The politics of accountability: bureaucracy and the struggle for regulation in the public sector


By Dr. Mark Murphy – 

Public sector accountability is an increasing concern for a range of stakeholders, including governments, the general public and not least public sector professions such as health, education and social work. Major question marks exist over the capacity of quality assurance mechanisms to both deliver quality services to the public while also contributing to a more effective professional culture among nurses, social workers and teachers. These concerns are joined by a more recent debate over the amount of bureaucratic ‘red tape’ that attaches itself to political forms of regulation in the shape of audits, evaluations, performance indicators and inspections. It should therefore come as no surprise that the question of accountability and public sector professions is one of the more politically charged issues in public administration.

For such an important topic, however, there is relatively little research on public sector accountability across the professions. There is an existing small body of research that explores the consequences of accountability, with previous studies indicating its tendency to deliver unintended consequences. Less established are the reasons why these unintended consequences occur in the first place: why are phenomena such as risk avoidance, impression management and what some have termed the ‘accountability trap’ so prevalent in a public sector supposedly geared towards the efficient delivery of high quality public services?

The author’s own previous work (Murphy, 2013; under review) suggests that the kinds of unintended consequences that trouble both governments and professions are partly the result of other forms of regulation that tend to get sidelined or forgotten entirely when it comes to talk of regulatory mechanisms – temporal, legal and normative regulation. However, there is little research that explores accountability in the context of regulation generall. Exploring the interplay between these forms of regulation is important, as they have the effect, in one’s previous research at least, of mediating the effect of political regulation on the working lives of public sector professionals.

The aim of the proposed project, then, is to conduct research on the intersections between different regulatory mechanisms in order to better understand how such unintended consequences embed themselves in professional practices. Using a broad ethnographic approach to social research, the study revisits Michael Lipksy’s famous notion of Street level bureaucracy (1980), exploring, in the current climate of accountability, the capacity of nurses et al to still ‘make policy’.

Dr. Mark Murphy is Reader in Education at the University of Glasgow