The farming out of government service delivery and oversight to private contractors has led to a broadened understanding of what improves fairness, transparency and stakeholder engagement in public administration (Daniels, et al. 2000). But it also engenders a vexing host of problems for practitioners. Because the rules and procedures are different for private vendors, across government boundaries, and among different stakeholders, public-private networks present a new host of management challenges and accountability concerns between administrators, the elected public officers and the citizenry.
Problems of accountability in the new network-based public administration arise from a lack of communication and information-sharing that can leave policymakers, public administrators and the public equally flummoxed. The wealth of network literature that has emerged in recent decades identifies a broad array of similar breakdowns associated with the phenomenon.
Network Structures and Cohesion
Public administration has come a long way since Wilson’s classic politics-administration dichotomy. Just as management scholars no longer assume political influences can be decapitated from the proper exercise of government functions, the new public management has come to accept that managers themselves are required to be adept at skills of persuasion and manipulation in order to successfully complete their duties. Stakeholders must be cajoled, incentivized or appeased, and the multitude of actors within public-private networks must be managed with tactics much different from the ordinary vertically integrated government agency. How else can managers tasked with overseeing public policy and programs be successful in an environment in which the hierarchical, top-down institutional machinery they were trained to operate has been replaced by new networked circuitry were they may no longer be the most important component?
The public management research on networks has proliferated over the last twenty years largely focused on network formation, managers within networks, and network outputs and impact on democratic processes (Berry, Choi Sang, Goa, Jang, Kwon, & Ward, 2004) As public managers and researchers alike have come to recognize that traditional top-down bureaucracies are largely no longer the dominant singular structure for implementing policies, both the research agendas and management tactics have adapted. It would be overstating this transformation to say that hierarchical, top-down public agencies are fading into history. But at the least, public institutions are no longer going it alone (Agranoff & McGuire, 2001; Bardach, 2001; Provan & Milward, 1995).
With command and control principles rendered largely ineffective within a network relationship, scholars have identified a plethera of other influences that bind networks together, including trust and mutual obligation (Nohria, 1992); a collective sense of benefiting the public good that creates network cohesion (Alter & Hage, 1993; Mandell, 1999); and the classic organizational perspective that interdependnency based on the availability of resources and their uneven allocation contributes to network formation and maintenance (Pennings, 1981).
More recently, researchers have examined key distrinctions between managing information and knowledge between organizations and networks. Knowledge management (KM) becomes a common currency between individual organizations with unique intellectual capital, experiences, and expertise (Davenport & Prusak, 1998).
Information breakdowns are largely the scapegoat for public organizations’ inability to adapt contractual structures to changing problems, and networks are not immune. As the DCA case illustrates, public organizations all charged with administering federal, state, regional and local development rules are often fallible, and a breakdown in information-sharing and knowledge management often times plays a central role. Information breakdowns are not solely internal problems. In the DCA example, multiple state and local agencies tasked with administered the same growth rules were not sharing information effectively, but external stakeholders were also kept in the dark as key decision-points passed. The rise of networks has created a confusing web of implementation stations with limited responsibility for external communications and media relations, complying with public-records laws, or fielding stakeholder inquiries (DeGrove, 2005).
On a national scale, Desouza (2009) examines information and knowledge management breakdowns within the United States Intelligence Community during the 1990s that preceded terrorist attacks on U.S. assets throughout that decade, as well the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon, and the failure to accurately assess the threat of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Desouza employs a qualitative knowledge management model to assess competency in four components identified as “sources management, analytics management, interpretation management and action management” (2009, p. 1228). Through interviews with current and former intelligence community employees, Desouza offers a rich description of how the 22 various intelligence agencies utilize their networked capabilities – effectively and not so much – to develop sources, cull information from them, forecast based on what they’ve gathered, and take action based on their analytics. The results identify three core problems in information and knowledge management that Desouza describes as transcendental to public-sector networks overall: a lack of trust between agencies; a history of past non-collaboration; and the lack of uniform management standards between agencies (p. 1257-1258). Clearly, the rise of networks has created a more complex environment for public managers in which they no longer drive the decision-making.
Accountability in a Networked World
A definition of accountability throughout the literature is essentially the implementation, measurement and refinement of policy objectives and management of public agencies within the specifications of elected policymakers, who in turn are accountable to the public. In practice, accountability for public managers has evolved into engaging private stakeholders into all phases of the development, implementation and maintenance of government programs. But even this assumed accountability fails to deliver when broad swaths of the public not usually engaged on a particular issue become polarized, either by some exogenous shock or political manipulation.
Concerns over keeping government accountable to elected “sovereigns” (and theoretically, the public) are virtually as old as the field of public management. In the post-New Deal era of management, the effects of administrative discretion on the ideals and practices of democratic governance have been a key curiosity of policy and management theory (Mazmanian & Sabatier, 1983). Since economists in 1960s like William Niskanen, Jr., and Anthony Downs first developed formal theories of bureau supply that suggested bureaucracies grow too large, too quickly and should be imbued with market competition for government services, public management scholars have questioned how to practice accountable public management in a democratic context (Niskanen, 1971; Frederickson, 1997).
Networks – if one is to believe they are a relatively new formation in the genealogy on government – have emerged as a response to the failures of managerial accountability, the inefficiencies of interest-group pluralism, and the problems of centralized bureaucracies with implementation. At the same time, knowledge and expertise have become diversified and diffuse, adding to the need for public organizations to collaborate with outside sources of technical expertise (Gray, 1989). This need to network complicates the mission of remaining accountable, because the partners themselves may not be imbued with the same public purpose and mission. For every new branch of the network extending outward from the central government bureau, the chain of accountability becomes one more link further removed.
In their extensive meta-analysis of 137 network studies of collaborative governance, Ansell and Gash sum up the practitioner perspective that has also driven the research when they note that the policy stream “seems to promise that if we govern collaboratively, we may avoid the high costs of adversarial policy making, expand democratic participation, and even restore rationality to public management” (Ansell & Gash, 2007). This may be wishful thinking. But the expansion of democratic participation seems to be an implied assumption that flows forth from better relationships between public managers and stakeholders, and advanced knowledge development and problem solving. The studies encapsulated in their meta-analysis show wide variation between successful collaboration where adversarial relationships have been overcome, and less successful ones where key stakeholders manipulated networks and distrust grew. But the element of accountability itself never emerges as an explanatory variable. While Ansell and Gash are able to develop “contingent conditions” under which collaboration is likely to flourish or flounder, the aim of their work was never specifically to offer suggestions for improving network accountability. Therefore, we turn to one area of policy where accountability has developed into a contractual relationship, one I believe could be utilized as a generalize-able management best-practice beyond any specific policy domain.
Accountability agreements have emerged within the health-care community where public health-care providers such as hospitals have been contractually bound to use public funding and distribute it in accordance with a pre-arranged schedule. They have been utilized extensively in health care reforms in Canada where Local Health Integration Networks have been created to contract with local hospitals and the state, and research is beginning to emerge studying their effectiveness and impact on priory setting for government-run health care (Reeleder, et al. 2008). Accountability agreements have been widely used in the private-sector, but have recently emerged in varied types of government activities, from economic development to transportation projects.
While there is scant research of the pervasiveness of accountability agreements in the public sector, there is evidence they have been effective is some environments in re-establishing some degree of control over interdependent actors in networks environments. Veillard et al. conducted a three-year study of the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care’s efforts to utilize accountability agreements to improve stewardship of public resources and enhance performance management functions of government. The authors concluded that connecting key agreed-upon local and regional health-care goals into accountability agreements “helped to strengthen substantially the ministry's performance management function” (Veillard, et al., 2010).
The common thread between public-private accountability agreements is the expenditure of public resources by private enterprise, but the practice holds promise in other areas of government activity such as service delivery.
Accountability agreements in the private sector are conceptualized differently than public-sector alternatives. They convey “a promise and an obligation, both to yourself and to the people around you, to deliver specific, defined results,” and represents “a personal commitment to the organization and to those the organization serves” rather than “departments, work groups, or entire organizations” (Klatt, Murphy, & Irvine, 1999). Public-sector accountability agreements tend to spell out legal parameters of contracts, technical specifications, and performance standards.
In public policy subsystems, accountability agreements could be used to ensure each participant recognizes their role in the center of a networked community. Network stakeholders would have clearly articulated expectations for participation, and a covenant with each other to accomplish goals.
It should be obvious to public administrators, researchers and anyone who has interacted with government lately, that the privatization and “hollowing out” of government service delivery requires more collaborative strategies for achieving common goals and maintaining democratic oversight. But it is also clear that ensuring accountability between the larger community of policy actors, public managers, policymakers, and the citizenry has often failed to adapt new procedures and tactics to achieve equilibrium with this new environment. Accountability agreements could be more widely utilized between public and private stakeholders within government-led networks to ensure multi-directional communication channels and knowledge-sharing, public access, and alignment and goals.
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I work as an Assistant Professor at Northern Illinois University. I received my PhD in Public Administration from Florida State University.