Accountability and Performance As Governing in a Market Era - Alternative Models of Governing


As implied by the previous discussion, one of the most important issues in the most recent (and ongoing) attempts at reforming the public sector has been to restore a strong sense of accountability. Ideas common in the New Public Management, such as deregulating the public sector and emphasizing managerial freedom over the role of political controls (Peters, 2001 a), have brought the familiar issue of accountability back to a central position in the analysis of public administration. The commitment to the managerialist program is sufficiently strong in many governments among the industrial democracies to prevent a direct return to old-fashioned conceptions of how to make civil servants (and politicians) answerable for their actions. There is therefore a need to determine what reform has done to date and what remedies must be applied to rectify those problems.

The principal consequence for accountability of the initial reforms has been to remove any number of levers that political leaders may have used to influence the behavior of administrative organizations. In addition to the structural separation of implementation and policy making, the de-emphasis of rules and internal regulations in government also has made the task of enforcing accountability more difficult.

For example, the budgetary process has always been a means of controlling the bureaucracy as well as allocating resources to those organizations. With the use of such techniques as ‘‘bulk budgeting’’ and ‘‘frame budgeting’’ the detailed control over executive organization that had been possible is no longer available to legislatures or to central agencies.

To some extent the same is true of controls over the civil service, although as we will point out below, opening the public service to outsiders has provided an alternative means of political control over the bureaucracy.


As noted already much of the continuing drive in contemporary administrative reform can be captured by focusing on the concepts of performance and quality management in the public sector. After initial attempts to make government perform more like organizations in the market, or to make it more democratic, the focus has become stronger than ever on the outputs of the public sector. The central question has become what government is doing for the public as much as how much it costs. Citizens are assumed to be entitled not only to less expensive public services but also to higher-quality ones. In the performance conception public organizations should be evaluated not only on their ability to reduce costs and increase efficiency but also on what they actually do for the public.

Emphasizing these concepts of performance and quality performs several positive services for the process of governing. First, those concepts can combine and strengthen several of the virtues created by the initial rounds of reform. On the one hand, there are definite market ideas involved in improving the quality of services; indeed, the assumption of market reformers would be that competition would be essential for improving the quality of services. (See Niskanen, 1971, for the roots of that assumption.) Further, the performance concept can be allied closely with the idea of ‘‘serving the customer’’ that is also central to making government perform more like a market. On the other hand, as they have been developed, performance and quality ideas also involve some of the open and democratic elements contained in the more participatory approaches to administrative reform.

In addition to combining the concepts guiding much of earlier administrative reforms the performance concept also contains within it a strong sense of accountability. This idea of accountability is not the conventional one in which political actors and institutions are the central players; rather, the emerging concept of accountability is one in which the public and perhaps auditing and inspection organizations are the principal actors. This means in turn that the emphasis is likely to be on the average performance of the organizations rather than on the embarrassing mistakes that can be used against a minister at question time in parliament or, if sufficiently serious, as a campaign issue. In accountability terms performance stresses the more mundane yet crucial questions of the amount and quality of public services being produced and the way in which they are being delivered to the public.

Finally, the emphasis on performance and quality can be used to link the accountability process more directly with other aspects of the policy process. For example, the Governance Performance and Results Act of 1993 (GPRA) in the United States links performance by organizations with the budgetary process.

There had always been an implicit link between performance and the budget, but that linkage was generally done on the terms of Congress so that it could choose the criteria by which organizations would be assessed. Under the GPRA process, however, the criteria are agreed in advance and there is a more explicit linkage of performance on those criteria and the budget (Peters, 2001b), thus in this more contractual version of using performance, the quality of what government organizations do drives the allocation of resources and removes some aspects of arbitrariness in the system.


Administrative reform in the industrialized democracies has continued at an almost undiminished pace since the late 1970s. The relatively crude reforms of the first round of change are being replaced by more sophisticated attempts to make government programs not only more efficient and economical but also of higher quality.

Further, the political problems of diminished accountability and coordination generated by the initial reforms are being addressed so that the public sector will be able to become more coherent and better connected to the political forces that ultimately motivate them. These changes in the strategy of reform reflect the capacity of governments to learn from their own actions and to improve their performance.

Reform is unlikely to stop with contemporary efforts at accountability, coordination, and performance management; rather, the process of change is likely to continue, albeit in yet again different directions. In particular, we might expect movement toward a greater emphasis on broader processes of governance rather than government administration per se; that is, we should expect the public sector to become increasingly open to interactions with the private sector and increasingly interdependent with nongovernmental actors for its success. This change in part reflects general changes in society in which all types of socio-economic action are more closely coupled. It also reflects conscious decisions on the part of actors in the public sector to shift toward less direct forms of intervention into society. They may be able to achieve the same objectives by using these ‘‘softer’’ instruments, and do so at less direct economic and political cost.

The ultimate consequences of this emerging style of governing have yet to be seen, but we can make some tentative predictions about the tasks and environment for the next generation of individuals involved in governing. In the first place, governing is likely to become a much less hierarchical, more cooperative exercise in producing public services and managing public organizations.

The politicians and administrators who will have to make government perform will thus require different skills and perhaps even a different state of mind than those held by individuals more accustomed to the hierarchies and more state-centric conceptions of governing in the past.

Politicians and administrators in the next generation also should be expected to be faced with a style of governing that would involve greater interactions between public organizations and their clients, with greater openness to the demands and needs of clients as well as the general public. In addition, there will be greater interaction between public- and private-sector organizations. The economic criteria that have dominated the administrative process for the past several decades are likely to become less significant, although they will certainly remain a part of the evaluation of any proposed changes in policy or implementation. The question will become, perhaps, how far down this road of ‘‘governance’’ the public sector can move before reaching the logical limits of both accountability and equitable treatment of citizens. This is one of many challenges facing that ‘‘next generation.’’


  • Theodore Lowi rather famously (1969) has made rather similar arguments concerning the private use of public power in the United States.
  • The words government, governance, and governing all have a common root word, implying steering and control. Governing as a process thus occurs whether or not one assumes that the principal actor remains the nation–state.
  • The economic logic of the inviable hand appears to be assumed; that is, it is assumed that if each individual organization pursues the maximization of its own performance then government will perform better as a whole.
  • For example, as a part of implementing the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 the Office of Management and Budget in the United States has been developing some composite indicators of government performance and attempting to assess the contributions of individual organizations to changes in those indicators. (Office of Management and Budget, 2000).
  • Both of these techniques allocate funds with only limited constraints on their use. The contrast with traditional means of line-item budgeting is that managers now have the latitude to move funds and to make more autonomous decisions about how to spend them. They are held accountable ex post facto for those decisions but yet can manage funds with greater freedom and, it is hoped, efficiency.
  • What is not clear, however, is what the linkage actually should be. If the organization is not performing well should it receive more or less money? A reasonable argument could be made for either approach.

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