accountabilitybloke (old blog)

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More on #Continental…

I have been around long enough to recall that Continental Airlines (CO) was once a Denver based airline run by a powerhouse personality by the name of Robert Six. But over the years the name and management of Continental have travelled a bit, and it would probably be very difficult for any historian of US civil aviation to draw a direct line back to Six.

I can also recall some of the up and down years of Continental since it was my carrier of choice for the many years that I was making weekly commutes between Boston and New York (in pre-9/11 days). Most of the down times came to an end when management seemed to realize (sometime in the mid 1990s) that employee and customer morale was important — and they worked hard to gain the upper hand among competitors by nurturing both.

I had not traveled much during 2009, and even then I was finding myself a bit more favorable to flying on Delta or Northwest (then “partners”) than on CO. When I started my current travel binge in March and April, I tried my best to go CO since I had accumulated OnePass miles and found the access to the Presidents Club (via my American Express) really convenient.

But there is definitely something different with CO. I realize these are tough times for the airlines, but in terms of ticketing, customer service, general policies, etc., CO has become indifferent to the fact that it still needs to maintain that base it built up over the years. My recent problem with a particular trip (see previous post) is just one example, and it reflects many of the problems I see in the company.

First, it seems they have lost their sense of customer service. Contacting customer service is always an inconvenience when you have long hold times, but that is better than being told that you should call back later by a nice voice that suggests using the online site. But the online site cannot handle questions, and in fact is quite difficult to deal with if you have a really unique question or problem to del with. It may be cost effective to refuse to take calls when operators are backed up under truly burdensome call volumes during difficult periods — but increasingly this message is coming up during normal times and one can try for hours at a time without getting passed that annoying call-back instruction. This indicates to me that they have greatly reduced their phone personnel and have set the “call back later” trigger to a much lower level. Which means that they now have put cost savings ahead of customer service and satisfaction. Penny wise, pound foolish — or something to that effect….

Second, I was quite annoyed at the arbitrariness with which Continental treated my reservation. Yes, I had a trip alert and voice message from CO about cancellation, but with no explanation or apology or effort to figure out how I am to deal with the problem. All I was left with was a phone number that (see last point) kept telling me to call back later or to go online to resolve the issue. To make matters worse, there was no email informing me that they had in fact changed my reservation by shifting my flight by 24 hours — I only discovered that by carefully examining the revised ticket. Let me emphasize that there was no notification of the change , only the cancellation. They automatically assumed this change would work — treating me not as a customer, but as some piece of freight that can just be shoved onto another flight as long as I get to my destination.

Third, the telephone agents for CO are as nice as they ever have been — but you can tell they are pressured and frustrated. Amazingly, I have access to more info about CO flights than they do — something of an embarrassment to them, for it gives the impression of incompetence on their part when the problem is clearly an incoherent reservation and information system. The level of frustration reached the point that I was hearing complaints from the agents about the operations and the forthcoming merger which looks like it is a disaster in the making….

Fourth, it is now evident that CO does not seek to be competitive pricing wise, as one can see in almost any search for flights on farecast.com (now Bing travel). Delta (no longer a partner) remains surprisingly competitive, as does US Air (an airline I have avoided for years due to its reputation for poor service, but which will now take priority above CO for now — especially since they are Star Alliance members). (Charging for bags, extra legroom seats, etc are tolerable to some extent, but I noticed that while CO was asking for $50 and up, US Air offered those for $10.)

Bottom line is that the change in the management of CO is evident and proving destructive of the organization culture that served it well for several years. Clearly neither customer service nor employee morale are regarded as important enough — and it is evident that the merger will likely make things worse.

So why am I writing so much about this? For me, this is as much an example of “accountability gone bad” as it is the story of my particular problems with CO. Loyalty — whether to a merchant or a family member — feeds on accountability, for loyalty is based as much on expectations (having them and meeting them) as it is on anything else. Over the years of dealing with any person or company, one develops expectations and these eventually underpin loyalty. In this case, each of my encounters with CO became an opportunity to assess how well they were living up to those expectations. In short, I am constantly holding them accountable to higher expectations.

But now the foundations of my loyalty to CO have been reduced — to the point that I now expect problems with each encounter.

Too bad — they were once so good….

June 30th, 2010 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

Jet lag on trip from Boston to Kansas; or why Continental Airlines sucks

This is the story of how I suffered from a severe case of “jet lag” flying from BOS (eastern time zone) to Kansas City (central time) — and why I am wide awake at 1145PM on Tuesday the 29th writing this blog post.

I spent today (the 29th) — literally, all day today — engaged in traveling from Boston to Lawrence, KS. Under normal circumstances this is a trip that might take up to 7 hours — flight and drive time included. But my trip started a bit before 11PM last night (Monday) when I checked my voice mail to find that my Continental Airlines flight from Manchester (NH) to Kansas City had been cancelled — and little else by way of information other than I should contact a telephone number that (as it turns out) was not taking calls….

[There is no reason given for the cancellation — but when checking in online on Monday morning I noticed that I had my choice of just about any seat on the aircraft for the initial leg of the journey (to Cleveland), and so I suspect they made their decision on lack of passengers. If this was the case, then certainly they could have made that cancellation call hours earlier — but the current Continental management does not think that way. More on that below….)

By the time I reached Continental Airlines (using all sorts of other, back-door phone numbers), I am told that I had been preticketed for a flight the next day. When I said that won’t do, the agent tried her best to see what was possible. As it turns out, the Continental operators do not have the same access that I have using the airline’s website (very strange indeed) and I was able to find flights that would work out of Boston’s Logan that would put me in Lawrence only two hours later than originally scheduled. The flights were actually United but under a so-called Continental “codeshare” number. It took a bit of work, but eventually (by about midnight) the deal is set and they tell me the revised reservation is confirmed and on its way to me…. Being a trustful bloke, I take a break from the computer and prepared to finally get some sleep….

Just before heading for bed I decide to check to revised reservation — and of course it is wrong, and included a six hour lay over in Chicago…. Another call to Continental, and they confirm that United had rejected the requested codeshare seating, and they did not think it important enough to mention that. [As nice as the folks on the phone were, their indifference or incompetence was another indication that something is very wrong with Continental at this time…]

After another half hour of trying to come up with solutions, the folks at Continental finally declare that they are issuing me a refund of my ticket — and as nicely as this was done by the agent, it still amounted to leaving the customer out-to-dry…. [BTW, I have yet to receive email confirming that refund…]

It was now 1AM and I had not slept — and I am on “Bing Travel” (formerly Farecast.com) in search of some solution before punting altogether. Up pops a US Airways flight that is $100 more than the refunded trip, but it will get me to Kansas City by 930AM if I take a 5AM flight from BOS to Charlotte and catch a 750AM from there to MCI (the airport code for Kansas City International). The return trip would mean coming home a day earlier than planned — but that is okay. By the time I do everything I need to do to get the reservation completed and other items (hotel, car rental) adjusted, it is 230AM. To make it to Logan in time I would have to leave my house by 330AM at the latest — and I still had last minute packing (I carry some perishable meds with me), so why even bother with sleep.

Worse yet, I had to drag my spouse from her deep sleep to drive me to Logan at that ungodly hour…. [Thank you, Randi!]

Of course I am running late and barely made it to the gate (do you know that even at 430AM the TSA security lines are already backed up?), and by 10AM I am in rental at MCI and making the one hour drive to Lawrence (great to be in part of country where there is 70MPH speed limit). Caught a few minutes sleep on each leg of the trip, but crowded planes are not conducive to anything longer than 10 or 15 minutes naps….

Having neither eaten or slept much since Monday night, I made a stop at Five Guys and headed to my hotel where I decided a short nap would be refreshing before I headed up to the KU campus to meet with my colleague. Three hours later I find myself rushing to get there before the offices close — and after relatively brief meeting I go back to hotel where I fall asleep again for another three hours….

At 915PM I realized I needed some dinner, so went to the Free State Brewery in downtown Lawrence (still a great place for food and beer!) and gobbled up a terrific meal and wandered afterwards into a coffee shop for something to offset the beer….

Which explains why I am here, writing this blog post, wide awake as I emerge from jet lag — I hope it is a productive night for writing….

As for Continental, according to my OnePass records, I have flown a good deal more than 300,000 mile with these folks over the years, and the company has had its ups and downs. Lately, under a new CEO and with the merger with United pending, they seem to be on a downslide that is making it increasingly difficult to maintain any loyalty beyond the mileage rewards…. I am getting to point where flying with anyone but Continental will be my SOP…. Perhaps more on that later….

June 29th, 2010 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

Comparing Beijings….

Read a blog post of a friend of my daughters (Ari Herzog) that has his observations from a trip to China in 2006. Hard to make comparisons, but focussing on his comments about Beijing (the only place we seemed to have both travelled), I would say there has been some changes in four short years — a fact reinforced by comments of my hosts who indicated that the last five years have been somewhat transformative for them personally.

To put things in context, Beijing in 2006 was probably one big construction site in anticipation of the 2008 Olympics. Interestingly, there was not that much construction in Beijing as I can recall, particularly when compared to Wuhan where the building of high rises and infrastructure was substantial — there were construction cranes and street digging at almost every turn. In Beijing most of the construction seemed to be taking place in the old neighborhoods where the ramshackle “houses” (that were hidden behind newly built walls high enough to hide them from street view) are clearly being torn down and replaced.

[In a way the contrast makes sense since the focus in 2006 was on getting Beijing’s reconstruction done by 2008, and I suspect it is now Wuhan (and other cities) turn. In Wuhan I saw industrial parks, clearly high rent high rises and lots of mall spaces going up — and the “ramshackle” there were not being torn down, but rather gutted and given a brick facade. There were bricks stacked high along along the roadsides, and lots of folks working on the various construction tasks.]

Getting back to Ari Herzog’s blog post, he notes that in Beijing he saw government everywhere, and makes note of red fags and state seals. I only saw that around where you would expect it — in the government ring where there are mainly government buildings. In the third and fourth ring I saw little evidence of government, and lots of evidence of retailing. He notes there are guards everywhere, and I agree — but at places where you would expect guards in the US — entrances to parking lots and limited access places like the Renmin campus. I saw none of the “green shirted” military folks until we got to the TSA-like checkpoint for entering Tiananmen Square, and once in the square there was no more evidence of them than you might find around Buckingham Palace. Saw no evidence of weapons as they marched in small group formations to their posts. As for police (clearly marked as such), only saw some around school entrances when classes were being let out — a result of a recent series of odd knife attacks on small children taking place throughout China which no one can quite explain.

If anything, I was shocked that there were not more police or other uniformed folks at major pedestrian crossings where they were sorely needed, (I had to use my New York pedestrian stare-down technique a couple of times, with good result I might add. I finally got use to how Beijing drivers operated, and after two days in Wuhan I concluded that Beijing drivers are much better; but then again, the Wuhan had to deal with “Big Dig” level construction and there was surprise around every corner…)

Ari takes note of street “hawkers” in Beijing, but with exception of food vendors (like the carts in Manhattan) I saw little of that except around the entrances to some tourist sites (e.g. Temple of Heaven; and now that I think of it, not at Summer Palace). I did experience some hawker-like behavior the moment I went into a multistory old mall where there was one floor devoted to jewelry and “craft” type stuff (I was there to find some “jade” stones for spouse who makes her own). Literally hundreds of booths selling stuff, and I got a taste of some really intense bargaining as my host graduate student guide got the price of my purchases from 2400 to 800 — really quite and experience, with lots of shoving of calculators back and forth…

Smog was not problem most days in the part of Beijing I was situated for the visit (across from Renmin) — as it turns out, one side of the city is better than the other in terms of air quality, and my hosts told me that is reflected in rental prices.

The traffic is incredible as Ari mentions, but I expected many more bikes and cart traffic. Cars definitely dominate, especially taxis (quite a few — as it was in Wuhan); and the weaving in and out of traffic makes Manhattan taxi drivers look damn good. Given how they drive, one would expect to see lots of accidents and vehicles with dents — but saw only one minor mishap and not one dented fender or evidence of sideswipe in sight….. Biggest problem as I saw it was the right-turn-on-red which not only did not require a stop, but was typically done at 30 mph at minimum….

Ari does not mention it, but the Beijing subway was quite nice. Oldest line was built in 1968 and has a look similar to DC; more recent subway lines built more like the ones you see in modern airports. I was told that the only part still under construction is an extension of the line from the airport which is already mostly built and operational….

Lots of modern shopping malls, lots of US franchises (KFC is most popular; I spent spare hours at Starbucks, which was next to the Papa Johns pizza and down the row from Subway sandwich shop) and tons of money being spent by shoppers. There was upscale department store near my hotel, and it was definitely aimed at older crowd but was not quite as busy as the mall down the road which was always busy with fairly young shoppers. What is striking is the fashion consciousness of the women, and the sports obsessions (especially NBA) of the males (reflected in their clothing).

Ari makes some comments about the degree of government control of enterprises, and I think that has lightened quite a bit, to the point that one wonders why there is not more interference. While I was there, the news carried a watershed event as a lead story: KFC had reached an agreement with the Labor Federation based on collective bargaining and with no government interference. As I understand it, this was a first for this level of employment and included provisions to assure job security, advancement, and adherence to minimum wage laws. Union-like organizations were not allowed to develop before the current reforms (for fear of the emergence of a Solidarity-like movement that might compete with the Party), and so collective bargaining has never really been part of the system. This KFC deal is a big deal in that regard….

In another news item of historical note, the death of an American expat who had lived and worked on China’s farms since the late 1940s offered a view of how agriculture had changed. Over the years this expat and her husband (also US citizen) had developed a dairy farm with government support that became a model for others; but with the withdrawal of government support from farming in recent years, the farm became part of Kraft Foods — but not until she got commitments about how the farm would be run. The story is more complicated, but that withdrawal of government from the farm and other enterprises I think is really a major change that reflects the current reality, and it turns up in all sorts of narratives about the economic changes over past twenty years….

Then there is the limited internet access and the Google fight. Interestingly, Google Hong Kong (which is where they moved their operations after the fight with the Chinese government) is one of the biggest advertisers on the bus ads and other prominent billboards. Gmail was easy, and even google buzz and my google voice access. Blogspot sites would not be accessed (unless I used my VPN access). Other things were cut off, and there was no way to access Twitter or Facebook — well almost. I am no hacker, by any means, but it did not take long for me to figure out how to access the blocked sites by using VPN and some tools built into my blog site. I could basically access almost any site I tried without those “hacks” (made lots of use of skype); and my impression is that China’s homegrown social media operations are no problem to use — if you read and write Chinese. As is the case everywhere these days, people of sending messages and doing all sorts of other things on their cell phones — which seem to be everywhere….

In short, even assuming the biases of two different observers, the comparisons of Beijing 2006 with Beijing 2010 is striking….

June 22nd, 2010 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

“Someone else’s” art (almost) everyday…”: Sun Shoaqun

Spent the day (Friday — or at least most of it so far) seeing the sights of Wuhan. This is a physically large city — or actually a city comprised of three smaller cities (or districts): Wuchang, Hanyang and Hunkou (thus the Wu-han) that sit at the confluence of the Yangtze and Han Rivers. It is also the capital of Hubei province — and the population is estimated at over 9 million.

First stop was Yellow Crane Tower — definitely a popular tourist stop that provides terrific views of the city as well as a great way to work off that big dinner the night before (quite a climb — although they have an elevator which did not seem to be in use or was reserved for the disabled).

Approaching Yellow Crane Tower, Wuhan China

But it was the next stop that proved the most impressive and surprising. Originally I was being taken to the Hubei Provincial Museum, but when we got there I noticed the Hubei Museum of Art and convinced my graduate student guide to go there first (he did not seem thrilled). As we entered the building we found ourselves in the midst of a major event for the opening of a “Contemporary China France Art View” (?) exhibition. Had to wait until all the speeches were done and news cameras left before being allowed to see the museum, so stopped at a very upscale coffee house in the lobby (more like an upscale lounge than coffee bar) to wait things out.

My little diversion paid dividends, for when we finally got to visit the exhibit and the sculpture collection at the Hubei we found ourselves really impressed. The exhibit was very interesting, with a few of the contributing artists’ work even moreso.

But it was the sculpture collection that was outstanding, and I must have take dozens of photos that I now have to organize.

What to do with these photos? I feel they should be shared, if for no other reason than to give some exposure to contemporary art in China. How to do so? I will steal an idea from my spouse who religiously posts a daily work of her art at randiart.blogspot.com. Her standard is in the the subtitle of her blog: “Art Every Day!” So for at least as long as I have these photos to post, I will do so under the heading: “Someone else’s art (almost) everyday…”

Hard to pick a favorite among those works to start with, but a sculpture titled “Beyond Space and Time” was among the most fascinating….

Habei Museum of Art, Wuchan China

Frontview of Sun Shoaqun: "Beyond Space-Time" (2001)

Habei Museum of Art, Wuchan China

Sideview of Sun Shoaqun: "Beyond Space-Time" (2001)

June 18th, 2010 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

Hats off to White House… and Rep. Barton….

The politics of moral indignation and outrage that served the GOP so well for the past year is now coming back to bite them in the butt. When I woke this AM in Wuhan, my email box was filled with energized and inspired messages from pro-Democratic organizations that amounted to “war room” level responses that James Carville would be proud of.

In the meantime, saw clip of Carville who is still in irrational rant mode trying to stir the Dems in the White House to action. I think he is getting his wish, but it makes me nervous to see this type of mobilization of public outrage being the basis of policy action on the Dem side. That said, that may be the price to pay to sustain a Democratic majority in the House. If the GOP keeps up its blunders (who is advising these folks?) and the Dems maintain the “war room” operation, there might be a chance for a mid-term that is not quite as damaging as original predicted for the Obama agenda.

In talking about the Gulf crisis here in China (I am at Wuhan University at the moment), I made the point that the presidential initiative was in fact a politically brilliant and legally necessary move. With that $75 million set in law, BP had the luxury of saying that it will take care of all legitimate claims, but then back off in the long run and assert that they had in fact far exceeded their legal obligation. However, we all know it is not the legal obligation that is in question, but BP’s moral obligation, and the escrow account strategy rooted in the presidential power to use the “bully pulpit” (an extreme form the the “power to persuade”) was an effective way of legally grounding BP’s responsibility.

Hats off to the White House policy wonk who came up with this strategy — and hats off as well to Representative Barton who magnified its political benefits for the Democrats.

June 17th, 2010 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

Policy vs program accountability — a paradox?

This morning read a piece from a journal and received an email request that hit on similar subjects — and got me thinking….

The article is a 2008 piece by Reva Jaffe-Walter in The TCRecord (http://www.tcrecord.org/content.asp?contentid=15181) focussing on strategic approaches used by a network of NYC educators to contend with the “external demands of accountability policies” that ran counter to their professional interests and concerns.

Bottom line is a distinction between program accountability and policy accountability.

In order to have a professional impact on state educational standards applied to the performance of immigrant youth, a network of interested educators had to focus on changing and challenging the policies in order to succeed. Efforts to make changes once the program gets underway prove less fruitful. Interesting observation which leads to author to suggest that policy-level accountability systems are as important and necessary as program-level accountability. In fact, program-level accountability is more difficult to penetrate by those who find that they are being unintentionally and adversely impacted by policy enforcement.

The email (by sheer coincidence, delivered on the same day as the access to the TCRecord article) was a request to consider serving as an expert in a legal case involving a social program designed to protect victims of domestic violence from further harm by providing them new identities (similar to — but quite different from — witness protection programs used by law enforcement). I don’t know much beyond the general description offered by the sender (and I am now mulling over the request), but it seems that there are flaws in the implementation of the policy (i.e., the program) that have made the intended beneficiaries vulnerable to a number adverse legal consequences (e.g., charges of identity fraud, etc.). The response of the program administrators (according to the email) is that the problems are the fault of the individuals who did not follow the requirements of the program, and that there is nothing they can do since the program’s standards and procedures are clear and consistent. I assume their logic is that they have established and implemented a program consistent with the policy, and if there is a problem it is with the policy and not with the program. Therefore, if someone finds themselves in trouble as a result of the policy, there is nothing the program folks can (or will) do. Policy flaws, in short, are not regarded as grounds for an administrative (program-level) challenge.

I am still trying to wrap my mind around this, but it seems to indicate a basic dilemma (a paradox?) in the logic of administrative accountability. If, as often seems desirable, we seek to have programs that are tightly designed to be administratively accountable, those accountability mechanisms can (and perhaps have, in this and other cases) become an arbitrary defense that program administrators can mobilize against claims that the program is in fact causing unintentional secondary hardships. If there is a problem, they would respond, it is with the policy and there is nothing they can do because they are only carrying out their legal and lawful repsonsibilities (a Nuremburg defense?)….

The TCRecord article drew attention to the strategic options that come from this dilemma — if you want program change, do it at the policy level (which leads the author to call for greater concern for building accountability systems into the policy level). For the emailer who is dealing with a specific case in which the hardship has already occured, the ideal solution would be for the program officials (and designers) to come forth and admit that the charges against the individual were a consequence of a flaw in the program derived from a flaw in the policy — thus allowing an effective defense of the legal charges against the individual.

Like I said, I am still mulling over whether I can be of any help here; I am reluctant to assume the role of “expert” in any technical sense, especially if the facts do not play out as briefly describe in the email. But the dilemma/paradox itself seems to make sense….

June 12th, 2010 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

Still another Beijing visit post

Once again from Beijing — and again from the Starbucks…. After a couple of days of much walking (and climbing) the usual tourist spots, I’ve decided to take the day off to do ‘some work’ — and throw in a blog or two along the way.

Yesterday was touring mixed with lecturing mixed with another dinner out with Renmin and American colleagues. The touring included Tian’amen Square (via subway), the Temple of Heaven, and some shopping for jade beads for Randi (which included some interesting bargaining on my behalf by our student guides). At the Svaras and I parted company since I had to lecutre an undergraduate class at 2PM (they went on to a planning museum — which sounded fascinating), and along the way grabbed a “meal” from a cart located near the hotel that was always busy. With assistance of student guide selected some items that I got to eat on-the-go during the rest of the afternoon — very tasty, although besides some seaweed and noonle-like mushrooms, I have no idea what I ate.

The lecture got some reaction from students, but clearly they found both the content and my English tough going. The facial expressions said it all….

The evening meal was at a Mongolian Restaurant in another part of the city (where the embassies are), and it started with an unplanned two-hour commute via car during rush hour. The air quality in the other part of Beijing is really different — and someone noted that this is a reason that rentals near Renmin are more expensive that in the western(?) part of the city. Traffic was crawling (literally) along — and a drive that took 20 minutes when we returned to our hotel later extended to two hours (we did get a bit lost since this restaurant was not a main street — had to get there through hotel driveay and parking lot…).

Skyscraper after skyscraper, unique architectural specimens ranging from traditional to modern, wall off area after walled off area…. I said it before: Interesting city.

The meal itself was terrific, and special performances and rituals were conducted for our entertainment (we were so late that there were few folks left in the restaurant).

I put my new camera to good use throughout the day….

June 12th, 2010 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

Ravitch-ing accountability

Back at the Starbucks a few blocks (and one dangerous crosswalk) from Renmin to go over my notes for tomorrows lecture on “Fishing in the accountability stream.” Also reading Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, and while I am enjoying the message of her conversion from supporter to notable critic of No Child Left Behind policy (first reaction: what took her so long!), I do have some qualms about her view of accountability (of course I would…).

For Ravitch, the problem is one of too much “accountability” and too little substance (i.e., curriculum content), but it does not take too close of a reading to discover that for her accountability equals performance measurement.

What was once the [curriculum] standards movement was replaced by the accountability movement. What was once an effort to improve the quality of education turned into an accounting strategy. Measure, then punish or reward. No education experience was needed to administer such a program. Anyone who loved data could do it. The strategy produced fear and obedience among educators; it often generated higher test scores. But it had nothing to do with education. (p. 16)

Could not agree more — except for the fact that the accountability movement had little to do with accountability. The synonymic and culturally iconic nature of the concept of accountability is its curse in this case and others, and I may be engage in a hopeless effort by emphasizing the misuse of the term when it comes to politics and public policy. Nevertheless, I continue to enter such fruitless battles….

The emergence of “accountability” as a “keyword” in our political rhetoric is a relatively recent development. By “keyword,” I am not referring to a “tagline” on some blog post or subject classification scheme, but rather the idea that certain words have become such mirrors of their usage within a (political or policy) culture that their technical or original meaning has been lost in the translation.

Accountability, with its etymological roots in French and its historical roots in English (first OED cite is in 13th century), was a “term of art” related to the governance of Britain. It is a rather detailed story I am fond of repeating in my writing, but the bottom line is that Norman rule was grounded in the process of rendering subject account-able and developing an administrative system of governance based on that basic act. Accountability, therefore, made you governable by holding you to account (e.g., responsible, obliged, liable) for your actions related to the governor’s (legitimate) claim on such acts. Accountability, in short, is a governable condition — initially applied to royal subjects, then to the governors themselves and ultimate to all agents involved in the governance process.

Overtime, however — and especially as the Anglo-American form of governance became the dominant global model (I guess the term “hegemonic” is relevant here) — the condition of being account-able became synonymous with the means applied to accountable individuals and entities. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that Ravitch and others see no difference between accountability and measurement — especially so-called “performance” measurement. But it isn’t accountability that is to blame, but the view that being account-able is equivalent to having the results of your actions being measure-able.

Perhaps I am making much out of very little, but it is important that we not “throw out the baby with the bath water.” Account-ability and policies that foster it may in fact hold considerable promise as a means for improving education and solving other collective problems. Put otherwise, we ought to focus on designing programs that promote accountability for performance rather than attempt to achieve performance through so-called accountability. I think Ravitch overplays the solution that we need to focus more on content than measurement, for just developing standards for content is a half-step. Instilling a sense of accountability for advancing those standards should be part of the project as well. I think she would find this compatible with her major point in the new book — I just wish there was more attention and care given to the wording of the critique….

June 10th, 2010 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

More on Beijing…

A few hours have passed and I have since been talking with colleagues at Renmin University about academic publishing, etc — and warned them they take my advice at their own risk. I forgot to mention that I was posting that entry from a Starbucks located near the hotel, which is probably another factor in making this city feel so much like any city in the US — except cannot take my “Starbucks card” for payment. (I was in Newcastle UK about two or three weeks ago and it was accepted at all the S-bucks — a fact that even surprised the baristas there. Here they won’t even try since the card swiping is set up so differently…)

Back to my point (if I had one), i.e. the familiar feel of this Beijing neighborhood…. As I read my last post again, I realized one of the countries I left out of my list of places traveled was Israel — perhaps the country I felt least comfortable in. It is tough to get use to walking streets where folks in civilian garb are carrying assault weapons over their shoulders, and where the level of suspicion is so think in the air that you cut sense it everywhere. Other countries I’ve been to also had somewhat of an “garrison state” feel to them — at minimum there was always a heavy sense of police presence and surveillance even in the UK (those CCTV cameras were everywhere, whether we are talking London or Belfast — and they weren’t just for the auto speeders…). I think I expected the same here — or perhaps even more so given the images we’ve had of protests in Chinese cities and the treatment of reporters, etc.

Coming back to the hotel, however, I realized that was what was missing — the only sign on any kind of police or military presence are the uniformed folks who guard the gates at the University or shopping mall parking lots. I may be under constant surveillance, no doubt, but there is a notable lack of authoritative presence in the streets here. (As I cross some wide streets where cars are indifferent to pedestrians and cyclists, I wished there was some authoritative figures out there enforcing some rules. Seems the taxi drivers might have trained in Manhattan, but the typical pedestrian has yet to develop the assertiveness of the New Yorker….)

Tomorrow is a free day — nothing scheduled until a lecture at 4PM on Friday — and I plan to do plenty of walking about. Will try to fit in the normal touristy things (Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, etc.), but really looking forward to heading around more neighborhoods aways from the University to see whether my impressions hold up….

June 9th, 2010 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

The familiar “feel” of Beijing….

I was a late starter when it came to international travel, but since my first (non-Canadian) trip around 1994 I have accumulated quite a few passport notations: Panama, France, Brazil, South Korea, Japan (including Okinawa), Australia, Austria, the UK (esp two years in Northern Ireland), Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Netherlands, Belgium, Mexico — and I might be missing a location or two.

The current trip to China (I am now in Beijing and will visit Xiamen and Wuhan before returning home) is perhaps among the most interesting not because it is the most exotic I’ve taken, but rather because it the most “familiar” (i.e., western; almost American). The architecture, cars, the fashions, the chatter (that which I can understand) — all seem very comfortable. I may be in a strange land, but I hardly feel like a stranger….

Maybe it is a matter of location (I am in what is called the “3rd ring” of Beijing — the 1st being the Forbidden City, etc, and the 2nd being major government offices), but this is by far the most visibly “middle class” setting I’ve visited outside the US. Yes, it is the location of a major university (I am staying across the road from Renmin University), but it is also residential and commercial — as in many modern and very familiar stores and shopping malls.

It is hard to describe, but even though there are as many bicyclists and street vendors I expected, they are part and parcel of a bustling urban dynamic the includes mass transit, major thoroughfares, neighborhoods lined with shops of every sort, and auto traffic that far exceeds what I expected. I cam expecting a Third World city in transition — but I entered a world class city that seems to be very comfortable with whatever changes have (and might) occur.

Maybe it was the “cleanup” for the 2008 Olympics that can account for the modernized and up-to-date Beijing that I am seeing, but in conversations with folks in their twenties and thirties it is clear that the social and economic transformation has been massive and quick. One noted that when she was a child, her family were constantly preoccupied with the price of basics — food and shelter — but that now her parents and she are more focused on the concern of all middle class folks on amenities, lifestyle and status. It is far more than a physical transformation — it is deeply social and cultural…..

Maybe a few more days of walking around will lead to a change of mind. But at the moment I have to say that I am very impressed….

(PS: This is also a terrific way to go cold turkey in re Twitter and Facebook — no access, and you can definitely sense that there are walls up all around the internet….)

June 9th, 2010 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments