Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Accountability Perspectives in Italian Municipality Accounting Systems: The Gap between Regulations and Practices

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Accountability Perspectives in Italian Municipality Accounting Systems: The Gap between Regulations and Practices

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Public sector reforms, developed since the 1980s in most countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development--OECD--(Hood 1995; Pollit and Bouckaert 2004), have changed the meaning and the contents of public sector accountability. In fact, public organizations have to be accountable, both in detail and comprehensibly, for the use of public resources and for the results achieved.

Accountability relationships in the public sector involve citizens and elected officials on one side, elected officials and public managers on the other. These kind of relationships are discharged by means of three "accountability codes"--financial, managerial and professional--which use different accounting tools and whose evolution is studied within the New Public Financial Management--NPFM. In recent years NPFM literature has focused on the actual effects of the accounting system reforms trying to find out the reason for the gap between formal changes introduced by laws and regulations and their actual implementations (Olson et al. 1998; Ter Bogt and Van Helden 2000).

In Italy, as in many European countries (Luder, Jones 2003; FEE 2007), local governments--LGs--have been the driving force2 of a financial management comprehensive reform (Pavan and Reginato 2004). This reform process, that started in 1995, has involved LGs' control and accounting model--budgeting, book-keeping, and financial reporting (Caperchione 2000). The set of laws ruling the implementation of the new financial management model is incorporated in the Consolidation Act for local government--Testo Unico degli Enti Locali--, hereinafter referred to as TUEL. The TUEL is supported by the accounting standards issued by the Committee for Local Government's Accounting and Finance established within the Italian Ministry of Domestic Affairs--Osservatorio sulla finanza e la contabilita degli enti locali,, from now on referred to as Osservatorio. These standards are not mandatory, but they provide explanations of the TUEL provisions in order to help LGs to comply with the law (Farneti 2006; Osservatorio 2004).

Basing on the Italian LGs' case, this paper analyses the effects of the NPFM reform on LG accountability, inquires whether a gap exists between the accountability codes at the normative level and the practices, and tries to find out possible reasons that seek to explain this gap in order to create a framework to be tested in other countries' cases. To this end a survey carried out on a statistically representative random sample of Italian municipalities with more than 5,000 inhabitants together with semi-structured interviews to privileged observers are used.

This study is part of a wider research project conducted in cooperation with the Osservatorio. The paper is organised into five sections. The section to follow provides the concept of accountability in the public sector and how it is discharged through the LGs' accounting system. The third section presents the research questions and the adopted methods. Section four focuses on the Italian local government accountability codes at the normative level, and on their practices, while the fifth one inquires into the possible reasons for the gap between them. The final section discusses the results of the analysis and draws some conclusions.

THE ACCOUNTABILITY MEANING AND CONTENTS IN THE PUBLIC SECTOR

Literature on accountability has attempted to define this concept whose meaning is different according to the referential context (Boyne et al. 2002; Dubnick 1998; 2005; Gray and Jenkins 1993; Mulgan 2000; Sinclair 1995; Stewart 1984) and whose theoretical bases can be found in the agency theory (Mayston 1993). When talking about accountability it is necessary to ascertain who is accountable, to whom, how, for which actions and results, and what are the tools for rewarding and punishing the accountor's behaviour (Fearon 1999; Behn 2001). …

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