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Cross Pressures of Accountability: Initiative, Command, and Failure in the Ron Brown Plane Crash

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Abstract

Contemporary political rhetoric and management reforms have highlighted accountability issues for government. A troubling feature associated with these management reforms is a gap between the expectations of management reform and the reality of the American culture of accountability. This culture gap is likely to be particularly evident in organizations that are structured around principles of command and control, such as the military. This article explores the cross pressures individuals face when they are urged to demonstrate initiative and obedience to command while operating within a web of accountability relationships that represent several different behavioral standards against which their performance can be judged.

To conduct this research, the authors interviewed members of the Accident Investigation Board appointed by Major General Ryan, Commander of the United States Air Force Europe (USAFE), to investigate the April 1996 crash in Croatia of the military transport plane carrying United States Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown and his party of distinguished visitors. These personal interviews were supplemented with the official reports of the Accident Investigation Board and transcripts of testimony before the Board. Based on these data, we analyze the accountability dynamics involving the various military officials associated with the “mishap flight.” We find that while institutional rhetoric and managerial conditions encouraged entrepreneurial behavior and initiative, the administrative reality still emphasized a risk-averse, rules-oriented approach to accountability when things went wrong.

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