetings with sponsors for validation and approval
  • Create a "document" in the form of a slide-show
  • After approval the presentation was showed and discussed in several management teams of regional directorates.


The causal loop diagrams and flow diagrams created awareness of the simple logic "If we have trouble with implementation of rules, putting our effort in searching for new and better rules is not very effective". The plans for reorganization of the financial administration were drastically changed, regarding the directions for accountability of legitimacy. However, the spreading of the insights of this "learning history" was restricted to a relatively small part of the organization. Due to the surfacing of a large fraud scandal in related directorates, the outcome of the learning history became politically charged. 

Reflection on this approach:

  • We did not use the term "learning history", but "historical investigation". I think the last term is more acceptable in an organization of constructors
  • Participation of organization members was low
  • The dissemination of the history depended on one person; that proved to be a very weak spot in the design
  • Avoiding political goals playing a big part is impossible; it is all about relationships
  • It was a top down approach


Quote of one of the participants:

"In this organization you are allowed to come out of the baby-chair only when you can walk"


Stamp: "Stick to your agreement"


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Categorizing data




Causal Loop Diagram


Flow diagram
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