Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Accountability in Australia: Control, Paradox, and Complexity

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Accountability in Australia: Control, Paradox, and Complexity

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Accountability in the Australian federal system has changed in distinctive ways during the last three decades of public sector reform. In association with each major environmental change has been an extension to accountability from the traditional features of ministerial responsibility and bureaucratic hierarchy to new modes of external scrutiny, accountability management, and most recently accountability within market and governance contexts. Each experiment at the national level, however, has had limitations that produce knock on effects. The paradox of accountability is that attempts to satisfy needs for control have led new forms and variations. The result has been the multiplication of accountability mechanisms and increasing complexity.

INTRODUCTION

Accountability has been a rapidly evolving dimension of the state apparatus in many countries internationally. The environment of the Australian state has changed in distinctive ways across the last three decades of public sector reform, with major implications for accountability. Associated with each major environmental change has been an extension of accountability responsibilities from the traditional core features of ministerial responsibility and bureaucratic hierarchy to cover successive new modes of external scrutiny, accountability management, and most recently accountability within market and governance contexts.

Each experiment at the national level, however, has had attendant limitations and challenges that in turn engender public debate and eventually new responses. The paradox of accountability is that attempts to satisfy needs for control, reporting and scrutiny have invoked new forms and variations on existing arrangements. They have also led to the multiplication of accountability mechanisms over time because each new element does not necessarily replace another, instead adding to complexity, ambiguity and conflict. A serviceable definition of accountability for the purposes of this article is of "a relationship in which an individual or an agency is held to answer for performance that involves some delegation of authority to act" (Romzek and Dubnick, 1998:6). [1] A defining feature in a responsible government system, such as the Australian, is how the relationship between the internal and external dimensions of accountability works in practice.

INTERPRETING CHANGE IN ACCOUNTABILITY

The reasons for changing accountability systems are of course more complex than one single explanation, and needs to be grounded within a broader understanding of how change occurs. A traditional interpretation is that public services are subject to shifting moods and preferences over time. Change can be regarded as simply the product of swing of fashions that will in turn be subject to pendulum movements (Spann, 1981); or the result of long-term reform excesses that eventually produce swings in underlying values (Kaufman, 1969).

The analysis of change indicates it to be the product of a range of external and internal factors. External explanations of policy reversal include the force of new ideas; pressure of new coalitions and interests; and changes in the environment that make policies obsolete. Internal explanations for 'internal decay' centre on policies and institutions that destroy themselves (Hood, 1994:4). In terms of the argument in this article, both types of influences may contribute to originating, extending and attenuating a mode of accountability.

How this works through can be illustrated by the two sets of contradictory trends in the reform era. On the one hand there has been the international move towards greater public scrutiny and increased accountability; and on the other hand, governments in conjunction with the business sector, have transferred functions to the private sector and circumvented public accountability requirements (Mulgan, 2003:4). At the same time, accountability has been subject to intervening political demands to a greater extent. …

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