Being Accountable: Voluntary Organisations, Government Agencies and Contracted Social Services in New Zealand

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Being Accountable focuses on the accountability of service providers in the not-for-profit sector in New Zealand. It is based on the research Jo Cribb undertook for her doctoral thesis at Victoria University of Wellington. The book is an exploration and analysis of voluntary sector managers' and board members' views of accountability, and it suggests useful ways to improve the relationship between government agencies and not-for-profit service providers.

The not-for-profit sector is a major deliverer of social services in this country, so questions about the accountability of the sector's service providers, how this is managed and measured, and the sector's own views on this subject are vitally important.

I found this book to be an excellent and enlightening read, as well as a very useful summary of issues the sector and contractors have been advocating for decades. As Cribb rightly points out in the preface, ensuring good provider performance doesn't lie in the contract documents but in the relationships and practices used to generate and monitor the contracts. However, I might add that since Cribb undertook her study the development of results-based (integrated) contracts (described on page 21) is proving to be a helpful tool for making non-government organisation service provider performance more transparent.

In Chapter 2 there is a useful summary of the information available about the voluntary sector in New Zealand, which provides a valuable context for Cribb's analysis. One omission, which would have added value to the discussion here, is any further exploration of the importance or otherwise of the status of the people delivering services for community and voluntary organisations. Whether a service is delivered by a volunteer or by a paid employee may well be relevant to a discussion about accountability, and it wasn't clear at this point in the book whether voluntary organisations (organisations that have a governance structure made up of volunteers) that utilise paid staff to deliver their services have different views on, or a different approach to, accountability compared to organisations that use volunteers (some of whom may be salaried professionals or retired professionals) to deliver services. However, the case study material later in the book shows there is a difference between organisations that rely solely on volunteers and those that use paid professionals, and, anyway, Cribb's exploration of contracting issues focuses on a broader level of accountability.

Chapter 3 defines accountability within the contracting framework and explores the way the relationships between principal and agent in a contract arrangement have been discussed in the literature. I found this analysis to be one of the highlights of the book. Cribb also explores accountability in relationships where the agent has voluntarily chosen to undertake work. Accountability to clients/the community is as important as accountability to taxpayers in a government-funded service. Attention is paid to the issues and tensions that arise when an organisation is accountable to a multiplicity of different stakeholders.

Thesis work tends to make black-and-white distinctions, which blur in reality. …