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Toward an understanding of strategic control at a distance in public service delivery

Salman Ahmad (Aston Business School, Aston University, Birmingham, UK)
Ciaran Connolly (Queen's University Management School, Queen's University Belfast, Belfast, UK)
Istemi Demirag (School of Business and Governance, TalTech University, Tallinn, Estonia)

Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal

ISSN: 0951-3574

Article publication date: 23 November 2020

Issue publication date: 10 March 2021




The purpose of this paper is to explore how localized (organization-level) actors of policy initiatives that are inspired by neoliberal ideologies use management accounting and control practices. Specifically, it addresses the operational stages of a case study Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contract within the United Kingdom's (UK's) transport sector of roads for embedding government objectives in the underlying project road.


This paper adopts Dean's (2010) analytics of government to unpack the accounting-based control practices within the case study contract in order to articulate how, at the micro level, the government's objective of improving road-users' safety is enacted, modified and maintained through such regimes.


Drawing on a content-based analysis of UK government PFI policy and extensive case study-specific documents, together with interviews and observations, this research provides theoretical insights about how control practices, at a distance without direct intervention, function as forms of power for government for shaping the performance of the PFI contractor. The authors find that the public sector's accounting control regimes in the case study project have a constraining effect on “real partnership working” between the government and private contractors and on the private sector's incentive to innovate.

Research limitations/implications

By analyzing a single road case study PFI contract, the findings may not be generalizable.


This paper provides significant theoretically informed insights about how public service delivery that is outsourced to private contractors is controlled by government at a distance within complex organizational arrangements (e.g. PFI).



This paper forms part of a special section “Neoliberalism and Management Accounting”, guest edited by Professor Danture Wickramasinghe, Professor Christine Cooper and Dr Chandana Alawattage.


Ahmad, S., Connolly, C. and Demirag, I. (2021), "Toward an understanding of strategic control at a distance in public service delivery", Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Vol. 34 No. 3, pp. 558-590.



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