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Accountability Challenges in 21st Century Governance

ASPA's Founders' Forum Fellows pose together during the 2012 ASPA National Conference in Las Vegas.

Washington, DC–ASPA’s student members are the heart of the organization. Their development is a key priority, at ASPA, since they will be the ones to lead us into the future. Our charge now, is to support their development. To this end, ASPA continued its tradition of offering the Founders Forum Fellowship Program. In addition to the benefits the students receive from the program, ASPA has linked the fellows with Senior ASPA Members (both practitioners and academics) who are leaders in an area of interest to the fellow and it has revised the way in which the fellows engage ASPA and experience their membership.

One of the changes to the program, was requiring the students to tackle a contemporary issue within the field by addressing it in a paper to be presented at the 2012 ASPA Annual Conference at a special discussion circle session, “The 2012 Founders’ Forum Fellows Critical Issues in Public Administration Exchange: A Series of Discussion Circles.” The students were required to write an essay (fitting one of the topics below) that demonstrates analytical rigor and critical thinking by specifically framing the issues, citing actual cases and using empirical data to cultivate positive discussion about how we, as a field, can address the issues identified.

The topics for discussion were:

  • Strategies for Improving the PA “Brand” in an Anti-Government Culture
  • Innovative Ways of Dealing with the Fiscal Crisis in State and Local Government
  • Accountability Challenges in 21st Century Governance
  • The Open Government Initiative

In case you missed this segment at the conference or wanted to provide some feedback about a specific paper discussed at this segment, we are publishing the complete papers here at PA TIMES Online during the month of May. The papers will appear in alphabetical order, with two papers posted each week until all 14 are online.

Constructive comments and responses to the papers are encouraged as they will help our young scholars develop their craft. You can submit your comments directly to the scholar at their email address listed below each article. You can also continue the discussion by clicking on Post A Comment below each article.

We hope you enjoy this papers and encourage you to support our young scholars.


Galia Cohen

In a special issue of the Public Administration Review on “Public Organizations of the Future,” scholars overwhelmingly agreed that accountability is the most prominent challenge of the century (e.g., Wise 2010, Khademian 2010, Yanow 2010). The concept of accountability is probably as old as society. The literature is sprawling with scholars contemplating on the question of what accountability means and how it can be defined. Traditionally, accountability pertains to management controls mechanisms implemented to ensure that government services and activities meet the expectations of constituents (Posner 2004).

Nonetheless, regardless of the rich discussion in the literature, accountability is more than just a philosophical reflection. It is a cornerstone of democratic society. Public organizations in the 21st century operate in different environments than before. Their environments are more open, more turbulent, and continuously subject to changes (Ingraham and Rubaii-Barrett 2007). In addition, under the influence of new public management, public administrators are now viewed as entrepreneurs in an increasingly privatized government (Denhardt and Vinzant-Denhardt. 2000). The purpose of this essay is to explain how these changes have manifested to become the two major challenges threatening public-sector accountability in 21st century: “values drift” and “goals drift.”

Perhaps the main reason that accountability has become such a significant challenge is due to the fundamental shift in public administration core values. Many public organizations today emphasize results-oriented organizational culture and value the production of results above all. According to Wise (2010), public organizations are going through a hybridization process. The process involves adopting businesslike practices and values related to production. This values drift is strongly associated with management reforms in the vein of new public management (NPM). The spur of values such as, the attainment of fast and frugal results, production pressure, and “can-do” attitudes is fundamental to the decrease in government accountability (Schwartz and Sulitzeanu-Kenan 2004).

A person does not need to go too far back in history to find an example of the insidiousness of organizational cultures that emphasize results over other values. The global financial crisis of 2007-2008, which many economists consider the largest financial crisis since the great depression of the 1930s (Carmassi, et. al. 2009), was clearly preceded by a period where such exclusionary value sets were dominant. In fact, in a report issued in 2011, the Senate concluded, “the crisis was not a natural disaster, but the result of high risk, complex financial products; undisclosed conflicts of interest; and the failure of regulators, the credit rating agencies, and the market itself to rein in the excesses of Wall Street” (U.S Senate 2011; 1). The repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act (1999), and consequently, the lax credit terms given by banks with tacit approval of the Federal Reserve, made government regulators oblivious to the excessive risk-taking behaviors, which ultimately cost the American taxpayers $700 billion (Carmassi et al 2009). The banks’ use of federal subsidies to escape accountability and the government’s fixation upon results precipitated the largest, most costly financial crisis of the new century – exemplifying the dangers to accountability as a result of “values drift.”

Another major challenge to accountability flows directly from public organizations’ heavy reliance on third party contractors. Johnson, et. al. (2004) described government contracting as the “mechanism through which government can benefit from the efficiencies inherent in private markets” (Johnston, et. al. 2004; 155). Wise (2010) observed that as agencies become more and more involved with private businesses in pursuit of their national goals, they are themselves demonstrating increased “privateness” in their tendencies (Wise 2010).

Indeed, multiple traditional government functions nowadays are being performed by third parties, what have been characterized as a shadow government (Guttman and Willner 1976). Private companies increasingly provide services for agencies from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) that relies on contractors for more than 90 percent of its work (Johnston et al 2004), to other local and state agencies that use contractors as their primary social-service providers. Even the mission of defending the nation’s borders has been expanded beyond the Pentagon to other players (Posner 2004). In fact, Light’s (2001) research suggests that “the true size of the federal workforce is not 1.8 million as the federal government’s figures portray, but rather nearly 17 million when the various private and public employee who work on federal programs in other sectors are counted.” (Posner 2004; 2).

Several accountability challenges are associated with the blurring boundaries between the public and the private sectors and the shift towards hybrid configurations. The first problem is diffusion of the political authority. Contractors usually have their own bases of power and hierarchical structure, which may lead to incompliance and conflicting goals and interests. In particular, contractors might hold greater influential voice in the policy-making process since they have greater financial means and fewer interests to pursue (Posner 2004).

Second, by collaborating with external providers, government contributes to the establishment of monopolies. Competition on a specific product or service becomes limited and providers enjoy the public image of being recognized as monopolistic authority by the government. A good example is of defense contractors whose expertise producing weapons for the government affords them a superior market position (Posner 2004). Even more worrisome is this circumstance prevents the government from using its ultimate enforcement weapon; that is, the cutting off funds, since taking such actions might disrupt the nation’s economy and jeopardize the public’s welfare. This is well illustrated in the case of Blackwater. The government’s difficulties to take actions against its largest security contractor’s overbilling, and overuse of power accusations, demonstrate a good example of accountability challenges government is facing when dealing with contractors (Government Accountability project, 2011).

Evidently, creative service arrangements, such as, contracting out, public-private partnerships, and privatizations pose a risk of “goals drift” in government. If contractors do not share the same interests as government, they can undermine the achievement of national goals (Johnston, et. al. 2004). Goal incongruence is a critical barrier to maintaining accountability in government. Khademian (2010) referred to it as the lack of “purposeful organizations.” She argued that where there is no common purpose accountability cannot be exercised in a flexible and decentralized way. This problem is even more difficult when contractors are motivated by opportunism–for the mere purpose of securing government funds. A prominent example of this is healthcare providers that exploit Medicaid by submitting reimbursement claims for services that are not provided or medically necessary (Posner 2004).

“Government accountability depends on giving an account as well as on being held to account” (Hondeghorn 1998). However, as government’s services are provided by private rather than public organizations, mixed motives and diffused responsibilities become prominent challenges to accountability. Nonetheless, it is important to note that the purpose of this essay is not to disparage NPM and public-private collaborations. Third parties provide important benefits and they expend the government’s reach beyond the realm of its traditional national authority (Posner 2004).

Light (2001) wrote: “the shadow of government clearly changes the nature of accountability” (p.166). Perhaps the “challenge of the century” for both scholars and practitioners is to learn how to establish effective strategies that harness the potential of NPM, while ensuring contractors’ accountability. By becoming “steerers, rather than rowers” (Denhardt and Denhardt 2000) public managers can stop values and goals drift and restore the public administration’s commitment to accountability in governance.

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