Accountability and organizational performance in the public sector: a symposium introduction


International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management

ISSN: 1741-0401

Article publication date: 31 January 2011



Halachmi, A. and Greiling, D. (2011), "Accountability and organizational performance in the public sector: a symposium introduction", International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management, Vol. 60 No. 1.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Accountability and organizational performance in the public sector: a symposium introduction

Article Type: Editorial From: International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management, Volume 60, Issue 1

Behind the rush to run government agencies more like a business there is an implicit assumption that to make them successful, however defined, it takes only a change of management. Yet, empirical data fails to support this assumption. Experience shows that it is not enough to change management style, strategy or standard operating procedures (SOP) to bring about greater efficiency, effectiveness, responsiveness or transparency. Recent failures of leading financial institutions all over the world did not trigger in the public sector a corresponding re-assessment of the need and the rationale for the continuation of questionable management practices that have been transplanted from the private sector. The use performance measurement, e.g. quarterly reports, market share, return on investments is one case in point. As revealed on May 16, 2010 by the investigative reporting of the American TV program 60 Minutes the rush to drill faster the oil well, start pumping earlier and sale as much oil as possible may have lead to the catastrophic explosion of the BP’s oil rig off the shores of Louisiana. The rush of employees of three to score well on their respective measures of performance lead to suspension, overlooking or inconsideration of safety considerations that would have slowed operations resulting in the loss of human life and an environmental disaster. The dire and long term consequences of the rush to score points on the performance reports of the involved companies turned out to be much more significant and costly than the anticipated short term gains.

The purpose of this symposium is to make the case for the continuing education and research about both the promise and potential weakness of those management tools in the public sector whose origin is in the private sector. Some of the more notable examples of such transplants include management techniques or approaches such as planning, programming and budgeting (PPB), total quality management (TQM), business process reengineering (BPR) or the balanced scorecard (BSC). Each of these managerial conceptual frameworks had a promise and a potential to improve the public sector. If they failed to deliver the sought after and miraculous short term turnaround is at least partly the responsibility of those that pushed for them with utmost disregards to their inherent limitations in general or the lack of due attention to the special environmental dynamics of the public sector in particular.

The first contribution to this cluster of articles is a pioneer work by Guy Calleder. The article demonstrates the research potential of the application of supply chain management thinking for better understanding of the relationship among government agencies. The paper focuses on the performance implications of achieving alignment within public sector supply chains namely, within public sector organizations and the cross jurisdictional dilemmas that result from lack of such alignment.

As the concept of the supply chains becomes an increasingly popular way of exploring inter-organizational behavior, it provides a constant reminder of the ease with which a single supply chain event can develop into a significant inter-organizational failure that is seemingly beyond the control of the participants. Using a case study Callender challenges the view that the public sector can choose its desired outcomes because its supply chains are part of a complex web of players whose roles are subject to the social and political demands of both the community and government. Callender concludes that addressing the issue of inter-agency supply chains alignment should start with better understanding of the ideological, operational and community constraints agencies are facing on a daily basis. Addressing these challenges is a complex and controversial task, but may yield significant advantages for public managers and politicians, if the alignment of objectives and goals become a priority as a result of a more sophisticated understanding of the impact of complex supply chains on government agencies performance.

The second article by Arie Halachmi starts by acknowledging the potential and importance of performance measurement for better management of public agencies, accountability and transparency. Yet, the author asserts, the risk of abuse and misuse of performance measurement is always there. Having the potential to do a lot of good does not guarantee that this potential would be mobilized. Nor does performance measurement assure that the benefits resulting from the siphoning of resources from operations to the overhead function of performance reporting exceeds the corresponding opportunity cost, e.g. fewer social workers, teachers, nurses or policemen. Halachmi is concerned that conceptual weaknesses in various approaches to performance measurement are not fully disclosed or acknowledged by proponents of indiscriminate use of performance measurement. Thus, for example, the paper makes reference to a case where excellent performance measurements at the sub-system level had no instrumental value in preventing a major potential failure at the system level.

Halachmi argues that while performance measurement should be encouraged, in principal, there is a need to ensure that managers and organizations retain enough capacity to deviate from standard operating procedures (SOPs) in order to do the right things rather than doing things right. In particular, he asserts, the introduction of performance measurement and its extensive use in the allocation of resources should not be allowed to inhibit innovation and reasonable experimentation with alternative modes of delivering public services.

While Halachmi addresses an important issue in the public sector some of the arguments and considerations are as applicable for performance management in the private and not-for-profit sectors. To be sure, performance measurement is a tool that can and should be used by managers and those charged with oversight. The process of developing performance measurements and the selection of benchmarks can turn into a first rate instrument for increasing common understanding of the tasks, constraints and operational challenges within the organization and across organizational lines. However, all users should be aware of the limitations and possible misuse or abuse of performance measurement. Users of performance reports within and outside the organization should be cognizant in particular of the risk that things may look as if they are done right while the right things to do are being neglected or overlooked until a serious damage is done. The use of profit reports by major financial institutions in America before the economic crisis of the Fall of 2008 as measurements of performance is a good example of this risk.

The issues raised by the first two papers are visited by the third paper by de Kruijf who points out that the accountability issue that resulted from the restructuring of government services at the local level in The Netherlands can be discussed only after it becomes clear and established before hand what responsibilities exist at what level of government and what goals must be realised by each namely, the realignment issue that was highlighted by the Callender paper. The research question the paper attempts to address concerns the ex ante control tools available to City Councils to find a balance between the level of autonomy and political control over the provision of local services by contracts with autonomous public entities. Consistent with the concerns echoed in the Halachmi paper De Kruijf notes that the fact that control tools such as performance measures are available does not necessarily imply that these tools are used in the actual relation between government and associated entity.

The study suggests that that in the majority of cases, local government insufficiently controls associated entities. In hardly any case performance based information is available and in the majority of cases there is a role conflict between government as owner and government as commissioner. From an ex ante control perspective, public co-operations have a relatively high risk profile because there is no single government that controls the entity. Lack of the specific performance indicators and possible role conflict between commissioner and owner – particularly at the local level – exasperate the ex ante control on associated entities that operate locally or regionally under a national framework.

The fourth paper in this symposium is by Ahmed Shafiqul Huque. It examines the issue of accountability in the context of development administration. The author starts by asserting that where there is no long tradition of accountability there is a challenge to establish a system of governance that ensures a responsive, equitable and effective government. For many political leadership, administrative officials and citizens good governance is the solution to the numerous problems confronting Bangladesh which serves as a case study for this research.

The article examines the constitutional stipulations that provide the context in which the concept of accountability is operationalized along with the political forces that shape it. In addition to the internal arrangements found in government agencies and organizations the paper looks at the role of the Parliament and its committees, media, political parties, think tanks and the civil society because they play a role in the accountability process. In line with the point raised by the Callender paper the author suggests that constraints that hamper accountability result from disharmony between the executive, legislature and judiciary. In addition, corruption and adversarial relationships between the two major political parties pose obstacles in the way of an effective system of accountability. The end result is that established internal arrangements for accountability in the public services of Bangladesh are neutralized by bureaucratic and political interests. The paper concludes that accountability can materialize only after major changes in the management of public affairs would take place. Such changes involve widespread political, electoral and administrative reforms. While some progress has been made in the area of public service reform, they have not had much impact due to the bottlenecks inherent in the political and electoral arrangements. The author argues that the approach to governing in Bangladesh needs to be shifted from the traditional, rigid, hierarchical and rule based form to a flexible and role oriented nature. Most importantly, Bangladesh needs a democratic political culture and a restoration of trust in the electoral system to develop a culture that will be conducive to the integration of accountability in all the critical areas.

This interesting symposium was made possible by the support of several people and institutions. Putting this symposium together was enabled by the administrative support of the Institute for Management Accounting at the Johannes Kepler University Linz (Austria) Several scholars from various countries assisted us with the blind review process and provided the authors with valuable comments and suggestions. These individuals are: Burkard Eberlein, York University, Canada, Raymond W. Cox III, University of Akron, Dennis M. Daley, North Carolina State University Maria Veronica Elias, Indiana University-Purdue University, Gisela Kubon-Gilke, Protestant University of Applied Sciences Darmstadt, Germany, Zsuzsanna Lonti, OECD, Hindy Schachter, New Jersey’s Science and Technology University, Thomas Schillemans, University of Utrecht, Netherlands, Kendra Steward, College of Charleston, Wynn Teasley, University of West Florida, Ludwig Theuvsen, Ernst-August- University, Germany and Jonathan West, Miami University. These robust reviews helped us decide which papers to accept, as well as, with the more difficult decisions about which ones we should reject for either reasons of quality or relevance.

Arie HalachmiSun Yat-Sen University, China and Tennessee State University, USA

Dorothea Greiling Johannes Kepler University, Linz, Austria

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