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Budgets vs individual needs: Exploring the dynamics of (de)coupling in an elementary school context

Anton Borell (Department of Accounting, Stockholm Business School, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden)

Journal of Public Budgeting, Accounting & Financial Management

ISSN: 1096-3367

Article publication date: 2 September 2019




Previous research has argued that little is known about the dynamics of (de)coupling. This has led to a relatively static and potentially oversimplified view on how externally imposed accountability demands are incorporated into organizational routines. The purpose of this paper is to address these calls by exploring the dynamic processes of de- and re-coupling the two institutional rules of achieving a “balanced budget” and serving “the needs of individuals” in a Swedish school context.


A qualitative case study based on 28 observations and 32 interviews with principals, administrators and teachers within a large Swedish municipality has been used.


In contrast to earlier research, the paper shows that (de)coupling is more than just a static state; it is a result of dynamic challenges and boundary maintenance. It is a state where professional groups try to both decouple and couple accounting into routines to achieve greater autonomy and control, where incarnation of one myth leads to loosening another. It is embedded in an institutional environment’s powerful actors, and when incarnation takes place at different organizational levels, it leads to less conflict in another sphere. The dynamics of (de)coupling thereby unfolds how institutional rules play out in an organizational setting.

Practical implications

From a practical viewpoint, this paper has provided insights into how rules operate in an organizational setting. Given that regulative authorities tend to assume that rules should be tightly coupled to practice, this paper provides a critical examination of the assumption that coupled organizations are inherently “better” than non-coupled ones. To what extent does incarnation of rules reflect the societal ideas – and for whom? By unfolding the dynamics of (de)coupling, this paper illuminates some potential issues with increased tightness between rules and routines.


The paper illuminates the ways in which institutional rules takes place on the ground, and the associated roles for accounting in such process.



Borell, A. (2019), "Budgets vs individual needs: Exploring the dynamics of (de)coupling in an elementary school context", Journal of Public Budgeting, Accounting & Financial Management, Vol. 31 No. 3, pp. 410-430.



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