Essay: The concept of accountability in the public sector

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The concept of accountability in the public sector stems from the use of delegated authorities where the supervisor holds the subordinate accountable, and this evolves into a principle of ‘democratic chain of delegation’ where citizens hold executives accountable (Strom, 2000). While the meaning of accountability has been broadened to normative and value-laden domains, its framework has been developed in the specific context of New Public Management (NPM) reforms. This led to the framework focusing too narrowly on “managerial accountability,” which, on the other hand, stimulates considerable intellectual efforts aimed at building up complementary work for public accountability to fill the gap between the concept and its framework. 
Under the umbrella of NPM, financial accountability has been a prominent concept among different areas of accountability. Due to its inclination toward quantitative terms and toward the principles of economy, efficiency, and output, the new arrangements for financial accountability, such as business-like accounting and performance-based budgetary systems, were particularly well promoted under the NPM regime. At the same time, however, the conceptual and analytical base for financial accountability has been relatively weak and far more skewed by NPM-specific perspectives. For this reason, the framework of financial accountability remains highly dependent on a broad outline of accountability. Its weak framework leads to unproductive controversy over the concept, also seriously impairing the ability to provide practical guidance on governance. Thus, this paper aims to develop a strong foundation that can serve to enrich the dimensions of financial accountability and can provide a systematic and critical evaluation of the related literature.

One important but rarely explained issue is the lack of a long time view. The reasons for this can be divided into two. First, with regard to overall accountability, most of the complementary frameworks for managerial accountability have developed dichotomous category pairs which cross-sect the concept, thereby neglecting the longitudinal dimension. Second, with regard to democratic accountability, analytical frameworks have not been fully developed to mold future citizens into the understandings of political representation that has been shaped by public values. To sum up, the long-term perspective has not been well formulated with regard to accountability and financial accountability, and therefore, further work is needed to address questions concerning the neglected time dimension and neglected future citizens in their frameworks.

This paper is organized as follows. Section 2 provides an overview of the evolution of the concepts of accountability and financial accountability. In Section 3, I review the conceptual frameworks on accountability and their dichotomous attributes in order to explain how the time dimension was overlooked with regard to the two concepts. Section 4 analyzes the trends in analytical frameworks for democratic accountability and describes how future citizens were excluded from democratic accountability. This section also includes practical implications based on a systematic review of the literature. Section 5 concludes.


2-1. From financial accounting to managerial accountability

The nature of financial accountability is deeply embedded in its origin from the word “accounting.” The term is supposed to be derived from the stem “count” with the added prefix “ac” and suffix “ing.” From this standpoint, “accounting” stems primarily from two components: the root word, “count,” which means “[to] reckon money received and paid,” and the suffix “ing,” which indicates “describing the act or consequences of the action.” Dubnick (2002: 7-9) noted that the concept of accountability had emerged as a form of “institutionalized accountability” in which the agents (i.e., property holders) were required to render a count of what they possessed in the realm of principal (i.e., the king). Thus, in its original meaning, ‘accountability’ was closer in meaning to the modern word “accounting” or “bookkeeping,” which suggests a record of financial information (Bovens, 2006: 6).

The meaning of accountability has completely changed over time. First, based on the end-means continuum, the term implies more than just a means. It has begun to become a fundamental requirement of good governance, which is closely connected to the ultimate end of government. This leads the term to encompass numerous public values such as “transparency, equity, efficiency, responsiveness, responsibility, and integrity” (Nabatchi et al., 2015: 139). Second, the accounting relationship has completely reversed from account-taking to account-giving (Bovens, 2006). Accountability now refers to “the authorities themselves who are being held accountable by their citizens” rather than “sovereigns holding their subjects to account” (Bovens, 2006: 6).

The conceptual shift from financial accounting to “public accountability” was aligned with the rise of the accountability movement away from the traditional public administration model to the NPM model. As a result, the actual shift was from a notion of financial accounting to a broader notion of “management accountability,” but the new concept was narrow in scope as it referred primarily to inspection, audit, evaluation, and assessment (Tilbury, 2006). This change brought about two major problems. First, “public accountability” was used interchangeably with “management accountability.” Consequently, accountability in NPM agendas was often misused as “both an instrument and a goal” (Bovens, 2006: 7). Even though the concept of management accountability was more likely to mean instruments effective at addressing the problems of public governance, it has, over time, been used to represent a norm of good governance. While the focus of NPM was mainly on accountability “mechanisms” as policy instruments and tools, its accountability was often mistakenly seen as a “virtue.” Second, the concept of “public accountability” has often been overlooked and has rarely garnered attention. In addition, as much attention was paid to managerial accountability at the concrete level, the abstract role of the account-giving mechanism carried out by the actor was also discussed to infrequently (Dubnick and Frederickson, 2011).

2-2. From accountability to financial accountability

The concept of accountability is relatively straightforward in the financial sphere because it shares some common ground with its linguistic origin—accounting. Behn (2001: 7) stated that “it is not surprising that the most obvious form of accountability focuses on financial accounting—on how the books are kept and how the money is spent.” Governments that have embraced NPM ideas have sought to improve financial accounting standards and reporting forms, an act broadly regarded as an attempt to enhance accountability. However, since the interpretation of accountability was more straightforward and definite on the financial side, discussion of its definition was often dismissed or ignored. As a result, the literature concerning financial accountability lacks a widely accepted definition in which scholars suggest various definitions that fit in their own specific work. In most cases, the broad definition for accountability that encompasses several areas serves as a portion of the narrower definition for financial accountability.

By exploring various definitions in scholarly works, government agencies, and non-profit organizations, I found three distinct ways to define the term. First, some define financial accountability as ‘maintaining individual accountability in a financial process,’ or ‘the obligation of an individual or organization to account for its financial activities.’ These definitions give more weight to the person or organization to be held accountable, and consider finances as specific work assigned to them. Second, some of the definitions highlight features related to accountability mechanisms. In this case, financial accountability is often defined as ‘a means of ensuring that public money has been used in a responsible and productive way,’ ‘holding accountable for the way money is used and managed,’ ‘compliance with legality and regularity of financial accounts,’ and so on. Behn’s (2001: 7) definition of “accountability for finances” will fall into this category as being characterized by a lot of “rules, procedures, and standards.” Third, few cases define the
term from the perspective of virtue-based accountability or political accountability. This includes definitions such as ‘accountability for the use of public money and stewardship of financial resources,’ and ‘holding accountable to various stakeholders for properly managing the funds they receive.’ From this, one can infer that the skewed attention toward management accountability is also reflected in the definition of financial accountability, as the concept relates directly to the discourse of accountability.


3-1. Conceptual frameworks on accountability

Scholars in public administration endeavor to provide a conceptual framework for understanding the concept of accountability. They have attempted to delineate boundaries between multiple domains embedded in the concept. The accumulated knowledge of intellectuals can be summarized as a recurring tension between two major dimensions of accountability—accountability-as-mechanism and accountability-as-virtue. This dichotomous nature traces back to the classic debate between Herman Finer and Carl Friedrich, which is often noted as a defining moment that served to shape and develop the notion of accountability. Through a lens of dichotomous splits, such opposing views were driven not only by different concepts of accountability, but also by different beliefs about the relationship among elected officials, public administrators, and the public in democratic governance.

Administrative responsibility and political accountability

Finer assumed a closed relationship between administrators and the public in which the preferences and priorities of the public is provided only through the elected, representative institutions. This implies that Finer (1941: 419) views administrative responsibility as being responsible to “the declared or clearly deducible intention of the representative assembly,” which lies in the relationship between the executive and legislative branches that contributes to the balance of powers in a democratic society.

Friedrich, however, advocated for administrators to assume a role that necessitate their open and direct interaction with the public. Switching the attention from the institutional contexts to individual behaviors and attitudes, he perceived accountability in behavioral terms and focused on ethical behaviors of administrators and their discretion in the broader public interest. In his view, since “politics and administration play a continuous role in both formulation and execution” (Friedrich, 1940: 6), the key relationship of accountability was between public administrators and their constituents, not constrained by representative institutions. This corresponds to what Romzek and Dubnick (1987: 229) termed “political accountability,” with the potential constituents including “the general public, elected officials, agency heads, agency clientele, other special interest groups, and future generations.” However, some authors put more emphasis on the direct relationship with the general public among various constituents because the special interests of interest groups expressed through elected officials were seen to confound public administrators’ policy decisions or actions (Dunn and Legge, 2001: 80).

Accountability-as-mechanism and accountability-as-virtue

Their debate has been a recurring theme in the modern debate that focuses on the definition and dimension of different concepts of accountability. Finer defined accountability, in a narrow, descriptive sense, as an obligation to comply with imposed institutional relation or arrangements such as laws, rules, procedures, and standards. His focus was less on an obligation of public administrators and more on the way in which the relation or arrangements operate to ensure administrative responsibility. This corresponds to a series of terms, including “passive accountability (Bovens, 1998),” “accountability-as-answerability (Tetlock, 1985),” “accountability mechanisms (Bovens, 2010),” or “ex post facto accountability (Bovens, 2007),” which suggest that administrators are passively held answerable by the mechanisms that are applied retroactively to their conduct. The pattern associated with these frameworks is potentially grounded in Finer’s (1941: 350) notion of administrative responsibility, which “require[s] public and political control and direction.” Bovens (2007) identified the three phases of these mechanisms in practice and condensed them into his definition of accountability as “a relationship between an actor and a forum, in which the actor has an obligation to explain and justify his or her conduct, the forum can pose questions and pass judgment, and the actor may face consequences” (Bovens, 2007: 450).

The other side of accountability, in a broader, normative sense, stems from Friedrich’s characterization of accountability. Accountability in this broad sense comes close to ‘a sense of individual responsibility,’ ‘a positive quality in public organizations or officials,’ and ‘a willingness to behave responsibly and responsively.’ Bovens (1998; 2010) emphasized the evaluative dimensions of accountability and termed this “active responsibility” and “responsibility-as-virtue” because it refers to a set of norms that proactively guide the behaviors of public actors who take internal accountability for their active, every-moment practices of public policy. The concept means more than mere compliance with executive orders and legislation; rather, it embraces the multiple expectations, values, and perceptions of various stakeholders. Romzek and Dubnik (1987) provided an example of a broader definition of accountability by suggesting that “public administration accountability involves the means by which public agencies and their workers manage the diverse expectations generated within and outside the organization” (Romzek and Dubnick, 1987: 228).

Managerial accountability and public accountability

The conceptual framework between political and administrative responsibilities has been central to addressing different sorts of issues, standards, frameworks, and analytical dimensions in the two distinct types of accountability (Bovens, 2010). It also greatly contributed to our understanding of such multifaceted umbrella term. The broader concept of political accountability in comparison with the narrower meaning of administrative responsibility has created a wider scope with regard to constituency and heightened strong ethical values such as responsiveness, inclusiveness, and equity. In this regard, political accountability can be interpreted as ‘public accountability’ of the bureaucracy to citizens in a web of “mutual and collective [democratic] responsibility” (Behn, 2001: 125). On the other hand, ‘managerial accountability’ can be understood as “the managerial form of [administrative] accountability,” which refers to the answerability to NPM-driven management structures and institutional mechanisms (Afzal and Considine, 2015: 47).

Applying the analytical distinction between vertical and horizontal dimensions of political accountability (O’Donnell, 1998), a broader sense of accountability—political accountability—sheds light on the vertical scope in which citizens and civil society organizations participate in exacting moral accountability, which is distinct from horizontal accountability—administrative responsibility—exercised through a hierarchical system of checks and balances. While the concept of public accountability widens the scope of political accountability to accountability in democratic networked governance, the context-dependent concept of managerial accountability narrows the scope of administrative responsibility, which excludes non-NPM institutional responsibility. However, all of these frameworks belong to the static domain without time dimension, which actually turns out to
be dynamic.

3-2. Neglected time dimension

While a set of frameworks complement and build on each other, the delineation of the concept focuses heavily on vertical versus horizontal dimensions in a time-sliced fashion. That is, time dimension in accountability has not been of primary importance. However, it is worth noting that the time dimension is closely interrelated with a series of conceptual distinctions made in previous literature, and it may cover complementary aspects of the question concerning two sequential lines represented by administrative responsibility versus political accountability.

First, the positioning of accountability actors depends on the time dimension. Civil servants usually have longer terms to serve the public interest over the long term. At the same time, they are responsible to the elected representatives of the public who tend to have “a limited time horizon” and “prefer policies that yield tangible benefits for constituents in the near term” (Posner, 2004: 137). For this reason, the priorities expressed by elected officials may be far more related to short-term issues and temporal problems instead of long-term solutions, whereas the long-lasting forms of civil service personnel would prioritize sustainable solutions to secure a long-term perspective of the citizens, both current and in the future.

Second, the time frame is essential to distinguishing between two main streams of accountability. Accountability mechanisms focus predominantly on retroactive accountability for the past outcomes, while accountability as a virtue takes a proactive approach to ensuring ethical behaviors in the future. The timeline is also useful to distinguishing between ex ante accountability of the decision-making process leading up to the decision and ex post accountability where the results available from the decision already taken or where questions of compliance are identified and addressed. In other words, ex ante accountability refers to being accountable for the decision before an administrator act, while ex post accountability is suggestive of situations where administrators are accountable for the outcome of their decisions. For example, the focus of traditional bureaucratic administration is very much on input-oriented legitimacy before the implementation of the policy (Scharpf, 1999). In contrast, the development of an accountability mechanism in the NPM reforms has greatly relied on ex post results-oriented mechanisms.

Third, the time horizon determines the availability between accountability mechanisms and accountability virtue enhancement. A formal mechanism of accountability requires short-term results as it depends largely on clarity of measurable standards of performance with clearly defined roles and consequences. However, in many situations, the lag between decisions or actions and their ultimate effects introduces problems of risk and uncertainty (Mashaw, 2014). The longer the time horizon, the less accurate such a mechanism becomes. On the contrary, the normative realm of accountability is well suited for the evaluation of problems of uncertainty in continuous time. As a normative guideline, it can repeat itself beyond one dimension of time and accumulate over time.

Neglected time dimension in accountability and financial accountability

Given that short-term dimension of accountability is prone to administrative responsibility, accountability-as-mechanism, and managerial accountability, the absence of time dimension has undervalued the importance of virtue-based accountability and public/democratic accountability. This can be explained by two decades of NPM-style reforms that emphasize “short-term focus on securing measurable improvements in operational efficiency” (Ferlie, 2017: 14). NPM sought to push “results-based and new market forms of accountability” through increasing regulation and monitoring of the contractors and replacing politics with market-based mechanisms (Benish, 2014: 262).

Not surprisingly, the neglect of a long-term ethical approach has been particularly obvious with regard to financial accountability. The above discussion implies that the concept of financial accountability is now framed as covering only the short-term use of public money and responsiveness to the citizen as customer or consumer. Further, since financial information regarding outcomes or objectives was relatively straightforward and inclined to compliance/accountability mechanisms, few avenues were open to the discussion of moral virtues and values in terms of finances. Only a limited set of norms, such as austerity, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness, has been mentioned. The audit and report instruments were preferred for the financial information as they exercise accountability “through control or ex post” rather than “through scrutiny or ex ante” (Lastra and Shams, 2000: 7). Several methods exist to address uncertainties and risks involved with long time horizons, such as compound interest rates and the time value of money, also devoted to the dominant usage of managerial accountability mechanisms in the public finance sector.

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