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The Chameleon of Accountability: Forms and Discourses

Accountability is a cherished concept, sought after but elusive. New models of administrative
reform promise to provide heightened accountability through managerial controls. Interviews
with 15 Chief Executives of Australian public sector organisations reveal the chameleon quality
of accountability. Accountability is subjectively constructed and changes with context. Five
forms of accountability identified in the interviews are explored: political, public, managerial,
professional and personal. Two discourses of accountability are also identified: a structural and a
personal discourse. CEOs experience an accountability which encompasses multiple and
conflicting meanings. The paper argues for a new conception of accountability and new
approaches to enhancing it. Imposing managerial controls is less likely to be effective than
informing the process by which administrators construct and enact a sense of being accountable.
Nobody argues with the need for accountability, but how accountability is defined, and seen to
be provided, is far from resolved. This paper explores the way 15 Chief Executive Officers
(CEOs) of Victorian Government agencies understand and practice their accountability. The
research shows that accountability changes: it exists in many forms and is sustained and given
extra dimensions of meaning by its context. Accountability will be enhanced by recognising the
multiple ways in which accountability is experienced, rather than by attempting to override this
chameleon quality.
Much theoretical research has been forthComing on the changing nature of accountability in
the public sector (Romzek & Dubnik, 1987; Day & Klein, 1987: O'Laughlin, 1990).
Managerialism, New Public Management (NPM) and "accountable management' are broadly
interchangeable terms for new models of administrative reform which have been embraced in
Australia, Britain and elsewhere (Sinclair, 1989; Davis et al., 1989; Pollitt, 1990; Hood, 1991;
Christoph, 1992), and are seen to offer, among other benefits, enhanced accountability. Public
servants now face extended fields of accountability beyond compliance ... to include issues of
performance and effectiveness (Australian House of Representatives Standing Committee,
1990, p. 89). For managers in the public sector, managerial conceptions of accountability have
either replaced or augmented traditional norms of democratic accountability (Smith & Hague,
1971; Metcalife & Richards, 1987; Jenkins et al., 1988; Guthrie et al., 1990; Jos, 1990).
Despite the expectation of accountable management, there remains confusion among
administrators about the implications for their accountability. Do managerial forms of
accountability supersede other forms and what happens when they conflict? Hopwood has noted,
for example, that efforts to secure better internal management accountability using accounting
technologies may not necessarily lead to greater public accountability, instead giving "selective
visibility' to some organisational outcomes (1984, p. 179). The Australian House of
Representatives reported despondently that management reforms in the Australian public Sector
"rather than enhancing accountability. . . have diminished it" (AHRSC, 1990, p. 89). Reviewing
the impact of recent public sector reforms, Harman concludes "an urgent need to untangle the
problems of accountability (1992, p. 22).
Further, the requisite level of accountability appears not to have materialised. The most
Common contemporary response to an absence of accountability has been to impose a more
rigorous form of managerial accountability. The 1968 British Fulton Inquiry, followed by the
Australian Coombs Commission (1976), recommended that the means to more accountable
public management was to hold officials "directly responsible for performance measured as
objectively as possible in terms of costs or other criteria (quoting the Fulton Committee,
Thynne, 1983, pp. 92-93). Yet no number of carefully drafted performance contracts, control
systems or audits necessarily summon accountability up. Indeed, frequently reiterated is a desire
for accountability to mean more" (More, 1990) and conferences continue to worry over how to
exact more of it. Accountability remains elusive.
The focus of this research is not theorised changes, but how CEOs establish their
accountability, to themselves and to others. To increase accountability, we need to understand
how it is Constructed by, and extracted from, those who are held accountable. The paper begins
by reviewing definitions of accountability, noting the limitations of treating accountability as a
fixed and objective feature of structures or positions. The way in which changing administrative
ideologies have constituted accountability is discussed, providing further evidence of the need to
reconceptualise accountability as a subjectively constructed phenomenon. Two complementary
methods of exploring accountability are introduced: a Schema of forms of accountability and
discourse analyses. In the section on findings we show that the experience of CEOs encompasses
five forms of accountability identified in theoretical research: political, managerial, public,
professional and personal. More importantly, two discourses are revealed, the structural and
personal, which enable individual administrators to hold, at the same time, opposing feelings
about accountability while constructing a sense of themselves as accountable. The findings
indicate not only that accountability changes but also that what CEOs see in it changes. The
paper draws several conclusions. It argues the value of interpretive perspectives in
reconceptualising phenomena like accountability which have become so tightly enmeshed in
ideologies and language that we treat them as givens. Further, the research concludes that the
current approach of externally imposing managerial requirements and controls, a singular form
of managerial accountability, is likely to add to its elusiveness. Rather, efforts to improve
accountability would be informed by an understanding of the diversity of ways in which
managers construct, hold and enact a sense of being accountable.

Accountability is central to the way the CEOs in this research structure their understanding Of
their jobs. CEOs feel accountable to the government, to the thrust of government policy, to their
ministers, or other ministers, to the community, to the Auditor-General, the ombuds and, more
nebulously but not less compellingly, to their clients and the public. CEOs are enmeshed in an
elaborating web Of accountability, called to account by an expanding and increasingly
vociferous set of interest groups (Painter, 1987) and weighed down by a new ethical burden
(Uhr, 1988). Yet CEOS vary in how and in what context they use the term; there is no clear
consensus about what accountability, finally, means, or how it is to be delivered.
In its simplest sense, accountability entails a relationship in which people are required to
explain and take responsibility for their actions: the giving and demanding of reasons for
conduct" (Roberts & Scapens, 1985, p. 447). But it is rarely this simple. Some argue that
accountability should be differentiated as one form of responsibility (Jones, 1977; Thynne &
Goldring, 1981; Harmon & Mayer, 1986). Certainly though, accountability is a more fashionable
term which benefits from the association with the objective and scientific connotations of
accounting methodologies (Gambling, 1977; Hopwood, 1984).
The search for an all-purpose definition of public sector accountability produces a legalistic
... in the context of a relationship with an institution or person which or who is in a position to
enforce their responsibility by calling them to account for what they (and/or their subordinates)
have or have not done ... subject to an institution's or a person's oversight, direction or request
that they provide information on their action or justify it before a review authority (Thynne &
Goldring, 1987, p. 8).
Important dimensions of meaning are sacrificed in generic definitions of accountability, such as
Birkett's "types of control that are operative when there is some possibility of autonomy" (1988,
p. 5). There is a desire to assert what accountability in the public sector should be about. As
O'Laughlin points out: "When we speak about bureaucratic accountability, the bottom line is that
we are concerned about whether government agencies are under some control and oversight by
us or our representative institutions (1990, p. 281). Yet lurking in this appeal to common-sense
is a difference of opinion as to whom the account is offered.
There is also a continuing desire to locate accountability in enduring structures. For example,
in an Australian Government report it is thus defined:
Accountability is a central feature of the Australian democratic system. It ensures that those who
have authority over public resources provide an account for the use of those resources in terms of
compliance, efficiency and effectiveness (Australian House of Representatives Standing
Committee, AHRSC, 1990).
Contributors to an Australian edited collection, while arguing that accountability "involves the
fundamental [sic] of honesty, openness, adequate disclosure and careful, effective application of
resources (Greiner, 1990, p. 31), also find that the whole concept of accountability gets
reduced to a barren quest for ministerial resignations (Guthrie et al., 1990, p. 14). As Dahl
(1957) noted of underStandings of power, accountability appears to reside in a "bottomless
swamp', where the more definitive we attempt to render the concept, the more murky it becomes.
Like power, accountability can be understood as something a person is or feels (a personal
attribute or affect), something a person has been granted (an obligation bestowed or part of a job
contract), something a person exchanges for authority (a property of a relationship), a more
abstract and impersonal property of an authority Structure, or an artefact of scrutiny.
How accountability is defined has changed, underlining the importance of language as agent of
ideology in shaping understanding. In theoretical research, accountability has discipline-specific
meanings, for example, auditors discuss accountability as if it is a financial or numerical matter,
political scientists view accountability as a political imperative and legal Scholars as a
constitutional arrangement, while philosophers treat accountability as a subset of ethics. Securing
accountability involves shared agreement about how it is manifested. An accountability
relationship "presupposes agreement about what constitutes an acceptable performance ...
(including) the language of justification (Day & Klein, 1987, p. 5; also Stewart, 1984).
Accountability is shaped by Social norms or aspirations towards order which Birkett calls social
archetypes (1988) and "involves the generation of a social consensus about what counts as good
conduct and acceptable performance" (Day & Klein, 1987, p. 64). How we define accountability
is dependent on the ideologies, motifs and language of Our times.
Managerial models of administrative reform are making a strong claim in the definition,
measurement and extraction of accountability. Accountability defined within a managerial model
requires those with delegated authority to be answerable for producing outputs or the use of
resources to achieve certain ends. It is advanced by specification of outcomes, performance or
objectives by managers and their superiors, accompanied by a relaxation of formalised controls
Over inputs and processes (Cullen, 1985; Jenkins et al., 1988). The values embodied in this sense
of accountability are cost effectiveness, efficiency and managerial autonomy. Managerially
defined accountability is held to be Superior to traditional understandings. It is seen as more
encompassing with various subtypes: fiscal accountability, which measures whether money has
been spent as agreed or according to a projected budget; process accountability, which monitors
whether particular processes have been deployed; and programme accountability, which
measures whether outcomes or defined results have been achieved (Robinson, 1971). Thus
public sector managers might be held accountable for meeting their budget (fiscal
accountability), for the processing of a pool of clients or claims (process accountability), or for
the placement Of institutional clients into medium-term residential units (outcome or programme
accountability). Because it apparently lends itself to such detailed specification, managerial
accountability is also seen to be more readily extracted and delivered.
Our initial research asked Chief Executives of public Sector agencies in Victoria about their
views on administration, leadership and management (Sinclair et al., 1983). Data used for the
analysis of accountability were the transcripts of Semi-structured interviews with a
representative sample of 15 heads of Victorian public sector agencies, from a total identified
population of 35. Eleven CEOs were from government departments and directly responsible to a
minister, four were from major statutory authorities. The agencies for which CEOs were
responsible varied in function and Scope, with staff numbers ranging from less than 200 to
several thousands and budgets up to thousands of millions of dollars. The sample included three
women, a slightly higher proportion than in the population of CEOs. Between March and
October 1990, interviews of approximately two hours duration were held with CEOs, in some
cases two or three times with the same interviewee, and a comprehensive checklist of issues was
used to guide questions. Initially, a content analysis of interview transcripts was undertaken by
scanning for direct and indirect references to accountability and related concepts, such as
responsibility, then aggregating all verbatim statements. Yielding a large and diverse array of
references, the CEOs themselves provided the initial means of differentiating concepts of
accountability, with their separation (and sometimes labelling) of political or Westminster
accountability, from what they understood as managerial or financial accountability and public
accountability as a more direct answerability to the community. Certain contexts would clearly
evoke one of these three, for example, description of relations with ministers or parliament
prompted recitation of understandings of political accountability, while when the CEO talked
about budgets and autonomy, it was managerial accountability which preoccupied them.
These three forms of accountability, political, managerial and public, have been similarly
differentiated in theoretical research (Barker, 1982; Wettenhall, 1983; Stewart, 1984; Thynne &
Goldring, 1987; Corbett 1991). Traditional public administration focused on "upward", political
or parliamentary accountability. New forms of more autonomous government organisation,
generated increasing emphasis on "outward or direct public accountability to clients and the
public. More recent theorising of public-sector management has given much more prominence to
managerial or financial accountability (Guthrie et al., 1990).
The remaining references to accountability in the interviews centred around issues of
professionalism and personal conscience. Although less frequently and confidently discussed,
these references were framed with distinctively different words and ideas. Attention to the ethics
of public sector officials (Harmon & Mayer, 1986; Denhardt, 1988, 1991; Uhr, 1990), has
reinforced the notion that managers have a duty to obey personal conscience (Corbett, 1991). As
well as this "inward' or personal accountability, theoretical research has identified "horizontal' or
"outward' accountability (Wettenhall, 1983; Corbett, 1991). Professional accountability occurs
where administrators perceive a duty to adhere to the standards of professional or expert groups
of which they are a member (Harmon & Mayer, 1986; Romzek & Dubnik, 1987; Bailey, 1989;
O'Laughlin, 1990).
Five forms of accountability were thus recognisable in CEOs understandings, and represented
in research findings: political; managerial; public; professional and personal. Theoretical work
identifies many other types of accountability (for example Smith, 1980; Uhr, 1989). This
research aimed for a typology reflective of CEO understandings, though inevitably also the
researchers' perspectives and interests. The following findings section discusses the way CEOs
think about and experience these five forms.
At the same time, the five form categorisation left much of what was interesting, and
problematic, about accountability, unexplained. While we had numerous examples of CEOs
describing each form, within each form there were apparent contradictions and contrasts of
stance and language, attitude and affect. These shifts of affect and language seemed to be
important to each CEO's construction of their Self identification as accountable: they were
serving an important purpose.
In order to explain the link between talking about accountability and being accountable, it
became apparent that we needed a more interpretive method. In organisational research (Weick,
1979a, b, Burrell & Morgan, 1979; Morgan, 1983; Harmon & Mayer, 1986), in Social theory
(Giddens, 1979) and in accounting research (Roberts & Scapens, 1985; Morgan, 1988; Arrington
& Francis, 1989; Boland, 1993) traditional methods of comprehending social reality have been
abandoned in favour of those which put greater emphasis on subjects actively creating meaning.
Instead of attempting to map "real" forms of accountability, an interpretive perspective focuses
on understanding how accountability is derived linguistically and interactively by individual
actors (Smircich, 1983).
A second type of analysis, discourse analysis, was used to capture the process of talking about
accountability, as doing (Gronn, 1983; Potter & Wetherell, 1987). This approach allows the
possibility that being accountable is an interpretive act (Morgan, 1988), and it joins postmodern
efforts to conceive accountability as more than "representation and control" (Nelson, 1993, p.
207). The contrasts, contradictions and inconsistencies that lay within CEOs' reflections on their
accountability, and which mitigated comfortable categorisation in the form analysis, became the
focus of the discourse analysis.
While there is no fixed method prescribed for discourse analysis, there are common phases and
some validation tests (Potter & Wetherell, 1987; Hollway, 1989). We began by selecting longer
extracts from the interviews in which CEOs were threading their way through to an
understanding of accountability. Of particular interest were those containing contrasts of tone:
for example, from declamatory to confidential; conflicts of emotion: from intense attachment to
dispassionate commentary; and shifts of stance, from being in control of one's accountability to
being a victim. Within single extracts of CEOs talking about accountability, such inconsistencies
and contradictions were common. Firstly, we sought to identify these "discursive patterns of
meaning, contradictions and inconsistencies (Gavey, 1989, p. 467), highlighting "the revealing
quality not just of what is said, but rather of what is left Out, contradictory or inconsistent in the
text (Riger, 1992, p. 735).
The second stage of discourse analysis, after identifying the discourses being expressed, is to
ask why they are being expressed in this way or how the discourse reflects on those who are
talking (Hollway, 1989). Thus we attempted to understand what functions these patterns were
Serving. Why was such contradiction in ideas and understandings about accountability not only
possible, but quite clearly an effective reproductive strategy for interviewees? We looked at the
linking of words and the way meaning was accumulated through the intertwining of content and
context (Weedon, 1987; Wetherell et al., 1987; Gavey, 1989; Calas & Smircich, 1991).
Discourse analysis can be used to accomplish a range of theoretical undertakings. Discourses
can be understood as the "regimes of truth' (Hollway, 1989, p. 39) which society and social
institutions offer to participants. Analysis of discourses thus helps to reveal that theories of
accountability "are infused with unexamined Commitments to particular moral and Social
Orders' and "the factual' content of that story is never separable from the duplicities of language
and the rhetorical strategies which Support it' (Arrington & Francis, 1989, p. 4). Discourse thus
provides a way of advancing the wider interpretive project of understanding "the historical and
social contexts within which SOcial decisions and policies are made and institutions created,
Sustained and transformed' (Harmon & Mayer, 1986, p. 322).
How subjects locate themselves in relation to discourses also reflects the socially sanctioned
dominance of certain ideologies and subjugation of others. Because discourses vary in their
authority (Gavey, 1989, p. 464), at any time One discourse, such as a view of managerial
accountability seems "natural', while another Struggles to find expression in the way experience
is described. Individuals also do not necessarily operate with a consistent and exclusive set of
understandings, and exhibit shifting allegiances to different conceptions. Discourse analysis thus
provides insights into how individual actors constitute themselves, by drawing consciously and
unconsciously on the language and meaning offered by their social context.
Finally, discourse analysis offers a way of rediscovering a concept that seems to have become
depleted of meaning. For the same reason Calas & Smircich (1991) used discourse analysis to
revisit leadership, it is used here to illuminate meanings of accountability that are unfashionable
or obscured, censored by, or not captured in, other forms of analysis.
In CEO's descriptions of being accountable are revealed at least two discourses, labelled a
Structural discourse and a personal discourse. These discourses were distinguished by dif ferent
patterns of words and associations, different emphases and ways of relating experience and
understanding. Accountability in the structural discourse is spoken of as the technical property of
a role or contract, structure or system. Territories are clear and demarcated, accountabilities
uncontested. The language used within this discourse is abstracted, detached and rational. The
structural discourse renders accountability, whether political, managerial or Some other form, as
something the CEO works with and controls towards foreseeable ends. Accountability is
unproblematic, able to be "delivered", demarcated or exacted, independently of personalities,
politics, or fate.
In contrast, the personal discourse is confidential and anecdotal. In this discourse,
accountability is ambiguous, with the potential to be something that is feared or uplifting.
Accountability here is about exposure and vulnerability and is very close to the CEO's sense of
who she or he is. The personal discourse functions to admit the risks and failures, exposure and
invasiveness with which accountability is experienced.


Our findings are discussed under the headings of the five forms of accountability. Each is
prefaced with a brief definition derived from administrative and other research: political (or
democratic or Westminster); public; managerial (or financial); professional and personal
accountability. This is followed by examples of CEOs talking about each form of an analysis of
the discourses they use to construct their understanding. There are overlaps, connections and
tensions between these forms for CEOs as they emphasise different, and sometimes conflicting
values (Hood, 1991), and the pattern of contradiction and consistency within the Structural and
personal discourses reveals how discourses function for CEOs.
Political accountability
The concept of political accountability stems from Athenian democratic and Westminster
traditions of vesting responsibility in the public servant. This officer exercises authority on
behalf of elected representatives, who are held directly accountable to the people (Day & Klein,
1987). A direct line or chain of accountability links the public servant with the Permanent Head
(or CEO), in turn accountable to the minister, to the executive or cabinet, to parliament and
hence to the electors. This "straight-line relationship of political accountability (Harman, 1992),
though widely cited, is recognised to bear little resemblance to what actually happens. Australia's
previous Prime Minister, R. J. Hawke, described the link as far-fetched" and mitigated by the
"greater complexities of modern political and adminiStrative realities (AHRSC, 1990, p. 91).
This research reinforces that, despite its poor resemblance to reality, political accountability
retains remarkable salience and currency among Chief Executives of public sector agencies.
Political accountability is understood not as a chain, but as a legitimating bulwark against
interference by the minister in agency administration and as a brake on the agency straying into
political affairs. It affords administrators protection from politics and "hands On' ministers. In the
words of one CEO: "ministers tend to get involved in matters which I would regard as
administrative or managerial, and I am probably more resistant to that than most Victorian Chief
Political accountability also demarcates for the CEO sensitive political territory: "I would never
seek to abrogate the political choice role of the Minister". CEOs invoke political accountability
as a safety net for administrators when politics threatens to intrude: "At the end of the day, the
minister) determines policy, this one here self determines administrative activities. The
minister) is the one who's responsible. He's the one who has got to stand up in Parliament and
take the kicks'. "He handles the political side and I run the business."
From within the structural discourse, political accountability is a clear division of labour and
an uncontestable administrative principle, upheld at all costs. Within the personal discourse,
political accountability is an utterly different experience:
The theory is that the chief administrator is given a policy decision, a platform, and it's up to him
or her to then implement it in the most cost-efficient way... it's a piece of mythology that really
doesn't bear any substantial investigation because there is never ... it's very rarely that you get a
policy decision that is coherently or consistently thought through, and the very choices of
implementation that you've got to face themselves involve a policy relationship. The difficulty
for the Permanent Head or the Chief Administrator is that in reality he has to practice being a
quasi-politician but if he takes that too far and indulges in it too much, he runs the risk of getting
his fingers chopped off, or perhaps even his head. But he's got to do it. And there are no
guidelines: there's no one draws a barrier that says this is where you should stay and this is where
you shouldn't ... (CEOI).
In this extract, as in many others, tribute is paid to "the theory", before the personal discourse
intercepts and political accountability metamorphoses into a terrifying abyss of accountability, in
which the costs of "indulgence" include decapitation. Describing one of his peers, another CEO
notes: "here's a fellow who's had his head chopped off for doing precisely what government
policy required him to do. t seems to me there's no justice in that at all".
Public accountability
Public accountability is understood as a more informal but direct accountability to the public,
interested community groups and individuals (Thynne & Goldring, 1987). Public accountability
involves answering, through various mechanisms from newspaper reports to hearings, public
concerns about administrative activity. In the structural discourse political and public
accountability are treated as complementary parts of the same process: You must be supportive
of the government of the day, but also responsible to the community. In the structural discourse
CEOs use the acceptable concern of costs to vent frustration and a sense of being pursued by
public accountability: "if I were to calculate the resources which we consume on Ombudsman
inquiries and the annual reporting process ... and the Audit Act, Treasury regulations ...'. Another
... how far do you go and how many dollars do you spend to make sure the public are getting a
fair go with their money? ... I am not just thinking about all of us having auditors, and the
Auditor-General, but of all the Other mechanisms, the committees, the reviews ... the systems
that you have to pursue and follow, and report back to Treasury ... and everybody else, on what
is happening (CEO6).
In these extracts, the structural discourse recognises accountability as a process with a rationally
calculated price. One CEO defends the importance of upholding this accountability, arguing that
the solution is not "letting government agencies run as businesses because they wind up doing
more and more projects and being unaccountable, without any concern for the legitimate
concerns of citizens and group'. Another CEO similarly asserts that the "Auditor General has
made it quite clear that we have to have a very tight rein and control and knowledge of what
happens to the monies that are allocated through us by the government'. A recitation Of the
structural discourse is sometimes accompanied, as in the next excerpt, by the CEO distancing
him or herself from the dilemmas and speaking of the self as a role:
I am very conscious of the fact that I am charged, with others, with the expenditure of a very
large amount of public money ... And I believe the public has the right to expect that proper
accountability mechanisms will be put in place and used (CEO4).
Although the structural discourse provides well-drilled defence of public accountability, the
personal discourse reveals the pain it causes many CEOs. Proliferating public accountability
mechanisms such as Fol (Freedom of Information) and very open reporting" come to represent
a trap, a plight of "being held personally responsible" for the wrong-doing of a single employee.
Some CEOs speculate on where or whether their accountability will end:
... the absolutely exponential growth in accountability mechanisms ... there were absolutely no
bars... public servants are now being called to account in myriads of ways ... the blowtorch
applied to the belly... and very personally and openly ... I've had to be accountable in several
different forums)... public hearings, the press, parliamentary committees... There's no invisibility
any more - you're out there and it's rough ... (CEO5).
Another CEO sees politicians and political accountability colluding to increase the risks and
exposure of public accountability he feels and he feels on behalf of his staff:

can blow up very quickly ... Because if it'll get publicity, the minister then wants to know what
the position is ... We've had the gamut, you might say, of ministers and their policies and their
perceptions. Andi it has been a gamut ... the politicians are pandering to what "The Sun" is going
to do with any item. And if "The Sun" doesn't like it, then you have got to cut your cloth to make
sure that it can be, either you've got to have good supportive staff so that you can stand up to the
onslaught, or you've really got to cut your cloth so that you don't get ripped apart (CEO6).
In the following quotes, a CEO considers political, public and managerial accountability. The
contrasts that emerge as most interesting though, are not those between these forms, but within
forms and between discourses. The first paragraph is a discussion of political and managerial
accountability in the structural discourse, the second covers managerial and public accountability
in the personal discourse:
I certainly see myself as a public servant in the traditional sense of the word. So therefore I see
myself serving an elected representative to deliver certain services, that elected representative is
part of government to determine what should be delivered. So that my responsibility is to make
sure that the Minister's and Government's wishes with respect to what should be delivered in this
portfolio are actually delivered ... I inherited a particular legislative framework that implies
certain goals. That is constantly refined so if you look at the way I do it personally, I have a
process every year of looking at the Ministry's goals and objectives, refining them if necessary, if
there have been changes in Government policy, if there have been changes in constituencies that
the Government serves that demand a change in the objectives of the Ministry. But that process
is always cleared with the Government's representative which is the Minister.
... I think there is a very large difference between the accountability of a private sector manager
to his board and the shareholders, compared with the public sector where you are accountable to
any human being that cares to complain ... you have to be able to explain if it's on government
business or not on government business. And that is just in case Mrs Bloggs out there wants to
know how her tax dollar is being spent. Now shareholders don't have that same interest I'm afraid
in their money ... and they are not as interested in the same sort of detail ... I think there is that
complexity in public accountability that doesn't exist in the private Sector... government
organisations are trying to balance a range of competing interests so that it is not as easy to work
out how you are going as a public sector manager. It's a much more complex task to work out
whether you are being successful or whether you are failing ... The other difference is ... that all
of your mistakes, if you make any, are on show so regularly ... if you think about the private
sector manager again and if they do take a risk and it goes wrong, then it will be treated as a
risky investment. But something that a public Sector manager does that goes wrong is seen as
sort of the death knell to their career basically. Because there is so much scrutiny. It's in
Parliament, it's in the papers ... (CEO3).
In the first paragraph, accountability relationships with the minister and government are
described as de-personalised and non problematic, a set of procedures to be followed. In the
second paragraph CEO3 describes what accountability feels like. From being in charge of the
process, the CEO is now at the mercy of "any human being who cares to complain' having "to be
able to explain ... just in case Mrs Bloggs out there wants to know'. The discourse shift is
signalled by a move from technical and abstract words to emotive ones and it functions to enable
the CEO to justify fears and frustrations, to contrast with the easier task of a private sector
counterpart and establish that, in the public sector, no mistakes are permissible. Accountability
here can sabotage, be the "death knell" and not just when a public sector manager takes a risk, or
does something wrong, but when Something "goes wrong". The juxtaposition of the two
discourses enables the CEO, on the one hand, to preserve a sense of the structure, logic and
scope of the job, while on the other, admit the risks. Being an accountable CEO is both
achievable and simultaneously unpredictable and uncontrollable.
Managerial accountability
Administrative, bureaucratic and managerial accountability are sometimes construed as the
same thing as all three arise by virtue of a person's location within a hierarchy in which a
Superior calls to account a subordinate for the performance of delegated duties. However, recent
managerial reforms in most Western public sectors have imparted different values to
administrative accountability, on the one hand, and managerial accountability, on the other. In
particular, managerial accountability is seen to focus on monitoring inputs and outputs or
Outcomes (Alford, 1992), while administrative accountability is concerned with monitoring the
processes by which inputs are transformed.
Although it might be expected that managerial accountability is considered only from within
the Safe and uncontested terrain of the structural discourse, this is not the case. The following
CEO's description spans political, public and managerial accountability:
My task ... is to be responsible to the minister for the delivery of a range of objectives within
time and within budget. Increasingly ... there is a greater expectation by the government that
monies made available to us will be used to achieve government policy objectives. It seems to
me to be a perfectly sensible thing for the government to want to do. And I have the normal
organisational structure under me to deliver those SOS of outcomes. I am, by my nature a
delegator... And then out of it all, of course, to keep the finger on the pulse of what's going on, so
that you're about one step ahead of the bushfire when it breaks out. Sometimes we're not nearly
that clever and sometimes we've got a raging fire before we know it.
There is a terrible trap in all that when you are running something like this. Because for
the policy area to have any validity, there must be an element of risk-taking . . . It's a very
difficult area for us to come to grips with because it's very difficult for us to assess at any
moment in time what the public's interest might be . . . In this game you are never right ... And
the papers were full of it and the mail was full of it - you go, oh-oh, this is an area of some
sensitivity, has to be handled sensitively. But I think that at the end of the day one has to be very
accountable for the public money - I don't think that in this day and age we can afford to be
anything other than aware of the role that we have, have policies that are scrutinised by
appropriate people and to have an open process ... that enables people to know what's going on,
to feel that they are part of the decision-making process (CEO4).
This CEO begins a description of managerial accountability with the structural discourse,
a direct, formal statement of "perfectly sensible structural arrangements. The CEO, as a
"delegator' judges that he is able to deliver and further derives reassurance in invoking the
touchstones of accountability for funds and observance of due process. The recognition of these
touchstones in the structural discourse, then liberates the CEO to simultaneously recognise a
"terrible trap', when you are "running", "one step ahead of the inevitable "bushfires of public
accountability, in a "game" when you are never right". By the end of the eXtract, the Structural
discourse is reasserted, what was Russian roulette is transformed back into "the decision-making
process', populated by "roles", "policies and "appropriate people'.
The language of the structural discourse of managerial accountability is consistent among
many CEOs, with common words and phrases. Another CEO asserts that "The Auditor-General
has made it quite clear that we have to have a very tight rein and control and knowledge of what
happens to the monies that are allocated through us by the government." Managerial
accountability from within this discourse is about cold, hard "outputs', like "delivering the
budget" and the language reinforces the CEOs Sense of its feasibility: "The essence for me is to
produce an outcome and live with my budget." CEOs idealise the lot of the private sector chief
executive: "on the whole allowed to go off and do it, within the constraints of finance and
Overall strategy". There is a belief expressed in the structural discourse that if it's possible for
these private CEOs to achieve managerial accountability, then it must also be so for them.
But the personal discourse portrays their own managerial accountability to be both more open-
ended and constrained by hidden strings. Public service employment conditions create obstacles
in demanding accountability from their own managers, yet CEOs try to keep the pressure on:
"we sheet home accountability and responsibilities" and "... get them to come face to face with
their accountability". The "risk management" that is part of the structural discourse of managerial
accountability purports to remove the "risk", yet in the personal discourse this becomes "an
element of risk taking ... a very difficult area for us to come to grips with". Another CEO
referred to the flimsy protection offered by managerial accountability when public accountability
"parameters are based on the exceptions": "some person not getting into a hospital for a
particular operation is tantamount to a statement on the whole of the health system".
Managerial accountability is also autonomy. In the structural discourse CEOs defend
managerial accountability as "space" demanded:
I demand space to operate here and in return I believe I should keep out of the political space ... I
expect to be left alone to deal with my own industrial matters, with personnel matters,
operational stuff, with investment or lack thereof in systems (CEO7).
Often, though, personnel or industrial matters become political. The space becomes a war zone
and intruding ministers become embroiled:
Once (ministers) start to interfere and start telling me what the inputs are going to be, I would
wash my hands of the accountability. I'm very clear about my accountability (CEO8).
In this admission, the CEO begins in the structural discourse, treating managerial accountability
as part of a contract, which he will abdicate if the political side of the contract is breached. But
managerial accountability can become a curse, of which it is more difficult to rid oneself than
washing" hands. Doomed to a ritual of hand washing, CEOs often feel forced to become the
"meat in the Sandwich' or the Sacrificial lamb for a decision that can be judged, with the
expediency that hindsight brings, as either political or administrative. This CEO neatly resolves
this dilemma by contrasting two forms: "the accountability and "my accountability", implying
that even when the former managerial accountability, as the property of a contract, is
dispensable, there is always personal accountability to fall back on.
Professional accountability
Professional accountability invokes the sense of duty that one has as a member of a professional
or expert group, which in turn Occupies a privileged and knowledgeable position in society.
While professional accountability values expertise and professional integrity, the enactment of
"professionalism' is given widely different expression by CEOs. For one CEO enacting
professional accountability means being the top professional in an agency dominated by a
particular professional group, for another it means being a professional administrator in the
public servant sense, and for another, being a professional manager. Being professionally
accountable also involves representing the professional values of an agency workforce to a
sceptical government or community. The very divergence of meanings of being professional'
and the varying difficulties perceived in meeting this accountability indicate that despite the
managerialist agenda of replacing traditional professional or administrative values in public
agencies with generic management values, professionalism remains the subject of claims by
competing ideologies.
One CEO sees his job performance primarily in terms of adherence to his original profession
and its codes of conduct. When a parliamentary committee asked "You were an engineer?', he
corrected them with the retort "I am an engineer'. Similarly unusual among this sample is the
view of a central agency CEO who talked of the professionalism of being an administrator:
"When I was interviewed for this job, I asked the Premier 'Are you looking for a political
appointment or for a professional administrator?. Professionalism in the public sector for him
means respecting traditional Westminster principles such as a commitment in public service to
"permanency", "invisibility" and "the merit principle", but also an "integrity in decision making".
"The quality of the advice has to be impeccable, not ideologically based and not narrowly
political, but sensitive to community concerns and to politics". "(L)etting the managers manage',
produces agencies which are unaccountable' to "the legitimate concern of citizens and groups of
citizens". A third CEO advocates professional management as the solution to corrupted
professionalism, and he sees himself, and is seen in the service, as an effective generalist
manager. His aim is "a much more business like framework... at the moment my effort is to, if
you like, professionalise the department and turn it into a well-run, reasonably highly-focused
Although the content of the path to professional accountability in these three cases varies and
CEOs prescribe different patterns of allegiance, each is described, in the structural discourse,
using language which is signposted by the assertion of touchstone values and uncontestable
ideals like probity. In contrast, professional accountability becomes much harder to uphold when
CEOs are required to defend the professional status of agency "members'. While this role is
accepted as part of the job, the language portrays a more ambivalent stance, borne of defending a
professional group who may be perceived as intransigent or self-serving: "they expect me to
publicly represent their interests, to be seen to be supporting them publicly. To be prepared to do
battle with the government and with the critics, and defend them. I think that's fair enough.
In contrast to others set on introducing management discipline into a professionally "captured"
organisation, one CEO sees a resuscitation of embattled or corrupted profesSional identity as an
important component of his own accountability. Although a "civilian', his vision for his
Organisation includes restructuring "the profession in a very fundamental way", ensuring his
successor is "the chief (professional) officer' and getting officers "to be more professional'. In the
following extract this CEO begins in the personal discourse with a colloquial understanding of
what he does. He elaborates his task' in the structural discourse, but reverts to the personal
when, with his wife as audience, he wonders whether he has done anything at all. The
romanticised vision of establishing a special sort of professionalism Seems invisible, perhaps
non-existent, and there are risks if the government doesn't meet its part of the bargain:
the real pointy end is the officers ... in one sense that's all I've done, for three years. In a deeper
sense that's what I've regarded my task as being - to keep the profession pointing towards the
function of the Organisation ... I see my task as quite simply to keep the organisation running in
the creative tension between the policies of government, which mainly refer to financial
administration, and our mission statement which is the prevention response to emergencies. So,
when my wife and I were driving down to Warrnambool the other day and she said "What do
you actually do, love?" I said "I actually don't do very much at all, I don't do anything'. Because
that's what I see my task as being, to make sure that we keep moving in the direction of being
responsive to government policy and part of the government family, and at the same time
representing to that family very strongly our own professional role. It is a two-way thing. We are
not only part of the family and responsible to them, in a sense they are responsible to us (CEO9).
When professional solidarity is just a shield for bad behaviour or bad practice', another CEO
admits his fears that the right sort of professionalism may not be allowed to surface: "In the very
negative sense, there's the brotherhood, closing ranks if there's trouble and hiding things that go
wrong ... We are having Some success ... that came to light by one of Our young fellows putting
up his hand and Saying 'Excuse me, but I think we've got a problem.
Professional accountability is thus given divergent meaning and professionalism is being actively
constructed in new and hybrid forms by these CEOs - from the upholding of a besieged public
service ethic (Uhr, 1990; Harmon & Mayer, 1986), to the assertion Of the need for business-
like professional management, from making-over old values to taking hard or unpopular
decisions: "having the guts to weed out and report problems". Professionalism in the structural
discourse is a virtue, reassuringly simple to assert. In the personal discourse, the difficulties of
wrestling with the intransigent professionals of others is admitted. Examining the personal
discourse reveals the obstacles in a straightforward implementation of a more professional
approach". Professional accountability is often lonely, with CEOs upholding professional
standards to government but still isolated from the professionals so defended:
There are times when I'm sure I do things that the Government don't particularly like. There are
certainly times I do things when some of the workforce are not happy. I hope there are not too
many times when I do things where the majority of the public are unhappy - I think that would
be unlikely (and later) I'm really just expected to represent the general interests of the members
and to act as a barrier between them and what they see, at least, as unfounded criticism. To fight
hard for the kind of resourcing they believe they need to do the job. To fight for things ... And
they expect me to do the best I can to advance the interests of members and the organisation
Personal accountability
Personal accountability is fidelity to personal conscience in basic values such as respect for
human dignity and acting in a manner that accepts responsibility for affecting the lives of others
(Harmon & Mayer, 1986). It rests on the belief that ultimately accountability is driven by
adherence to internalised moral and ethical values. Because it is enforced by psychological,
rather than external, controls, personal accountability is regarded as particularly powerful and
binding. Personal accountability can also be reinforced by an organisational culture where "the
articulation of shared values and beliefs ...
can truly become a way of being" (Denhardt, 1991, p. 30).
CEOs consider their personal accountability as a Self-imposed allegiance which comes into
play as an ultimate limit: "the quality of people measured in their acceptance of responsibility'.
Perhaps, unpredictably, this form of accountability is considered within both discourses. In the
structural discourse, there is a reassuring detachment in CEOs' remarks, as in government
documents: "Permanent Secretaries have direct personal accountability for financial propriety'
(Jenkins et al., 1988, p. 17). Personal accountability is an element in a much grander scheme Of
things, fidelity to a higher cause, and values Such as honesty and the public interest are invoked.
It is "doing what's right because it is right and living with the consequences'. This accountability
is beyond personality or debate, and the structural discourse removes from Consideration the
awesome emotional impacts of being "personally accountable".
In Other circumstances, personal accountability is more "idiosyncratic, the product of an
upbringing or personal voyage of discovery: "I'm a very plain blunt man, I put things right up
front. It "comes through taking a few knocks ... We work in a highly irrational environment and
you have to accept that. Being personally accountable includes applying the test of Common
sense' and living and working according to "squeaky clean' standards. A matter of judgement,
CEOs are not sure when or why personal accountability asserts itself, they just know that it does:
My father was always in management. He had a very old. fashioned kind of philosophy from
where I stand but a very, if you like, highly moral philosophy, and one of personal responsibility.
If something happens, it's your fault. And he underlined, I think, the instinct for positions where
you determine the outcome and are seen to succeed or fail. That came in part from just a family
traditional influence ... individual responsibility and all those kinds of things. And I would define
correct behaviour in those terms (CEO7).
In the structural discourse, personal accountability requires a matter of fact recognition of a
bigger scheme of things. In the personal discourse asserting this accountability is an ineScapable
process only partially in one's control but where the risks are high. It is interceded by judgements
which only the CEO can make: "I've got to find out or assess where that balance lies."
"Ultimately, of course, if the government insists, I either implement their policies or step down.
One would hope it doesn't come to this - but I guess that's the bottom line." Personal
accountability can haunt like a ghost or overpower like a higher being: "We have to understand
there is a time when you run out of places to hide." Those who exhibit personal accountability
are "regarded as difficult to manage. In other words they won't do what's required of them, if
they think it's required for the wrong reasons and the penalties lie in shabby ignominy: "it's not
hard to think of people who've been shuffled sideways into oblivion'.
Chief Executives describe a chameleon-like accountability towards competing constituencies:
the public and client groups, the minister and cabinet, the Auditor-General and parliament, to a
shifting professional peer group and to themselves. They feel accountable for many different
things: for implementing government programmes and interpreting policy, for budget delivery,
for ensuring due processes are observed and interest groups are consulted, for defending
colleagues and being true to themselves and their upbringing. This research also confirms that
accountability is multiple and fragmented: being accountable in one form often requires
compromises of other sorts of accountability.
Perhaps more importantly, though, this research suggests that accountability is continually
being constructed. Drawing on fading administrative and imported managerial ideologies, CEOs
interweave their own experience, to produce and reproduce varying conceptions of
accountability, identified here as structural and personal discourses. Within the structural
discourse, CEOs produce accountability as an objectified feature Of a contract or position,
through the use of rational, non-emotive language and the articulation of understandings about
the way things work, derived from prevalent ideologies and the language that accompanies them.
Within this discourse, accountability is not problematic, but can be "delivered' to, and extracted
from, others by following procedures. Within the other personal discourse, CEOs claim
accountability as something they uphold and fear, Something about which they feel both anguish
and attachment as a "moral practice (Schweiker, 1993).
The analysis of discourses make visible and explicable the layers of meanings, the
contradictions and tensions, when CEOs talk about each form of accountability. Accountability
is not what is seems. Political accountability in the structural discourse is a division of labour, an
assurance of space that can be turned to advantage. In the personal discourse it is experienced as
chasm-like, where "there are no guidelines' but the costs of crossing them are high. Public
accountability is a determined but, on occasion, martyred stance of openness; it is a prison or
"trap' in the personal discourse, but a necessary one in the Structural discourse. Managerial
accountability is autonomy in return for accepting managerially defined controls and discipline,
although it often doesn't provide the freedom it promises. Managerial accountability in the
personal discourse is also difficult to extract from others; not the straightforward delivery of a
contract, as the structural discourse implies. Professional accountability is a defence of shared
values, a Collegial and supported process of invoking professional ideals, but in the personal
discourse a lonely process of "weeding out' internal miscreants. Personal accountability is a
philoSophy of constancy to unassailable principle, but when inspected in the personal discourse,
proves to be more idiosyncratic. Each form of accountability can be both oasis and abyss.
What are the implications of these findings? There are both methodological and substantive
implications, as well as practical recommendations for those seeking to improve the
accountability of administrators. Firstly, the research supports the importance of using alternative
analytical tools where traditional methods leave fields fallow of insight. Discourse analysis alerts
us to the role of subjectivity, language and power in coming to an understanding of phenomena
(Burrell & Morgan, 1979; Arrington & Francis, 1989). Prevailing conceptions and discourses of
accountability, such as the structural discourse of managerial accountability, are the reflection of
the hegemony of particular languages and distributions of power in Society. Our analysis reveals
that such conceptions are not simply nor comfortably embraced. More fruitful for future research
than recognising different forms of accountability, may be plotting discourses to find what
accountability counts for whom and why. While this research has limited itself to exploring CEO
constructions of their accountability, there is Scope to speculate on wider social and political
discourses, on how, for example, these CEOs reflections reinforce the prevailing political
discourse (in which) a value and legitimacy is seemingly being set on accounting itself
(Hopwood, 1990, p. 405). To understand accountability better we need to recognise that
"knowledge production is always a political act" (Arrington & Francis, 1989, p. 4).
In this research the personal discourse is inconspicuous but persistent. In spite of the
managerialist preoccupation with supplanting political debate with technical expertise and the
legacy of accounting legitimacy giving a "calculative priority" (Hopwood, 1990, p. 395) to the
economic rather than the social, these CEOs showed a desire to keep, in their calculus of
accountability, a connection with private sites for its construction and moral motives for being
The second set of implications of this research are thus substantive ones, about how
accountability is to be defined and enhanced. These findings introduce some components of
accountability that have not previously been considered. With a few exceptions (Weick, 1985),
the subject of emotion in organisations has not been studied. In political science, Davies (1980)
noted that the study of affect has been neglected, which is curious when one considers how
Strongly people feel about politics. Fear, vulnerability and fealty are some of the emotions that
contribute to a "feeling' of accountability. Acknowledging emotions as ingredients is an
important step to enhanced accountability.
Finally, much of the discussion of accountability in public management quarters advocates the
imposition of increasingly stringent forms of managerial accountability. There is no evidence
from our research that efforts to delineate or impose tighter requirements for managerial
accountability will solve the problem of accountability which these CEOs face. Such efforts
assume that accountability can be "delivered', like a product batch.
Argyris notes how performance evaluation, a key plank in many systems of managerial
accountability, is "tailor-made" to prevent learning (1991, p. 104). One of the reasons is that such
imposed systems of accountability discourage managers from confronting failure and learning
from it. The demand for accountability thus stimulates a set of responses in which the manager
evacuates via defences leaving an empty shell of procedures and numbers, where a sense of
accountability might have been (Argyris, 1990). Roberts observes the anxious preoccupation
with how one is seen by others, which hierarchical accountability induces, seems wholly
antithetical to the creation of self knowledge and the embrace of failure as an opportunity for
learning" (1991, p. 366). This reduces accountability to "the management of expectations
(O'Laughlin, 1990). The pursuit of accountability through this route of proliferating management
controls can in fact produce its opposite. An edifice of defences, designed to repel any challenge,
stands where a commitment to openness and embracing responsibility should be.
Accountability is not independent of the person occupying a position of responsibility, nor of
the context. Defining accountability, the way it is internalised and experienced should be our
focus, not retreating to ever more desperate calls for audits or tougher controls. This argument is
consistent with a finding of British research on public authority members, who tended to define
accountability in terms of their ... own sense of what was sensible or proper: they internalised
accountability, as it were, as a general duty to pursue the public good according to their own
criteria of what was right" (Day & Klein, 1987, p. 229). This is not to suggest that administrators
should only be accountable to what they decide; a course described as "solipsistic subjectivity
(Harmon, 1986, p. 216). Rather it is to argue that prescriptions of accountability will remain
unrealised if they ignore the "variety of other possible experiences of accountability" (Roberts,
1991, p. 361) and how they are encouraged.
Accountability is a responsiveness and ownership of outcomes which "goes beyond the idea of
just holding to account. It requires the public manager to find ways of giving account" (Pollitt,
1990, p. 151). The management of one's own and others' accountabilities requires Strategies tied
to an understanding of language and ideology, values and ethics, emotion and motivation.
Understanding forms and discourses of accountability can improve administrators' Capacity to
explore the tensions, gaps and contradictions that reside in constructing a Sense of
accountability. Experiencing accountability from within the structural discourse is a defense
against anxiety' (Menzies, 1984) and serves an important purpose for administrators, allowing
them to steer through a quagmire of contesting claims. At the same time, the personal discourse
provides a vehicle to admit fears and doubts. It was this very shift between discourses that
enabled CEOs to feel themselves accountable: neither overwhelmed by vulnerabilities, nor so
detachedly an agent of structure that they were unable to feel accountable. Meaning is thus
produced through the shift from one discourse to another, through "difference" (Hollway, 1989,
p. 40). Because the structural and personal discourses, "offer competing, potentially
contradictory ways of giving meaning to the world' (Gavey, 1989, p. 464), they are, for CEOs, an
essential device in the process of actively constructing and renegotiating their accountability.
Researchers of public management note that "old formulas of accountability will prove less
and less appropriate" as the scale, diversity and complexity of public organisations create new
pressures and problems for those held accountable in public administration (Metcalfe &
Richards, 1987). Managerial models of administrative reform have framed the search for ways to
make administrators more accountable: asserting accountability is a matter of imposing
programme budgeting, performance monitoring and tighter audits, "leaving managers free to
manage' (Jenkins et al., 1988, p. 11).
In contrast, this research reveals CEOs Constructing accountability by "managing meaning
(Gowler & Legge, 1983), through Subjective and linguistic, interactive and political processes.
Called to account in different ways and from different quarters, a repertoire of forms and
discourses enables CEOs to accommodate and deal with the anxiety involved in being
accountable. Accountability was assessed from the evidence of social exchanges: with the public
and the press, with ministers and managers. And CEOs are also evidently attached to their
accountability; the sense of themselves as accountable was derived via a reflexive process of
moving between discourses. A belief in accountability as an attainable structural property or
political relationship was important alongside admitting the risks and fears of accountability as a
sense of openness and Ownership.
For the designers and reformers of adminiStrative systems the solution is not to institutionalise
one form of accountability, legitimised according to a single ideology. Instead of encouraging
administrators to surrender to an imposed and partial measure, efforts to enhance accountability
should recognise and build on the processes which enable the construction of a more robust and
privately anchored experience of accountability.