Public accountability : understanding through the accounts of others.
This work reconsiders the meanings attached to the concept of public accountability.
While formally central to the constitution in the UK, its meaning is a contested one.
After reviewing the literature, the work situates the concept of accountability in two
case studies, each a discretionary service provided to vulnerable individuals. In this
context, the research critically reviews the way in which the concept of accountability
operates in practice, and particularly whether it meets the expressed neeeds of
individuals and groups to whom the services are accountable.
The central arguments emerging from this work challenge the established meanings of
the concept of accountability, ones associated with control, redress, responsibility and
with blame. The formal accounts presented of each case study differed markedly
from those presented by managers, frontline service providers, welfare rights advisers
and user advocates. As such, these formal accounts were misleading, bearing little
relationship to the experienceo of users.
Rather, the work suggests the need for a more reflexive, socialising model in which
accountability is a means to understanding the nature of public services through the
stories, the accounts, others tell of those services. The actions of public servants are
better understood in the light of the experience of applicants or users. In this sense it
is more concerned with dialogue than it is with mechanisms of control.
As such, this alternative conceptualisation of accountability presents both a challenge
and an opportunity. Opening up a dialogue that genuinely includes the voices of
vulnerable and excluded groups and that moves beyond the current language of blame
and responsibility to embrace understanding requires a degree of political maturity
and a cultural shift in the public sector. Yet, through such dialogue, there is the
potential to better understand
public services and, in consequence, raise standards.
The work advocates the need to include the accounts of citizens in our understanding
of public services and of the concept of accountability.