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The Public Sector Accountability-Responsiveness Paradox

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas E. Poulin
February 14, 2020

Public administrators seek to provide the best service possible. In doing so, they recognize limitations imposed by legislation, community will and available resources. When working within this framework, public sector leaders have been able to perform in a creative and responsive manner. They have continually sought to work within a paradox—a paradox of accountability and responsiveness. All public administrators, regardless of role, would be well served to consider this ongoing paradox and how to approach it.

Responsiveness to Community

For decades, there has been a growing demand for public agencies to be more responsive to community expectations. This message has been heard from all players in the political environment at the local, state and federal level. Put simply, public sector agencies are here to fulfill community expectations, and this should be the focus of all their work.

This requires not only the mindset one will do so, but the commitment to do so actively. Doing so means reaching out to the public, seeking insight into desired levels of service quantity and quality, then seeking to try to provide such services effectively and efficiently. This requires the ability to be entrepreneurial and opportunistic. It involves recognizing community needs and expectations evolve over time, requiring public administrators at all levels to adapt. Within this mindset, the focus is on the outcomes, not processes.

Accountability for Activities

In the United States, the public sector grew exponentially at the federal level during the Civil War, with larger agencies created to meet evolving service demands. This trend has continued over time at the local, state and federal levels, as populations became larger, as society grew more complex, and as more was demanded of public agencies. Concurrently, there was an emergent concern these public agencies might exceed their authorities, or perform unethically, which contributed to the accountability debate.

As early as 1887, Woodrow Wilson, in his paper The Study of Public Administration, tried to frame the appropriate limits on the performance of public administrators—such debates continue today. The fundamental thrust of accountability revolves around the argument public servants are employed to perform specific functions in a prescribed manner under the direction or oversight of senior public administrators or elected officials. Within this mindset, the primary focus is on directed processes.

The Paradox: The Challenge for Public Administrators

Clearly, as presented, there is a paradox. To be fully responsive to evolving service demands, we must be adaptive and entrepreneurial, working beyond existing practice. To hold ourselves fully accountable in a narrow sense, we must be able to perform our work within the limits of accepted practices and procedures, ensuring we work as directed. There is a paradox between these two competing public expectations. We must consider the implications of this paradox, both for ourselves and those we lead.

Instead of viewing this as a paradox, we might consider it a continuum. Complete, individual flexibility of public administrators is counter to community values—some level of control is desirable. Complete inflexibility is also a negative in the public eye, interpreted as a focus on following internal rules, not serving the public. There is no single response to this—no, “Magic bullet,” to resolve concerns with such issues.

Successful public administrators must learn to work within this environment, finding means to adapt on an individual level within their unique workplace when they might, seeking higher-level support in an unhesitant manner for adaptation when necessary. Successful public sector leaders must develop this mindset in their subordinates, seeking to unleash agency talent and motivation in employees working to provide the best services possible, permitting them, when possible, the flexibility to, “Work outside the box.”

Approaching the paradox first requires we recognize it and the potential implications it might have on performance. Second, we need to find a way to work within this paradox in a manner that is comfortable for us, and which best serves the needs of the community and our agencies. Third, we must communicate this to our subordinates, enabling them to adapt effectively within such a paradoxical environment themselves. Last, we must create a culture which embraces this paradox, enabling public agencies to adapt when and where necessary, but also working within the spirit of the limitations on public agencies the community will expect.

In the end, while some in public service might believe they should be free to act in an unfettered manner, the public will always expect some level of oversight and some level of control over their employees, much as any employer might have on any employee regardless of setting. All public servants must keep in mind the, “Servant,” role they play in their professional function, taking pride in how they provide such services.


Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, MS(HRM), MS(I/O Psych.), served in local government for over three decades, and currently serves in Capella University’s pubic administration core faculty. He is President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA, and may be reached at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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