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Public Accountability in the 21st Century: New Challenges and Prospects

EDITOR’S NOTE: We continue our publication of the ASPA Founders’ Forum Fellow (FFF) papers with this piece, number 3 of 14. The papers will appear in alphabetical order, with two papers posted each week until all 14 are online. Previously posted papers may be viewed under the Limited Series link on the right side of the PA TIMES Online homepage.

Rachel Krefetz Fyall

Since the Friedrich-Finer debate of the 1940s, accountability has been prominent issue within public administration scholarship and practice. Even still, accountability concerns have become more urgent in response to recent structural changes in public service delivery. Within a traditional bureaucratic model, accountability refers to the expectation that those in government should be held responsible for their actions. While many varied forms of accountability exist (see Rainey’s discussion of responsiveness values, 2009, pp. 106-7), traditional discussions of accountability within the public administration literature limit the subject of accountability to “the government” (both elected officials and government employees) (Romzek and Dubnick 1987). As the boundaries distinguishing the public sector have increasingly blurred, however, the simple question of “Who is accountable?” has become more difficult to answer.

Twenty-first century governance involves more than government employees and officials. More than a decade ago, Milward and Provan (2000) coined the term “hollow state” to describe the current state of government, where third-party contractors constitute a shadow government, carrying out the business of government without the visibility or accountability generally expected from public agencies. Although many Americans continue to argue that government growth is out-of-control, evidence illustrates that–using a “core” approach to defining public organizations (Bozeman and Bretschneider 1994)–the public workforce is shrinking rather than growing (Bozeman 1993). Over the past two decades, the New Public Management reforms have favored contracting out over government production, fueling the growth of nonprofit organizations providing publicly-funded services (Smith 2008). Other research has revealed that public-private collaboration extends beyond formal arrangements (Gazley 2008). At this point, the concept of “governance” has expanded beyond the influence of New Public Management to address any arrangement for “accomplishing the business of the public.”

Public administration scholars have come a long way in understanding these new public service delivery structures. Transaction cost economics is one of the most influential theories for predicting when an agency (public or private) would produce a service in-house and when it would chose to purchase it from an outside source (Williamson 1973). Van Slyke’s comparison of agency theory and stewardship theory offers an alternate view of cross-sectoral arrangements, which helps explain how cross-sector partnerships may vary given the mission of the partner organization (2007). In addition, network managers have received guidance on how their job functions differ from those of traditional public managers (Agranoff and McGuire 2001). On a macro level, Kettl points to the twin influences of globalization and devolution as the underlying causes behind this “transformation of governance” (2002).

Unfortunately, gaining a better understanding of 21st century governance highlights how some conventional approaches towards accountability may be less meaningful now than when applied to the traditional bureaucratic paradigm. Political appointees may keep federal agencies in line with executive priorities (Wood and Waterman 1991); however, such influence is less likely to reach a small business owner who contracts with the state agency charged with federal policy implementation. Romzek and Dubnick’s seminal article on accountability (1987) makes the implicit assumption that relationships between actors are clear (e.g., bureaucratic accountability requires “an organized and legitimate relationship between a superior and a subordinate,” p. 228), even if different forms of accountability conflict. In contrast, networked governance rarely engenders such distinct, hierarchical relationships among actors. As Frederickson and Smith warn, “All systems of proxy management decrease the clarity of accountability” (2003, p. 123).

Thus, 21st century governance requires new approaches to accountability. One potential avenue coincides with the newfound emphasis on performance evaluation (Ingraham 2005). Specifically, requiring the evaluation of public outcomes rather than public agency outputs or inputs addresses the effectiveness of an entire network of actors rather than discrete parts that may not explain the whole. In this sense, the delivery of satisfactory public services indicates the accountability of a network where those involved are judged based on the final product. This confounding of accountability and performance is pervasive in both theoretical discussions and analytic approaches to studying accountability (Dubnick 2005).

Using performance evaluation as a method of accountability is insufficient. Democratic values demand that public accountability extends beyond the what of public service delivery to the how and why. In other words, in a society with public values like equity, transparency, and fairness, public services cannot be divorced from the processes that created them. In order to be accountable, a network must be able to demonstrate that both the ends and the means are justified. Consequently, while performance evaluation provides some insight into the effectiveness of public actors, it offers an insufficient mechanism for ensuring accountability.

Another approach to accountability in 21st century governance relies on the increased professionalization of third-party contractors: the trend towards networked governance has been accompanied by increased sophistication and complexity among nonprofit organizations – especially those who receive government contracts. As documented by Hwang and Powell (2009), it is common for nonprofit employees to have advanced degrees, participate in ongoing trainings, and actively formalize their organizations. This development in nonprofit human resources contrasts sharply with the traditional view of nonprofit organizations as modest, volunteer-run endeavors. Although the increased professionalization of the nonprofit sector does not guarantee accountability, it promotes accountability by improving the management and reporting of third-party contracts.

Similarly, accountability demands have fueled an increase in self-regulation among nonprofit organizations (Gugerty et al. 2010). Self-regulation moves beyond the professionalization of individual employees and instead encourages the development of standards and norms, often within an issue subsector. Although currently only applicable in highly-regulated industries like healthcare and higher education, accreditation requires even stricter standards for the nongovernmental organizations (both nonprofit and for-profit) that contract with the government. Jointly, professionalization through streamlined training, self-regulation, and accreditation all serve to increase the accountability of organizations that participate in public service delivery.

While many aspects of 21st century governance have complicated the quest for accountability, technological advances have provided new opportunities for the increased transparency of government (Moon 2002). Through e-government initiatives, citizens can interact with government officials and employees in easy, inexpensive ways that foster greater citizen input into and understanding of government activities. The Obama administration has spearheaded several such efforts such as The Open Government Initiative and a website dedicated to tracking government spending related to the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Although e-government initiatives are not yet mainstream methods for promoting accountability, they offer great potential even in the face of increased governance challenges.

Finally, although the actors behind government activities may seem more obscure than in past eras, political accountability still rests with elected officials and public administrators. Regardless of who ultimately provides a public service, those in government are responsible for ensuring the match between citizen preferences and public outcomes. Thus, accountability remains with the government, even if it also extends to third-party actors. This final point requires that government actors become better network managers: They need to be effective at influencing third-party actors in order to adequately shape public outcomes. Much progress has been made on this front, but there is still a long way to go.

The structure and characteristics of 21st century governance require new approaches to accountability. While the delivery of public services now involves greater diversity in terms of actors and underlying structures, the fundamental need for accountability has grown. These changes result in new challenges for accountability in 21st in century governance, but new opportunities have also emerged. Thus, through pursuing a better understanding of these new opportunities through both scholarship and practice, governance in the 21st century has the potential to achieve a greater level of accountability than ever before.

Rachel Krefetz Fyall is a student at Indiana University, Bloomington. Email: [email protected]

Constructive comments and responses to the papers are encouraged and can be submitted directly to the scholar at their email address, or by clicking on Post A Comment below each article.

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One Response to Public Accountability in the 21st Century: New Challenges and Prospects

  1. Pingback: #14. Government Accountability – DEMOCRACY IN DECLINE

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