Calibrating Public Sector Accountability: Translating experimental findings to public sector accountability

Article · January 2016with208 Reads
DOI: 10.1080/14719037.2015.1112423
Accountability mechanisms are among the most important means with which governments guard and improve the performance of public sector organizations. However, research documents a plethora of accountability-failures. A key issue is: how can public sector accountability become more effective? This paper seeks to answer this question by connecting two largely separated strands of research: public administration research on real-world organizations and experimental research on the effects of different forms of accountability on decision-making. The paper develops the Calibrated Public Accountability-model (CPA-model) from experimental research findings which can be used to investigate how accountability can be calibrated to task requirements of organizations.
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Calibrating Public Sector Accountability:
Translating experimental findings to public sector
Thomas Schillemans
To cite this article: Thomas Schillemans (2015): Calibrating Public Sector Accountability:
Translating experimental findings to public sector accountability, Public Management Review
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Translating experimental
findings to public sector
Thomas Schillemans
Thomas Schillemans
Department of Public Governance and Management
Utrecht University School of Governance
The Netherlands
Accountability mechanisms are among the
most important means with which govern-
ments guard and improve the performance of
public sector organizations. However,
research documents a plethora of accountabil-
ity-failures. A key issue is: how can public
sector accountability become more effective?
This paper seeks to answer this question by
connecting two largely separated strands of
research: public administration research on
real-world organizations and experimental
research on the effects of different forms of
accountability on decision-making. The paper
develops the Calibrated Public Accountability-
model (CPA-model) from experimental
research findings which can be used to inves-
tigate how accountability can be calibrated to
task requirements of organizations.
Key words
Public accountability, public organizations,
public sector, experimental research,
decision-making, performance
Public Management Review, 2015
© 2015 Taylor & Francis
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In contemporary systems of governance, public policies are delivered by a multitude of
(quasi-)public organizations. This has made accountability increasingly important in
order to regulate, coordinate and control the organizations involved in public policies
(Christensen and Lægreid 2011, 6; Papadopoulos 2010). Public sector organizations
now operate in increasingly dense webs of accountability(Page 2006), where they
need to explain and justify their decisions and performance to a variety of account-
ability forums(Bovens, Schillemans, and Goodin 2014), such as government depart-
ments, inspections, auditors, critical clients and the media. Accordingly, research
interest in accountabilityhas doubled over the past decade in the various academic
disciplines (Dubnick 2014; Yang 2012).
Theoretically, public accountability mechanisms are of crucial importance in democ-
racies, as they aim to ascertain appropriatebehaviour and organizational performance.
In practice, however, many dysfunctional effects are reported (Flinders 2011; Power
1997). Some public sector professionals devote 2040 per cent of their time to
administrative chores related to accountability (Noordegraaf and Sterrenburg. 2009,
239). Many public managers report that accountability simply requires more and more
of their time (Pollitt 2003). Moreover, there are many reported accountability-failures,
such as paralyzing uncertainty(Koppell 2005), pre-occupation with short-term
success (Halachmi 2014) and gaming behaviour, such as hitting the target but missing
the point(Bevan and Hood 2006, 521). Experimental research confirms that account-
ability may produce an array of effects . . . only some of which are beneficial(Lerner
and Tetlock 1999, 270).
This paper aims to provide a new theoretical basis for the systematic study of
public sector accountability, by translating insights from experimental research on
accountability to real-world public sector settings. Experimental research has
mapped out how different attributes of accountability are likely to have various
positive and negative effects on individual decisions (see for overviews Lerner and
Tetlock 1999; Bergsteiner 2012). These attributes refer to specific situational
features of the accountability context, such as the timingof accountability or
the focus of accountability. These insights are of acute relevance to the study of
public sector accountability, although experimental findings need to be translated to
real-world settings.
This paper develops the Calibrated Public Accountability-model (CPA-model) on the
basis of experimental insights in the effects of certain types of accountability on
certain types of decisions. The CPA-model describes how six important attributes
of accountability are likely to affect decision-making in public sector organizations.
One of these attributes is, for instance, whether the accountability forum focusses
on processes or results, which has profound effects on the decisions and behaviours of
agents (Lerner and Tetlock 1999;Patil,Vieider,andTetlock2014). Insights from
experimental research can be translated and used in meso-level settings of public
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sector organizations, although this translation of experimentally produces knowledge
thatneedstobemadewithcare(seeMargetts2011;McDermott2002). The
model serves as a coherent set of hypotheses that open up new opportunities for
systematic analysis and theoretical improvement.
The paper consists of three parts. The paper starts out with an elaboration of public
accountability research in public administration and a reflection on two key features
supporting our quest for calibration. The paper then zooms in on social psychological
research on accountability and identifies the constitutive elements of the CPA- model.
The paper then closes with a reflection on the potential research applications of this
model, not only its advantages for accountability research in public administration but
also some of the caveats and challenges involved.
Accountability is generally defined as a communicative interaction between an agent
with a responsibility for some actions and decisions and an audience or accountability
forum, demanding accountability and equipped with the ability to correct and punish
the agent (Bovens 2007). As Day and Klein (1987, 5) put it: To talk about account-
ability is to define who can call for an account, and who owes a duty of explanation.
This definition applies not only to the micro-level of interpersonal accountability
(between a public manager and his/her board, for instance) but also to the meso-
level of organizational accountability (between a school, for instance, and the
Accountability is a pervasive contingency in the professional lives of public managers,
street-level bureaucrats and professionals in the public sector. They operate in increasingly
dense webs of accountability (Page 2006) in which their strategic or operational decisions
and actions, and the files in which these are recorded, are prone to be met with critical
scrutiny by a host of external accountability forums (Bovens 2007). These webs of
accountability consist of a merry hotchpotch of accountability institutions, rules and
mechanisms, involving, to mention just a few, politicians, central government depart-
ments, specialized regulatory agencies, the national court of audit, non-governing boards,
administrative and financial regulations, professional norms and standards, evaluation
committees, critical media, citizens, clients and stakeholders (Bovens, Schillemans, and
Goodin 2014; Page 2006).
The expanding and quasi-anarchically structured web of public sector account-
ability invokes growing concerns, by academics, practitioners and governments,
about overall efficiency, transaction costs, effectiveness and negative and perverse
side-effects (Flinders 2011; Koppell 2005;Ossege2012). In particular, the latter
have been diagnosed in the bulging political science and public administration
studies on accountability (Halachmi 2014, 561), which is littered with examples
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of perverse, negative or lacking effects of accountability. Both public sector
organizations and public sector professionals complain about over-exposure to
accountability, which limits their professional autonomy and, ultimately, their
capacity to act effectively (Pollitt 2003; Noordegraaf and Sterrenburg 2009).
Many definitions of accountability in the academic literature are static in nature and
provide for typologies of accountability (Romzek and Dubnick 1998; Koppell 2005;
Bovens, Schillemans, and Goodin 2014). As a result, many studies of accountability are
in fact mapping exercises, where systems of accountability are described or effects are
assessed at a single point in time. Very often, these mapping projects result from
changes in systems of governance. Accountability, then, is often the critical companion
to administrative reform. Interesting recent examples include the effects on account-
ability of welfare state reforms (Lægreid and Mattei 2013), Europeanization (Bovens
and Curtin 2010) and network governance (Willems and Van Dooren 2012).
The above-mentioned examples stand out by developing a common conceptual
currency with which we can speak meaningfully about political and administrative
issues. These conceptual frameworks allow authors to isolate instances of accountability
and to develop a taxonomy of the most important existing species of accountability.
The dynamic processes evolving through accountability, however, the actual interac-
tions between accountable entities and their accountability forums the mechanics of
accountability so to speak are not incorporated in most conceptual frameworks. The
most important potential predictive theory of public sector accountability is agency
theory, but studies suggest that there are limitations in using this framework (Skelcher
2009; Schillemans and Busuioc 2015). For this reason, the insights from experimental
research can be highly valuable, as they naturally focus on exactly the dynamic
interactions between decision-makers and their accountability forums or audience
(Lerner and Tetlock 1999).
The experimental tradition in accountability research has demonstrated that different
types of accountability induce different types of responses from agents. This is of acute
relevance for the public sector where very different types of tasks are performed by a
variety of organizations (Verhoest et al. 2010, 96), suggesting that the accountability
system should be calibrated to task requirements in order to optimize performance. To
calibrate means to adapt something here: accountability mechanisms to some
standard. There are different standards for organizations with different types of tasks,
which drives the quest for calibrationof accountability. Two real-world features
underscore this quest, as will be discussed further: task diversity and systemic
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Task diversity
Public sector decision-making is almost like a game of Chinese whispers: it is a series of
successive individual decisions, starting, for instance, with the minister of education,
and then slowly spiralling down via civil servants in ministries to executives and
administrators at different levels in universities to the street-level of individual research-
ers and teaching staff in public universities. As in Chinese whispers, there is always the
threat of loss in translation. Decisions made at the top may be substantially, even
fundamentally, altered by the time they hit the floor, as was seminally discussed by
Lipsky (1980). Unlike in Chinese whispers, however, public sector decision-makers use
accountability mechanisms with which they try to exert influence over lower-level
decision-makers and with which they hope to induce them to take gooddecisions.
The trouble is that what counts as a gooddecision varies widely (Koppell 2005). It
would be tempting to judge decisions by their direct outcome, making accountability an
easy game in which those formally responsible for deficient outcomes are punished.
But, when we take into account the complexity and uncertainty of public sector
decision-making, where many handsare involved in the production of public goods,
it is obvious that it is impossible to go by decision outcomes only (Baron and Hershey
In the public sector, two generic types of decisions can ideal-typically be discerned.
Some decisions require goodprofessional judgment, which implies a high level of
cognitive complexity and the ability to digest a large dose of information (Scott 1962).
For many complex decisions of professionals and managers in the public sector, good
professional judgment, or well-considered judgment, is the golden standard, which may
be invoked, or thwarted, by accountability (Bergsteiner 2012). For public managers
overseeing the execution of a plethora of tasks or highly skilled professionals operating
in individual cases, gooddecisions are well-considereddecisions. A medical doctor
cannot be programmed to take decision A under circumstances B; we want our doctors
to reach a balanced and well-considered judgment in which they weigh all the relevant
facts, values and norms in a comprehensive way. The same holds to some extent for
some public sector organizations. The operations of professional organizations(Scott
1965), e.g. hospitals, universities and research institutes, crucially hinges on complex
judgments by professionals. Accountability potentially stimulates decision-makers in
these organizations to take well-considered decisions.
For some other decisions, however, compliance and accurate attention to detail is
the prime standard of accountability (Adelberg and Batson 1978). For street-level
bureaucrats deciding about public benefits, subsidies or grants, for instance, careful
attention to detail is of utmost importance in their decision-making. Similarly, for the
machine bureaucracies(Mintzberg 1980) in which these operatorswork, applying
general rules to thousands of individual cases (for instance, about income support,
registration and subsidies), careful attention to detail is the golden decision rule.
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Many studies of decision-making and accountability take (cognitive) complexity as
the principle criterion for judging decisions (Patil, Vieider, and Tetlock 2014; Vieider
2011; Lerner and Tetlock 1999). Cognitively complex decisions do not prevent
decision-makers from erring, but, they will at least have incorporated many relevant
factors, concerns and values in their decisions. This is important in the typical multi-
value context of the public sector (Koppell 2005). It is also intuitively important that
leaders of large and complex organizations such as multi-national corporations or states
incorporate many factors in their decisions, and the same goes for highly skilled
professionals. In a public sector context, however, compliance with standards is
sometimes a more important expectation for many organizations, as it traditionally is
for bureaucrats. This distinction between complex and accurate decisions is also visible
in existing typologies of organizational tasks, where complexity and accuracy are the
common denominators (Verhoest et al. 2010, 96). The same is true for more
normative literatures on accountability that has developed categorizations along the
axis of complexity/reflection on the one hand and compliance/accuracy on the other
(Romzek and Dubnick 1998; Bovens, Schillemans, and Goodin 2014).
Experimental research has shown, as we will discuss later, that some attributes of
accountability are conducive of the complex and well-considered judgment important to
professional organizations (Vieider 2011), while others support accurate decision-mak-
ing that is important to machine bureaucracies (Mero and Motowidlo 1995). These
studies also suggest that accuracy and complexity are not mutually exclusive, although
there is a very clear tension between the two. Some settings of accountability are
conducive to both types of decisions whereas some others push in either one of those
Systemic uniformity
If different types of accountability produce different types of responses from decision-
makers, this logically means that different types of tasks are best served by different
types of accountability. In the public sector, however, the design of accountability
mechanisms is not only based on task-requirements but also a function of path-
dependency (Christensen and Lægreid 2007) and isomorphism (Van Thiel 2000) and
is prone to fall to one-size-fits-all solutions (Carnegie and West 2003). As a result,
public sector accountability mechanisms are generally not calibrated to task
Apointincaseistheline agenciesof the Dutch government who deliver the
majority of nationally provided public services (Schillemans 2013a). A number of line
agencies are professional organizations, such as the meteorology institute, the forensic
research institute and the national institute for public health and the environment.
Other agencies are classic machine bureaucracies, involved in subsidies, student grants
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or the collection of traffic fines.
Irrespective of the highly divergent operational
requirements and constraints of these agencies, however, they operate within the
same basic governance structures and on the basis of the same formal accountability
mechanisms. The governance model of these line-agencies is explicitly based on
theories of transaction costs in New Public Management, as noted by one of the
officials responsible for introducing the original model in the 1990s (Van Oosteroom
2002, 3). As a result, all line-agencies face similar accountability requirements. They
are required to calculate and account for the costs of highly disparate activities such as
administering a student grant, collecting a travel fine, calculating the risks of a swine-
flu pandemic or the application of the newest techniques for identifying cloth fibres.
Given the highly disparate nature of these tasks, a more calibrated regime of
accountability seems warranted. This is further underscored by research suggesting
that the very same legal type of accountability may yield quite different outcomes in
various organizations (Ostrower 2007; Cornforth 2003; Schillemans 2013a). These and
similar studies suggest that we need to look beneath the formal characteristics of
mechanisms to the actual interactions between decision-makers and their accountability
forums, in order to understand the outcomes of accountability and to be able to
calibrate accountability to task requirements. This is exactly what experimental
research in accountability has to offer.
At first sight, social psychology may seem an unlikely source for advancement in public
administration research. Whereas public administration research is concerned with
organizational and institutional behaviours in real-world settings, social psychology is
concerned with individual behaviours in quasi-experimental settings. Upon reflection,
however, the step from social psychological research to public administration settings
may not be as large as perhaps intuited.
For one thing, adopting theories from other fields is the rule rather than the
exception in the discipline of public administration. Principal agent theory, bor-
rowedfrom economics and actuarial studies, is an important and self-evident
example (Moe 1984). But, there are many others, such as punctuated equilibrium
theory, taken over from palaeontology (Prindle 2012)andtheevolution,lifeand
deathof public organizations (Boin, Kuipers, and Steenbergen 2010).
Furthermore, social psychology uses a definition of accountability that is sub-
stantively equivalent to definitions commonly used in public administration research
(Bovens, Schillemans, and Goodin 2014). As with the definition provided earlier,
the relational and communicative core of accountability is clearly seen in the social
psychological literature on accountability. Here, most authors define accountability
as the expectation that one may be asked, often by an authority or onessuperior,
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to justify ones thoughts, beliefs or actions (Lerner and Tetlock 1999).
Accountability is seen as an enforcement mechanism of social rules that links
individual choices and behaviours to social systems, shared beliefs and understand-
ings (Tetlock 1992,337).
But, most importantly, social psychological studies of accountability have amassed a
comprehensive body of highly relevant insights (see for overviews Lerner and Tetlock
1999; Bergsteiner 2012) for public administration scholars who want to study the actual
accountability processes in the public sector. This line of experimental research has
mapped out how different attributes of accountability can have both positive as well as
negative effects in (quasi-)experimental settings. To provide just one example: it turns
out to matter a great deal whether respondents in experiments expect to be held
accountable or not. When they do not expect to be held accountable for decisions, their
decision-making is sloppier(less information is, for instance, considered; Tetlock
1983) and less accurate, which means that mistakes are more easily made (Mero and
Motowidlo 1995). Existing forms of accountability for real-world organizations also aim
to foster accurate organizational decision-making. However, the findings from tightly
controlled experimental settings are likely to be contaminatedin messier real-world
accountability settings by a host of contextual specificities (intervening variables).
This, essentially, is the prime challenge in this type of research: translating experi-
mental results on the effects of accountability mechanisms on decision-making to real-
world settings of public sector accountability. This translation also entails a shift in focus
from the micro-level of interpersonal accountability in experimental research to the
meso-level of inter-organizational accountability, taking into account contextual factors
such as political context, organizational routines and professional socialization. The next
paragraph will develop a theoretical model with which this challenge of interdisciplinary
translation can be met.
Accountability settings can vary on many important dimensions. We have identified
those attributes that are positively correlated to the two types of decisions that were
singled out before: accurate versus well-considered decisions. These attributes have
been taken from an analysis of some 7080 studies of accountability in (social)
psychology, including reviews (notably Lerner and Tetlock 1999; Bergsteiner 2012;
Tetlock 1992; Patil, Vieider, and Tetlock 2014; Schillemans 2013b). From the multi-
tude of variables in those studies, only those that were related to our dependent
variables were selected. Personal characteristics (such as risk aversity) were excluded as
well. This analysis led to a model with three sets of independent variables, revolving
around two aspects of the timing of accountability, two aspects relating to the relation-
ship between the agent and his/her accountability forum and two aspects relating to the
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evaluative standards on the basis of which the agent is judged. Most of these character-
istics are in theory conducive to both accurate and well-considered decisions, setting
them off against inaccurate and un-reflected decisions, while the dimensions relating to
the evaluative standards distinguish accurate from well-considered decision-making.
Timing of accountability
Pre- vs. post-decisional accountability
Actors can be held accountable at two logical points in time: ex ante and ex post. The
accountability forum may demand accountability before the actors have chosen a course
of action and committed themselves to its realization or after making such a commit-
ment. Social psychological studies underscore that people have a more or less natural
tendency to take to defensive bolsteringonce they are asked to account for their
behaviour after having committed to a specific action or decision (Tetlock, Skitka, and
Boettger 1989). This means that their responses are consistent across time (and not
affected by a need to account) and that responses are less integratively complex,
meaning that less information is digested (Tetlock, Skitka, and Boettger 1989).
The effect of pre- versus post-decisional accountability was, for instance, tested in an
experiment where participants were asked to write down their opinions on politically
sensitive issues such as affirmative action and nuclear disarmament (Tetlock, Skitka, and
Boettger 1989). Some subjects knew they were going to be asked to explain and justify
their opinions in the communications phaseof the experiment, while others did not
know this. Some of the subjects also knew the opinions of the person questioning them,
while, again, others did not. It turned out that people tend to use low-effort strategies
in reaching positions when they are not expecting to be held accountable. However,
and this is the important point for here, once subjects were committed to a course of
action (here: had written down their opinion), they would invest more mental efforts in
the face of accountability to defend their taken positions (even though it need not
necessarily be a position they attached much value to). On the other hand, when
subjects know that they are going to be held accountable and have not reached firm
positions, they will be motivated to think in relatively flexible, multidimensional ways
and exert pre-emptive self-criticism(Tetlock, Skitka, and Boettger 1989, 632). They
will evaluate their choice from different perspectives, pre-empting the types of criti-
cisms they can think of that they will solicit. This does not mean that they will take a
substantively gooddecision. However, on the basis of these and related empirical
studies, it is evident that they will put more effort into the decision, will devote more
time to it and will reach more integratively complex essentially meaning more informed
positions (Tetlock 1991; Bergsteiner 2012).
A related important dimension of the timing of accountability is the distinction
between unexpected and expected accountability. This distinction is related but not similar
to the one described earlier: expected accountability denotes situations where an actor
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expects accountability while performing a task and unexpected accountability means
that the actor does not expect to be held accountable later. This distinction thus relates
to the mindset of the decision-maker, whereas the former distinction is about the
moment when accountability is actually demanded by the forum. The effects, here, are
comparable to those of pre- and post-decisional accountabilities; they might even be
stronger. Unexpected accountability triggers processes of defensive bolstering, while
expected accountability, under some additional conditions (see below), leads to pre-
emptive self-criticism; actors prepare themselves by engaging in an effortful and self-
critical search for reasons to justify their actions(Lerner and Tetlock 1999, 263; see
also Moser, Wolff, and Kraft 2013, 365). See also Tetlock (1983) for the importance of
knowing that one is going to be held accountable for the level of information processing
in decision-making that decreases the negative effects on decisions of first impressions
and attributions errors.
These two attributes of accountability are highly relevant to real-world settings. A
minister unexpectedly held accountable in Parliament will surely behave different from
his/her colleague expecting accountability. The effects of unexpected and post-decisional
accountability in real-world settings are also easy to discern in moments of policy crisis,
where political and administrative elites are unexpectedly questioned about aspects of
their performance for which they were not anticipating accountability. When the large
investment banks were interrogated over their remunerations policies, and particularly
for their (semi-) automatic bonus systems, their first responses were textbook examples
of defensive bolstering or apology avoidance(Hargie, Stapleton, and Tourish 2010).
In a similar vein, when the Dutch social security agency UWV was rebuked in 2003 for
excessive costs of renovating its head office, it did not respond substantively but only
with a weak procedural response (the total costs lie within the available parameters
and budget) (Schillemans 2007). In these highly disparate cases, the initial response to
being held accountable translates very much to I dont want to be held accountable!It
also means, importantly, at least for the first and the third case, that the accountable
agent had not anticipated being held accountable for the potential perverse effects of
bonuses or the costs of renovation and had acted as if those concerns were not
All in all, thus, pre-decisional accountability and expected accountability can be
expected to be generally conducive to both types of decisions (Lerner and Tetlock
1999; Moser, Wolff, and Kraft 2013; Bergsteiner 2012), although contextual factors
may interfere.
The relationship between actor and forum
As with timing, there are two dimensions of the relationship between the accountable
actors and their accountability forum, which can be expected to be conducive to both
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types of decisions. When accountability is rendered to an authoritative forum and when
the forum participates in standard-setting, this is positively correlated to both types of
decisions (Tyler 1997; Chaiken 1980).
Authoritative vs unauthoritative accountability forums
Accountability is a relational process between an agent and an accountability forum. A
number of studies have documented that it matters a great deal for the amount of effort
put into decision-making whether or not the status or the expertise of the accountability
forum is considered to be high (Lerner and Tetlock 1999, 257): When participants
were motivated to have a pleasant interaction, they adopted a go-along-to-get-along
heuristic.Mero, Guidice, and Brownlee (2007) showed in a study where participants
were asked to make ratings that the accuracy of ratings greatly improved once raters
were asked to account for their rating to a high status audience (forum). This effect is
conducive of both our types of decision-making, although for different reasons. It is
conducive of accuracy, as mentioned earlier, because agents feel motivated (or forced)
to do well in rating. High status audiences also prevent participants from taking low-
effort evasive tactics or defensive behaviour.
The high status of the audience does, again, not necessarily lead to socially desirable
outcomes. Pennington and Schlenker (1999; see also Mero et al. 2007) describe an
experiment where students believed they were judges in a cheating case of a fellow
student. The experiment varied on accountability forums with different statuses. Some
students needed to report their decision to an official of the honour court and others to
the professor, a fellow student or to no one. With the rising status of the accountability
forum, the participants recommended harsher punishments. Accountability to a
respected audience, in this case, thus leads to fiercer judgments. Again, this is not
necessarily a good or a bad thing. But, it certainly testifies that accountability to a
respected audience makes agents take their role responsibility more seriously.
Participating vs non-participating accountability forums
A second distinction relates to the participation and involvement of the accountability
forum in the relevant standards of evaluation (Chaiken 1980; Dose and Klimoski 1995).
In short, when forums have a high engagement and when the forum is ownerof a
standard, it will guard the standard of evaluation more vigorously which, in turn, quite
naturally stimulates the agent to take the norm more seriously as well.
This second dimension is probably much more important in practice than in
theory. It is not difficult to think of accountability situations where the account-
ability forum is expected to uphold guidelines it has not devised or thought of itself.
The example of Dutch line-agencies, described earlier in this paper, is a classic
example. All agencies are supposed to operate on the basis of an evaluative
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framework basically transforming ministryagency relations into an artificial pur-
chaserprovider relationship, irrespective of the needs of the specific accountability
forums. The framework was developed by the ministry of finance but has to be
implemented individually by all government departments. Over the years, a grow-
ing disparity can be discerned by participants between departmental units guarding
the official rules for accountability and other departmental paying little to no
attention to the formal rules and standards (Schillemans 2013a). The example
does not stand on its own. Where parliamentary committees are expected to
hold agents accountable on the basis pre-existing standards (Busuioc 2013), where
the government deals with third-party providers working on long-lasting contracts
(Klingner, Nalbandian, and Romzek 2002), and even where judges decide about
sometimes very specific cases on the basis of very old pieces of legislation (Dworkin
1982), this problem of commitment of the accountability forum, and its political
judgment, to the evaluative standards recurs. In all of these situations, the account-
ability forums has not delegated something of its own and lacks the interest to
police whether tasks are performed according to the standard (Schillemans and
Busuioc 2015,16).
These two factors do again conjointly pushin the same direction: actors facing an
authoritative accountability forum guarding standards it has set itself can be expected to
take their accountability obligations towards their forum more seriously, which is
conducive of both complexity and accuracy of decisions.
The evaluative standards for accountability
The two last attributes of our model are either conducive of accurate or well-
considered decisions. When evaluative standards are unknown to the agent, and account-
ability focusses on processes, this generally supports well-considered decision-making
(Simonson and Nye 1992; Vieider 2011). Decision-makers will take more information
into account and take cognitively more complex decisions. Furthermore, process
accountability reduces ineffective forms of decision stress and makes decision-makers
focus on the quality of their decision process. Patil, Vieider, and Tetlock (2014, 71)
Experimental psychologists have (. . .) suggested that process accountability, by encouraging more
thorough evaluation of available information (. . .) focuses decision-makersattention on howto make
sound decisions (. . .). Outcome accountability, by contrast, merely conveys to the decision-maker that
judgments need to be accurate without providing guidance on how to achieve this goal.
The advantage of not knowing or being able to guess the views of the accountability
forum, combined with holding it in a high esteem, is, again, that it induces decision-
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makers to reflect pre-emptively on potential criticisms with which their decisions will
be met. This will lead to integratively more complex decisions.
However, when standards are known to the agent, and outcomes are important for the
forum, she may be expected to take accurate decisions. Errors and mistakes are less
likely to occur. This has been demonstrated in experiments where participants were
asked to make distributive decisions (Adelberg and Batson 1978), rating decisions
(Mero and Motowidlo 1995) and in a natural experimentwith two different account-
ability regimes for inspections in Brazil (Pires 2011). In a similar vein, Quinn and
Schlenker (2002) have, for instance, shown, in an experiment where participants
needed to make a business decision task, that accountability for accuracy goals made
participants behave more independent from others and reach more accurate decisions.
With the afore-mentioned notions in mind, it would make sense to arrange for
different accountability standards for machine bureaucracies (administering subsidies,
loans and fines) and professional organizations (doing research, complex forecasting and
R and D). In all cases, it would be beneficial for key tasks if the agent a) expects to be
held accountable, by b) a respected accountability forum which has been c) actively
involved in the formulation of evaluative standards and d) where the accountability
process is timed prior to full commitment, so that the agent may have time to adjust
and improve his/her behaviour. For machine bureaucracies, thriving on accurate
decision-making, it would be important that e) the evaluative criteria are crisp and
clear and f) that the accountability process focusses on outcomes. For professional
organizations on the other hand, e) a certain amount of evaluative uncertainty may be
productive and f) accountability should have a process-orientation.
The different propositions developed earlier are summarized in Figure 1.
Accountability to
forum with
unknown views
Accountability to
forum with known
Accountability for
Accountability for
accountability Well-considered
decisions Accurate decisions
Authoritative forum
Forum participated
in standard-setting
Figure 1: Calibrated public accountability model (CPA-model)
Schillemans: Calibrating Public Sector Accountability 13
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Having developed the CPA-model, the main objective of this paper, it may be wise to
indulge in some pre-emptive self-criticism. What are the likely objections against this
model? Given that it aims to transportvaluable insights from one academic discipline
to the next, it is likely to be met with some scepticism by exponents from both. To
start with our own discipline, public administration, here, there are at least three
objections that may be raised.
First of all, public administration scholars may look with scepticism at the insights
coming from sophomore science, as McNemer provocatively coined social psychology
in 1946 (quoted from Bozeman and Scott 1992, 304). Many of these insights are based
on experiments that are only vaguely reminiscent of real-world accountability settings.
They are, to put it parabolically, founded on artificial tasks, performed by second-year
students who are primarily motivated by the complementary credits. The added value
of such artificially produced findings for the dynamic field of public administration could
be questioned.
Furthermore, experiments only work in highly simplified and tightly controlled
settings. They can only be accomplished by meticulous and artificial design, permitting
only a very limited number of contrasting variables in the experiment. By erasing the
traditional complexity of public administration settings, experiments delete the ambi-
guity and complexity which may be the very essence of the object under investigation
(Romzek and Dubnick 1998).
Relatedly, the number of important potential intervening variables is simply stagger-
ing. Real-world public sector decision-makers i.e. executives, professionals and
decision-bureaucrats go through professional socialization processes, which make it
likely that they respond different to accountability. Particularly during the first years of
their tenure, managers in different types of organizations are exposed to socializing
experiences and pressures which affect their work attitudes and commitment to task
and organization (Buchanan 1974). Furthermore, their individual decisions are strongly
affected by organizational processes, such as routines and intra-organizational interac-
tions. Organizational processes, thus, are also a relevant intervening variable
(Bergsteiner 2012; Bagley 2010). But, this list can be extended liberally, focussing on
different legal, political and administrative traditions, cultural differences, historical
path-dependency and, of course, politics. The elements in the CPA-model may have
some effects on the outcomes of public sector accountability, critics could argue, but
would not the complex of intervening variables be much stronger?
From the other side of the interdisciplinary divide, social psychologists may possibly
point out that the CPA-model justsummarizes a set of fairly robust research findings,
all underscoring the underlying social contingency theory of accountability.
Furthermore, the model only digests a very restrictive selection of research findings
on accountability and disregards a plethora of other relevant independent variables
14 Public Management Review
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relating to accountability. Furthermore, a social psychologist might wonder why a
research field generally using the meso-level of organizations as its most diminutive
research objects would be interested to use the insights from micro-level inter-
individual studies. There are surely many relevant intervening variables that would
distort the translation of experimental micro-level findings to real-world meso-level
These potential objections, coming from both shores of the interdisciplinary divide,
are all relevant and underscore the differences between both disciplines. For public
administration scholars, external relevance is the key for which internal relevance is
often bargained away, because the credibility of policy analysis its subjectively
determined believability is often more important than the objective veracity of
empirical propositionsBozeman and Scott (1992, 294). Otherwise, in another short-
hand, one receives internal validity from the laboratory and external validity from field
work (Margetts 2011, 191). The CPA-model is designed as a tool that helps to navigate
the interdisciplinary divide. It is not designed to be the end point of the journey, but it is
meant to be a starting point a collection of hypotheses, really from which the
external validity in mundane reality(Bozeman and Scott 1992, 309) of experimental
findings can be explored and on the basis of which the impact of real-world intervening
variables, such as politics, professional socialization or task-specificity, can be gauged.
There are good reasons, we believe and hope to have argued convincingly here, to use
the findings from experimental research on accountability, as summarized in the CPA-
model, for further analyses and tests in public administration research on accountability.
This may move the field further from conceptual discussions and varieties of mappings
to more dynamic theoretical approaches to public accountability (Bovens, Schillemans,
and Goodin 2014). This is not, of course, a plea for a full-scale shift to experimental
research in public administration, although the methodology remains thoroughly under-
employed in our research field (Margetts (2011, 190). Rather, we suggest that
experiments could be added to our research tool kit for public sector accountability
and that experimental findings can be used as hypotheses for field studies. This leads to
aJames Bond approach(Hood 2011, 322) to methodology: using a combination of the
latest (research) techniques in order to save the world, or, somewhat less presump-
tuous, to contribute to our understanding of accountability and our ability to calibrate
accountability to task requirements.
The easiest way to deploy the CPA-model is to use it as a collection of fairly
straightforward hypotheses, guiding new research projects in qualitative field studies or
quantitative analyses of accountability. Many accountability projects have used hypoth-
eses from principalagent theory (Schillemans and Busuioc 2015); new projects could
Schillemans: Calibrating Public Sector Accountability 15
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substitute or supplement those for CPA-hypotheses. This has the advantage that well-
established research methods in our field can be maintained and will be informed with
new theoretical insights. Researchers could, for instance, relate the timing of account-
ability or the perceived authority of accountability forums to substantive decision- and
policy outcomes. This will help to strengthen and systematize our knowledge of the
effects of specific accountability mechanisms in public sector settings.
A second and more radical way to use the CPA-model would be to do experimental
research with real-world participants. As Bozeman and Scott (1992, 305) suggested,
the best solution, of course, is to employ policymakers or public managers in the
subject pool.
The useof students as proxies for ordinary people is widespread in social
psychology, and to the extent that the responses from students are supposed to stand
for general responses from ordinary citizens, this practice seems to work very well
(Margetts 2011, 196). However, it is more questionable whether insights won from
experiments with students represent the types of responses government elites would
actually give. For one thing, it is known that students stand out in some important
character traits. One of these differences is compliance(McDermott 2002, 37);
students are generally more compliant than ordinary citizens, which is, of course,
highly important in studies of accountability where compliance is a dependent variable.
Experimentswith real-world subjects are sparse (McDermott 2002; Hood 2011),
but the few existing experimental studies in policy studies and public administration
provide testimony to the lingering suspicion that real-world settings will differ from
laboratory responses (Weiss 1982; Ossege 2012; Grimmelikhuijsen and Welch 2012).
For instance, experimental studies suggest that output accountability leads to unpro-
ductive levels of performance stress in laboratory settings (Patil, Vieider, and Tetlock
2014). Ossege (2012), however, did a vignette study in which he gauged the actual
responses from mid-level public sector managers to accountability. Contrary to expec-
tations, he found that these public sector managers actually cherished accountability for
specified outputs. Perhaps they were happy to have a clear bottom line, perhaps the
targets were easy to meet, or perhaps they thought that output accountability was
normatively desirable; this is unclear. But, whatever the underlying mechanism,
Osseges(2012) study is interesting because it documents that real-world public sector
respondents may experience supposedly dysfunctional accountability mechanisms quite
differently from participants in experiments.
It is our contention that the experimental findings, summarized in the CPA-model,
workas hypotheses for research in real-world settings. The models constituting
propositions are all hypotheses, firmly rooted in an experimental research tradition,
that can be corroborated or amended by research in real-world settings. This sets the
agenda for a consilientresearch approach in which a range of tests, which in itself are
insufficient to produce trueknowledge, may become solid evidence (Hood 2011, 322;
McDermott 2002, 32). The combination of methods, with field studies and (quasi-)
16 Public Management Review
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experiments, leads to triangulation (Bozeman and Scott 1992, 310) and will help to
move our understanding of public sector accountability further. The CPA-model can be
used in a multi-methodological and focussed approach to unpack public sector account-
ability and to develop more appropriate, empirically informed knowledge of the effects
of accountability mechanisms in real-world settings (Flinders 2014; Schillemans and
Busuioc 2015).
Earlier versions of this paper have been presented at the 2013 VAM Accountability-
workshop in Potsdam, at the 2014 ECPR Joint Sessions in Salamanca, at the 2014
Accountability workshop of CARR at LSE and at the 2014 Utrecht University School of
Governance Research day. I would like to thank the many conveners, discussants and
participants of these events for their invaluable feedback. The CPA-model is developed
on the basis of research findings emanating from an experimental research tradition.
Phil E. Tetlock, Ferdinand Vieider and Christopher Koch provided important feedback
on the model, for which I am very grateful. All remaining flaws are mine, of course.
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.
This research has been enabled by a NWO Vidi 2014 Grant from the Netherlands
Organisation for Scientific Research.
1 Note, there is also a third category of agencies delivering back office services to the various government
departments. These are excluded from the analysis here.
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    • Bestuurskundig onderzoek dat gebruik maakt van psychologische methoden en theorie?n al jaren in opkomst. Diverse onderzoekers maken gebruik van inzichten uit de psychologie en passen deze toe op onderwerpen zoals motivatie (Van Loon, Vandenabeele & Leisink, 2015), transparantie en vertrouwen in de overheid (Grimmelikhuijsen en Meijer, 2014), verantwoording (Schillemans, 2015 ), prestatieinformatie (James, 2011; Olsen, 2015), publiek leiderschap (Tummers en Knies, 2016), gehoorzaamheid
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      The responses of state colleges and universities to substantial reductions in their appropriations are examined in a one-year study that encompasses experience with fiscal stringency in about a dozen states, primarily in five states. Some key concepts such as "retrenchment,""time," and the differences in statewide organizations for governing and coordinating higher education are defined and... [Show full abstract]
      January 2006
        Dissertação (mestrado)—Universidade de Brasília, Faculdade de Educação, 2006. Os objetivos dessa pesquisa centraram-se na descrição e análise das tentativas de institucionalização da EaD na Universidade de Brasília (UnB) no período de janeiro de 1979 a junho de 2006. Esse estudo de caso reuniu as diferentes iniciativas em uma escala temporal e permitiu apreciar criticamente as mudanças... [Show full abstract]
        Conference Paper
        December 2014
          An understanding of mature consumers' decision-making (CDM) for financial services is important given difficulties financing a longer retirement, and low financial literacy. However, there is little research on mature consumers' use of information sources. Information search is recognised to be more complex for services, and so the term information utility is introduced to cover search and use... [Show full abstract]
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