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Does an efficient public service destroy community accountability?

New Public Management is an approach to running public service organizations (government services), and civil service generally, focused on service delivery that is efficient, business-like, and that incorporates market based principles. It includes management techniques and practices drawn from the private sector, allowing public servants to contract out services through competitive contracting, and focused on the professionalized delivery of public services.

The problem is...this approach may result in a loss to democratic accountability.

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash
In a previous post we outlined two key dimensions to accountability; 1) understanding and monitoring decisions that are made, and 2) access to trustworthy information. Public administration, and the notion of public service, was traditionally focused on accountability to constituents via centralized control, and reporting to, defined government ministries and departments. This model is far from perfect; centralized bureaucracies are problematic in their own right. Combined with the power of the nation-state, centralized bureaucratic control can result in all sorts of oppressive practices and misallocation of resources.

However, this model at least had the advantage of transparent reporting lines. We can see where, and who, makes decisions. Further, 'public administration' and 'civil service' were focused on service to the public. A career in the civil service was distinct from a career in the private sector. It was meant to entail the administration of public resources and assets based on the preferences and decisions from, drum roll please...the public itself!!

Unfortunately, New Public Management is almost exclusively focused on accountability to outcomes and efficient service delivery. This is fine as long as the public gets to define the outcomes. However, in the version of New Public Management that has rolled out around the world since the 80's, many services are delivered by autonomous agencies and through contracts to third parties. Not only that, but in many cases the efficient delivery of services (defined most often as low cost) has outweighed any focus on effective impact. Never mind empowering residents as citizens, with democratic agency.

An additional challenge is how to have oversight over competitive contracting to the private sector? Combined with the centralized control of the nation-state, how can individual communities see and understand the decision-making that impacts their neighbourhood? How does accountability with a 3rd party contractor work, at the level of the communities where they are delivering services?

To put it bluntly, if residents have concerns or feedback about how a service is being provided in their community by a contracted agency, who are they expected to call? The service provider? Their elected official? The public servant overseeing the contract? All of the above?

Presumably, with a focus on accountability to outcomes, the New Public Management approach would see us, as community members, express our desire for different outcomes by voting for a new set of elected representatives. However, when you keep in mind the unique characteristics and diverse needs of individual communities, how effective is this approach? And how responsive in between elections?

Is it time to define community accountability in a different way? We think so. And there are some amazing groups and individuals redefining what accountability to community could look like. Stay tuned to hear more.



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