Responsible vs. Accountable

Responsible vs. Accountable

Question from the Peanut Gallery:

Q: In technical writing, a lot of times I have seen people use the words “responsibility” and “accountability” interchangeably. Do they mean the same thing? A number of times I have seen phrases such as: “We will be fully responsible for whatever happens if we use this material versus that.” Shouldn’t the proper word be “accountable” instead of responsible? 

A: To answer your question, let me point out a commonly used business tool called the RACI chart.

R = Responsible = those who do the work to achieve a task

A = Accountable = those to whom the Responsible parties report (their boss)

C = Consulted = those whose opinions are sought for discussion

I = Informed = those who are kept up to date with results

 (For more info on RACI charts, visit http://www.pmforum.org/library/tips/pdf_files/RACI_R_Web3_1.pdf )

As an example, in the most unfortunate Deepwater Horizon / Macondo situation going on in the Gulf of Mexico, drilling contractor Transocean was responsible for drilling the well (doing), while the lessee BP is accountable for the cleanup (approver and legal liability entity).

In the example you suggested, “accountable” would be preferred, as it suggests liability for a violated obligation, according to Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary.

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