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Accountable Governance in the Age of Partnerships and Contracting Out


Accountability remains a key tenet of the good governance agenda. It is usually defined as a government's obligation to respect the interests of those affected by its decisions, programmes and interventions through mechanisms of answerability and enforceability. It can be vertical (downwards accountability to citizens, clients etc.) or horizontal (sideways checks and balances within government). In practice these distinctions increasingly break down, and lines of accountability have become more blurred. This has important implications for traditional notions of responsiveness, obligation and communication. Mark Consodine notes that the 'standard of line authority is now contradicted everywhere by the demands of entrepreneurship and out-put based performance'. However, those pushing for greater public accountability still press ministers and public servants to take responsibility for public programmes, even if those programmes are delivered by contractors.

In assessing these shifting patterns of accountability, the author draws on over a thousand interviews with officials in employment service institutions in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands. The implications of the findings are clearly more widespread, however. Each of these countries is engaged in significant structural reform, which allows the author to assess the impact on accountability of variables such as the extent of privatisation or contracting out and the extent of competition between public and private agencies. These four countries are also considered to be pioneers in the field of public sector reform, providing a way of comparing the ways in which a common commitment to governance reforms may result in different accountability strategies. Key findings include:

  • Many public agencies have no clearly defined place in a hierarchy and are often not directly accountable to the electorate.

  • New forms of devolution and performance management, which give greater power to officials, often do not increase the institutional means to keep them accountable.

  • In respect of horizontal accountability, when private actors perform public services, contracts become more important than commands, and performance is measured as output rather than process. The existence of fuzzy boundaries and overlapping mandates between public and private agencies creates the potential for conflict. However used positively, these arrangements can create the potential for 'joined-up' government, provided that questions of mandate and responsibility are kept on the public agenda.

  • While the new preoccupation with output-based performance has solved some problems of efficiency, it has created new accountability gaps and policy failures as private and semi-public agencies spend public funds on activities that are all but immune from public review.

  • Different academic traditions suggest different solutions to these accountability challenges, from emphasis on how parliaments serve 'shareholders' or how bureaucrats serve their 'customers' to a focus on getting the material incentives right as a means of tackling corruption. The problem is that many of these approaches fail to acknowledge the existence of competing lines of accountability.

  • Creating public programmes that are responsive to the people they serve now requires multidimensional methods to measure how different institutional arrangements advantage different forms of responsiveness. These need to be tailored to the requirements of the sector in question. Multidimensionality means multiple measures and new mandates.

  • Traditional measures of accountability that rely on line or top-down measures do not necessarily provide a good guide to the accountability culture as a whole. Vertical accountability can be improved through enhanced roles for parliamentary committees and ombudsmen. Tools for greater horizontal accountability need to be adapted to the features of each system in question, including for example the degree of competitiveness in service provision.

Creating accountability in a context of shifting mandates and changing modes of service delivery between the public and private sector requires us to rethink our understanding of accountability at a conceptual level and in practice. Where lines of accountability are blurred, emphasis on cultures of responsibility is more likely to capture the new reality. Measures of accountability and proposals for enhancing both vertical and horizontal accountability need to take account of the specific nature of each sector and of the institutional context in which change is sought.

Source: Considine, M. 2002. 'The end of the line? Accountable governance in the age of networks, partnerships and joined-up services', Governance, Volume 15, Number 1, January.

Governance is published quarterly by Blackwell Publishers.

Keywords: accountability, public sector performance, public sector reform

Commentator: Peter Newell, IDS, (September 2002)

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