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Accountability in Australia: control, paradox, and complexity.


Accountability in the Australian federal system has changed in distinctive ways during the last three decades of public sector reform. In association with each major environmental change has been an extension to accountability from the traditional features of ministerial responsibility and bureaucratic hierarchy to new modes of external scrutiny, accountability management, and most recently accountability within market and governance contexts. Each experiment at the national level, however, has had limitations that produce knock on effects. The paradox of accountability is that attempts to satisfy needs for control have led new forms and variations. The result has been the multiplication of accountability mechanisms and increasing complexity.


Accountability has been a rapidly evolving dimension of the state apparatus in many countries internationally. The environment of the Australian state has changed in distinctive ways across the last three decades of public sector reform, with major implications for accountability. Associated with each major environmental change has been an extension of accountability responsibilities from the traditional core features of ministerial responsibility and bureaucratic hierarchy to cover successive new modes of external scrutiny, accountability management, and most recently accountability within market and governance contexts.

Each experiment at the national level, however, has had attendant limitations and challenges that in turn engender public debate and eventually new responses. The paradox of accountability is that attempts to satisfy needs for control, reporting and scrutiny have invoked new forms and variations on existing arrangements. They have also led to the multiplication of accountability mechanisms over time because each new element does not necessarily replace another, instead adding to complexity, ambiguity and conflict. A serviceable definition of accountability for the purposes of this article is of "a relationship in which an individual or an agency is held to answer for performance that involves some delegation of authority to act" (Romzek and Dubnick, 1998:6). [1] A defining feature in a responsible government system, such as the Australian, is how the relationship between the internal and external dimensions of accountability works in practice.


The reasons for changing accountability systems are of course more complex than one single explanation, and needs to be grounded within a broader understanding of how change occurs. A traditional interpretation is that public services are subject to shifting moods and preferences over time. Change can be regarded as simply the product of swing of fashions that will in turn be subject to pendulum movements (Spann, 1981); or the result of long-term reform excesses that eventually produce swings in underlying values (Kaufman, 1969).

The analysis of change indicates it to be the product of a range of external and internal factors. External explanations of policy reversal include the force of new ideas; pressure of new coalitions and interests; and changes in the environment that make policies obsolete. Internal explanations for 'internal decay' centre on policies and institutions that destroy themselves (Hood, 1994:4). In terms of the argument in this article, both types of influences may contribute to originating, extending and attenuating a mode of accountability.

How this works through can be illustrated by the two sets of contradictory trends in the reform era. On the one hand there has been the international move towards greater public scrutiny and increased accountability; and on the other hand, governments in conjunction with the business sector, have transferred functions to the private sector and circumvented public accountability requirements (Mulgan, 2003:4). At the same time, accountability has been subject to intervening political demands to a greater extent. This dynamic has increased political control of the bureaucracy through enforcement of hierarchical relationships and penetration of political influence (Halligan, 2003a). Simultaneously, the long-term attrition of the power of parliament has continued under increasing executive dominance, while extra-parliamentary agencies of scrutiny (eg the auditor-general) have also been subject to executive constraints, both financial and legislative.

Accountability can be viewed in terms of the internal and external domains. A fundamental dynamic at the heart of changes to accountability is the tension between the internal and external, the former often depicted in vertical terms, the latter being represented in horizontal terms. Much of the movement around accountability issues in public management reflects attempts to contain and control activity within the bureaucratic hierarchy, culminating with the departmental minister, who is ultimately accountable to parliament. The external dimensions reflect pressures by extra-government agencies for more exacting reporting and accountability, and trends towards shared responsibility that complicate internal control.

Further, under conditions of rapid and comprehensive reform to the public sector, several distinctive agendas may be running simultaneously producing internal contradictions that in turn lead to the search for new solutions (Aucoin, 1990). One overall consequence of high recent commitment to neo-liberal reforms is that there is not bi-partisan support. The Australian public service became highly decentralized, marketized, contractualized, and to some extent politicized (Halligan, 2003a), suggesting substantial potential for the recasting of some operating principles and practice. And with the change processes referred to earlier, corrective mechanisms can be expected to come into play.


A standard approach to clarifying public service accountability issues is to classify the various accountability mechanisms according to whether or not they are internal or external to the department or agency concerned, and part of the formal system of government (Campbell and Halligan, 1992). Accountability that is internal and formal is the most immediate environment of the public service agency. Accountability has both managerial and political dimensions and is decidedly hierarchical in character. It is in the internal domain that bureaucratic and political control can be firmly exercised and can be rearranged according to the requirements of the day.

External mechanisms of accountability covers agencies and institutions of the system of governance that have some capacity to operate independently of the government of the day, such as the Parliament, the Australian National Audit Office, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and the Federal Court.

The Australian public service has given careful attention to the place of accountability in reform design during this period of great change. The result is that official definitions have become more explicit. The definition developed by the Management Advisory Board's (1993) review, was of "a direct authority relationship within which one party accounts to a person or body for the performance of tasks or functions conferred, or able to be conferred, by that person or body." This includes accountability for specifying outcomes and outputs. The Department of Finance's subsequently produced a formulation that focuses more precisely on financial information: "The duty to supply information to enable users of that information to make informed judgements about performance, financial position, financing and investing and compliance of the agency or authority" (DFA, 1998).

Although these basic concepts appear to be straightforward, the current practice in the Australian public service is far from simple and several other dimensions of accountability need to be explored. It is commonplace to recognize that there are different accountabilities: in addition to bureaucratic accountability, there is political accountability to politicians (of different types, eg ministers, parliament); public accountability (but note the different publics, eg consumers and clients); and administrative accountability to non-political bodies (eg arising from the new administrative law) (Behn, 2001; Romzek, 2000). Other options include legal accountability to the courts and professional accountability to the norms and practice of a profession. Several of these classes of accountability are based on quite different accountability relationships, making it necessary in practice to manage several accountabilities.

A range of other informal mechanisms are commonly distinguished but are not considered here (Smith, 1991). But note that approaching one-third of the senior executives in federal central coordinating agencies thought that their primary accountability was to their profession (Campbell and Halligan, 1992).

In order to focus attention on the bureaucratic and political dimensions of the executive branch that are integral elements of a cabinet-parliamentary system and its distinctive "distribution and control of power" (Thomas, 1998:358), attention is given to how they operate internally and in relation to the relatively uncontrolled external scrutiny (Table 1). The degree of independence varies considerably between external mechanisms with the lower house of parliament subject to more direct control and influence than the Senate, but other external mechanisms may be subject to financial constraints (eg the Ombudsman).


In order to clarify some of these questions, the changing environments of accountability are considered. The broader environmental context covers elements that are either not part of the government system or not subject to direct government influence in contrast to the narrower environment of the public service and government.

The environment of the Australian public service has changed in quite distinctive ways across the last three decades, with major implications for accountability. It has changed first from the traditional focus on inputs and process to a management environment emphasising outputs and results, and then to a market environment emphasising competitive elements (eg contestability), choice, outsourcing and contracts. There is also a greater emphasis on outcomes as well as outputs and important new elements make an appearance, such as accrual accounting (Table 2).

Associated with each major change in the environment has been an extension of accountability responsibilities from the traditional core (i.e. minister and the departmental hierarchy) that featured ministerial responsibility to cover successively the new administrative law, accountability management, and more recently accountability through the market and the potential for sharing accountability.

At the same time, the shift in the accountability emphases is also a constant feature (Romzek, 2000). Some accountabilities are a constant in the landscape. Political control has been a dominant feature of the reform era (dating from the 1980s) with the range of measures being gradually extended. In this case it is less a question of a type of accountability remaining dormant, and more one of relative priorities at a given point of time. They may also be reactivated in somewhat different guises: thus the hierarchical control of central agencies has declined but reemerged a decade or more ago but not in the form of transaction control.


The main debates have centred on the roles of two types of institution--Parliament and extra-parliamentary agencies--and on the relationships of two key actors - the minister (with respect to parliament, public servants and clients) and the public servant and agency (in relation to parliament, ministers, clients and contractors).

Ministerial Responsibility and Parliament

Of the several issues involving parliament, the first is ministerial responsibility and the failure of parliamentary sanctions to apply directly in practice. The traditional notion of ministers being responsible to Parliament for all matters affecting their portfolio has long been a cornerstone of responsible government in the Australian variant of the Westminster system. The associated element of ministerial responsibility, ministerial resignation, although seen as a fiction as early as the 1950s, was still maintained by prime ministers until the 1980s and beyond. However the evidence has been that while ministers may resign for private misconduct or unethical behaviour, they do not themselves take ministerial responsibility to this point when it comes to policy or maladministration (Thompson and Tillotsen, 1999). [2]

At the same time, ministerial responsibility is retained as a fundamental component of the formal system of government (Aucoin, Smith, and Dinsdale, 2004). Accordingly, an insiders' or public servants' view of ministerial responsibility is that although a broader notion of responsibility applies, a minister nevertheless remains responsible:
 Responsibility occurs if the minister, or their office, was
 directly involved or if the minister should have acted. The latter
 case applies if there were recurring or systemic poor performance
 by the department ... even if the day-to-day administration has
 been delegated (Keating, 1999:40).

The somewhat inconclusive current position is then that the minister is still responsible for the portfolio even if the ultimate formal mechanism for bringing him/her to account is defunct. It has been argued that, as ministers have exercised greater control and ownership of policy over the last fifteen years, they therefore have more responsibility (Blick, 1999). Ministers may still be held responsible through other means including political and other sanctions in cabinet and through public critique and parliamentary scrutiny. This may be ad hoc and capricious where it depends on the extent to which the prime minister can withstand the political embarrassment. For the purposes here then it is sufficient to note that this remains a problematic area (Mulgan, 2002), which in itself indicates the limitations of relying on this mode of accountability.

Internal Hierarchy

Management herarchy.

It is important to note how the relative importance of accountability mechanisms can vary over time. Thus, central agencies (eg the former Public Service Board and Department of Finance) were once primary mechanisms, but their role in Australian jurisdictions declined greatly over two decades as their responsibilities were devolved to decentralized agencies.

The rejection of traditional administration was accomplished by the emergence of the management framework of the 1980s. The key elements of this framework were devolution, accountability management, and increased management reporting. The reform program was conceived within resource management terms and comprised of two complementary sets of measures to "let the managers manage" by facilitating initiatives that were about the devolution of management control; and to require "managers to manage", which was primarily concerned with effectiveness and accountability.

In terms of the shift to a management paradigm for the public service, two frameworks were officially articulated: this new management (or managing for results) focus of the 1980s and the outcomes framework of the late 1990s, both having a financial management basis. The first management framework developed over time, the official version being eventually articulated in terms of cabinet responsibility for strategic directions and objectives, financial planning and management flexibility for meeting the objectives, incentives to improve management performance, and public servants accountability to ministers for achieving objectives. This framework was argued to have an integrated structure (Sedgwick, 1994:341).

By 1998, a new framework was emerging that built on, but supplanted the previous one because of its perceived limitations. The reform agenda was also being depicted as an "integrated package of reforms" that covered financial arrangements, public service and workplace relations each with a new legislative basis (Boxall, 1998). The elements of the new directions included a deregulated personnel system that was more comparable to the private sector, accrual budgeting and contestability of delivery of services with much greater use being made of the private and voluntary sectors (Halligan, 2003a).

During this period of reform a number of assaults on the integrity of the internal hierarchy were resisted. Australia declined to move in line with Britain and New Zealand towards executive agencies (until the mid-1990s), and never embraced the concept in a manner comparable to these countries. The vertical separation of policy and implementation was rejected because of the implications for accountability and it was thought essential to maintaining effective feedback from those delivering services and that integration within one department was the best means of securing this.

More importantly, management reform in general was seen to pose a significant departure from the traditional system, and it became necessary to clarify and acclaim the central feature of hierarchy. The official Management Advisory Board's review of accountability (Management Advisory Board, 1993) reaffirmed a conception that depicted a chain of command for accountability relations, and which discounted the external dimensions as secondary or adjuncts.

While, in the management environment of the 1980s, external relationships that might be in conflict with the hierarchical line leading to the minister were rejected, with the general acceptance of a client focus in the 1990s, the question arose of dual accountability--horizontally to clients and vertically to ministers. This was worked through with ministers being depicted as stakeholders and clearly distinguished from clients.

The expectation that public servants were expected to be responsive to client needs had nevertheless added a new dimension. The devolution of responsibility had enabled public servants to draw on greater discretion in determining the services appropriate for specific clients. The government's emphasis on choice and offering consumers the option of choosing among providers became more significant. The use of customer charters became entrenched as a means for promoting sensitivity to quality assurance in external relationships.

Political Control

The line of accountability to the minister and then to parliament has remained unaltered under the system of responsible government. What has changed is how the minister engages agencies within the portfolio. The expansion of political control has been a central and constant element of the reform era.

The traditional public service's identity derived from being clearly demarcated from its environment, particularly the private and political spheres, and being relatively closed. These boundaries were systematically eroded with the assault on the senior public service being directed at the traditional career system. The political resources in ministerial offices were strengthened through the rise of ministerial advisers with access to the public service. The role of public servants changed with alterations to tenure and as they had to become a competitor in policy advice (Halligan, 2001).

The redistribution of power within the executive branch factored in the political dimension much more directly into accountability considerations. Ministers wanted their priorities executed and to require managers to implement.

External: Parliament and Extra-parliament Administrative Law.

One response to the limitations of traditional system was the new administrative law in the 1980s which consisted of several elements for handling grievances and scrutiny of government action in specific cases (eg administrative appeals, freedom of information and the ombudsman). Examples of administrative law and the public servants, include the Administrative Appeals Tribunal for review and possible overturn of administrative decision, and the Ombudsman for investigation of complaints regarding actions of an agency or official. The limits of their work are defined by the control exercised by executive government over funding and access to information (JCPAA, 2000).

Parliamentary Scrutiny by Committees

A major parliamentary issue has been the capacity of institution to respond to the new management environment, particularly through scrutiny by committees. The rise of parliamentary committees can be interpreted as a response to the weaknesses of executive scrutiny by the two house of parliament. Now other parliamentary processes were supported, and a huge expansion of scrutiny of government activities resulted (Halligan, Power, and Miller, 2001).

The value of this type of scrutiny is in turn constrained by the resourcing of parliamentary committees (ultimately subject to executive influence) and restrictions on access to information and the political and bureaucratic specialists who can illuminate committee reviews (ministers and their staff refuse to appear). In effect, scrutiny was often substantially stalled by executive intransigence.

The related issue has been the relationship of public servants to the parliament. Various parliamentary committees have adopted an increasingly expansive interpretation with respect to the extent to which public servants should be held directly accountable for their activities, a position strongly resisted by government of the day. The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration concluded that both ministers and public servants were directly accountable to Parliament, although it defined the accountability of public servants as less direct, and characterized it in terms of "keeping Parliament informed and assisting parliamentary scrutiny of public administration and expenditure" (HRSCFPA, 1990:92). This issue continues as an element in the perennial executive/legislative struggle (Halligan, Power, and Miller, 2001).

Extra-parliamentary Agencies

Another debate concerns the standing of agencies that operate with considerable independence from executive authority although part of the broader machinery of government, the primary case in this context being the audit office. This issue emerged during the Commonwealth Management Advisory Board's review of accountability (Management Advisory Board, 1993). The official view was that these agencies should be treated as adjuncts to accountability, a position that was vigorously contested by the relevant organisations including the Auditor-General. The Clerk of the Senate, Harry Evans (1999), has observed that extra-parliamentary accountability is very dependent on political processes.

The extra-parliamentary institutions have been represented as filling the gap resulting from executive destruction of parliamentary effectiveness. This produces the paradox that "they are established by the very body whose degeneration requires their establishment, a body that is largely controlled by the very executive which has avoided accountability through that control" (Evans, 1999:87).

The position at the state level has been even more problematic with Auditor-generals experiencing constraints on attempts to overcome accountability deficits. The questions of access and government secrecy feature prominently because of the lack of entitlement to access relevant cabinet documents, which allows evasion of accountability: "It was this lack of accountability that enabled 'WA Inc' to prosper. . . the NSW accountability framework shares a number of the lamentable weaknesses then existing in Western Australia" (NSW Auditor-General, 1998).

Private Sector and Contracts

A major issue of the last decade has been the increasingly privatized public sector and the reliance on services provided under contract. On contracts with the private sector there are two broad positions. The first supports competition and contractualism. According to a government adviser on these matters, "accountability cannot be out-sourced. Competitive tendering and contracting is a good vehicle for raising accountability." Contracting is argued to enhance accountability by requiring analysis of specifications and service standards and monitoring (Boxall, 1998:121).

The second position raises questions about the separation of government and contractor, access to information and asks to what extent proper accountability can be realized (Mulgan, 1997; JCPAA, 2000). The reliance on private markets is much more complex than it appears initially, and a government in such a relationship ends up sharing power, which requires rethinking about how it manages and governs (Kettl, 1993).

The Commonwealth Job Network case raises some of these questions. The Commonwealth Employment Service used to have a monopoly over service delivery, and accountability was by hierarchy. It was replaced by the Australian Job Network operating through a purchaser--provider arrangement under which over 300 providers were contracted to deliver services under contract following a competitive tender. The traditional accountability of public servants was reduced: because "providers pursue their own objectives, there is a need for finding means of identifying and measuring accountability where diverse agencies are operating for public ends" (Considine, 1999). The tender process for the Job Network could not be subject to public scrutiny, despite a sum $3 billion being involved, because a Federal Court determined that the network was not established legislatively. Consequently, unsuccessful tenderers were unable to challenge administrative decisions, and parliament and the courts were denied the right to examine contracts and tendering decisions that involved contracting out of public services (Tingle, 1999).

The core accountability problem in relations to contracts with the private sector is where there is provision for secrecy and parliament is unable to scrutinize the use of public funds. "Accountability and parliamentary scrutiny is being eroded through the application of commercial-in-confidence to all parts of government contracts" (JCPAA, 2000:2.44).

Limits of Devolution and Resurgence of the Central Agency Political direction: budgeting and estimates.

One consequence of a high level of devolution was a tension with central control and direction. The new budget framework, introduced in 1999, had involved major revisions to financial management and reporting, including budgeting on a full accrual basis; implementation of outputs and outcomes reporting; and extending agency devolution to inter alia budget estimates and financial management. A number of the expected benefits were not however forthcoming. The combination of a highly centralized budgetary process and highly devolved agencies was problematic: "our drive to increase openness and transparency has had the apparently perverse effect of often producing less transparent results ... Ministers usually make decisions at the programme level and want information at that level. Finance does not currently collect programme data systematically" (Watt, 2003:43-44). There was also parliamentary critique of the lack of information about the Commonwealth's position as a result of financial management information systems that were accrual based, in contrast to the traditional cash transactions (SFPARC, 2003: 378-85).

The Department of Finance and Administration established the 2002 Budget Estimates and Framework Review "to assess the system's accuracy, responsiveness and effectiveness in meeting the needs of Government." The Review reported on the scope for streamlining the financial framework and improving information management systems and the quality of financial information (DFA, 2003:2). The result was an enhancement of Finance's role and capacity to oversight financial management and information through a greater focus on departmental programs, a renewed emphasis on cash accounting and an expansion of staff capacity in a shrunken department to provide the advice expected by government (DFA, 2003).

Implementation and Whole of Government

A further reaction to devolution was a strengthening of central policy coordination, essentially a vertical solution within the hierarchy. Australia was slower to address whole-of-government issues than countries such as Canada or the UK, which pursued these issues in the 1990s while Australia was still focussed on other reform agendas. The devolved environment created by these reforms emphasized devolution of responsibility to agency heads with direct agency accountability through them, and agencies pursuing their own business and policy agenda. This reinforced the "silo effect" of organisational stovepipes. In the last three years the need to temper devolution with a broader, whole-of-government perspective was recognized (Management Advisory Committee, 2004).

It is not possible, however, to regard this solely as a response to a design defect. Events overseas had a strong effect, [3] and issues of security and terrorism became very prominent domestically and internationally. As Peter Shergold, Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) observed, the great challenges are in "domestic security, border protection and counter-terrorism. Those issues, typically 'non-routine', will test bureaucratic structures. Ensuring effective coordination of intelligence, analysis and strategic policy responses will test public administration" (DPMC, 2003).

In many respects the developments were interrelated. Complex policy issues require strategic and integrated government responses involving multiple agencies and levels of government. This produced an emphasis on horizontal as opposed to vertical structures and processes, and enhancing capacity and rebalancing the mix of system features. They had implications for the relative roles of central agencies and line departments because they involved countering the limitations of a highly devolved system through somewhat stronger central guidance. A particular lever for change were government concerns that political priorities were not being sufficiently reflected in policy directions, program implementation and reporting.

The government's organisational response has mainly been to build coordinating units within current structures, particularly within DPMC, and to produce reviews and mechanisms for furthering this agenda. In addition, a new Cabinet Implementation Unit was established in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet as a measure for seeking effectiveness in program delivery by ensuring government policies and services are implemented on a timely and responsive basis (Shergold, 2003).

The other dimension of whole of government approaches is more complicated, because it involved actors outside the formal structures reflecting the growing influence of governance approaches (Mulgan, 2001). A number of issues have been anticipated but the impact and extent of questions such as shared accountability has yet to be fully addressed (Wilkins, 2002; Management Advisory Committee, 2004).


A continuing dynamic in accountability is the tension between internal and external dimensions. The several elements are examined in turn. Of particular interest is the relative durability of, and reliance on, specific mechanisms.

Taking the internal arena first, we find that governments have continued to evolve there own variant of public management with the attendant reporting and accountability requirements. This is discretionary activity involving choice about the components and the emphases within the framework. It has not however necessarily settled the accountability question. The two management frameworks extended devolution with corresponding contractions in central agency roles. The inevitable reaction to the limitations of high devolution is now advanced.

On the political dimension, there has been a relentless expansion of control mechanisms over the public service (Halligan, 2003a). This has fallen short of a political appointment system and a professional public service continues to exist at senior levels. Nevertheless the continual shortcomings in achieving political ends and effective control has been repeatedly expressed through recent changes to central agency roles in budgeting, implementation and coordination.

What is apparent is how resolute government has been in protecting the identity of the internal domain. This reflects both the nature of and the strength of the cabinet-parliamentary system and is expressed through its capacity to control resources and protect and defend territory. There has been effective working through of issues that challenge it and with evolving solutions regarding external pressures (eg clients and customers). The overall effectiveness in domain maintenance and solidarity is high.

The external dimensions of accountability have also experienced remarkable expansion of mechanisms, which to some extent have served to counterbalance the burgeoning powers of the executive. Several scrutiny mechanisms have either emerged or been strengthened. It is also clear that these have been responses to different dynamics and pressures, including the strength of belief in external review and transparency, parliament-executive politics being just one. The continuing constraints imposed by executive government have been argued to attenuate the work of external review bodies, whether of resourcing or access to relevant information.

The governmental system has been rather less successful in handling cross-boundary arrangements. The outsourcing of public tasks has been often problematic with regard to factoring in the roles and responsibilities of contractees. Similarly, the expectations in the governance era of incorporating non-governmental actors more directly into public policy and management are still being worked through. The sharing of accountability under whole-of-government arrangements remains to be resolved.

The effectiveness of management tenets has also come under question, in particular the reliance on management processes instead of other more formal evaluation (Halligan, 2003b), although there are indicators that external-to-agency review is on the rise as the central agencies come into their own again. It is apparent then that new types of accountability have been added during recent decades thereby contributing to the overall complexity of accountability. In this process, old elements have not been discarded but continue to play a role (such as ministerial responsibility) even if they are less salient.

One paradox of accountability is that attempts to satisfy needs for control, reporting and scrutiny have invoked new forms and further variations to existing mechanisms. There is support for the paradox in terms of the evolution of internal management frameworks and political control. So the mid-twenty-first century is a combination of reasserted central agency and political control and against devolved agency responsibilities and shared accountability pressures. However, a broader dynamic is being played out with ideas and institutions in contention. This continuing dynamic, reported earlier, will ensure that the internal/external dimensions will continue to provide the framework for the accountability debate. The reality is that the shift between accountabilities is an integral feature of modern government and that accountability deficits are a feature of specific mechanisms.

The sheer complexity of the demands and the invasion of private sector approaches to the public sector also produced the transfer of corporate governance concepts. Under this solution, accountability becomes enveloped in a broader governance framework, which provides a framework within which accountability is frequently embedded. As private sector approaches have penetrated the public service more extensively, the need to ground accountability within a corporate governance framework derived from the private sector has become necessary for government enterprises and other agencies, including departments of state.


Accountability in Australia has become increasingly complex because it has been a rapidly evolving field in a period of intense public sector reform. The overall trend has been towards the addition of more forms of accountability and additional dimensions to existing types, thereby creating multiple accountabilities. The reach of each form of accountability is not comprehensive as each serves a specialized purpose, and the limitations of both traditional and newer concepts are apparent.

Although the accountability terrain has become cluttered with the several types, significant questions about the scope of government's external accountability obligations and conflicts between different forms of accountability remain unresolved. This no doubt reflects the continuing political and multi-faceted character of accountability in the public sector. This and the complexity and ambiguities remain persistent features of accountability. The weaknesses in turn will fuel new variations in accountability in the future.


[1.] For the debates about accountability and the related concepts of responsibility and responsiveness, see also Gregory (2003) and Uhr (1999).

[2.] The main recent exception was the resignation of Minister Ros Kelly over the 'Sports Rorts' case because the government was unable to respond effectively to allegations that there was both a 'rort' and a 'cover-up'. An efficiency audit by the Australian National Audit Office established that the minister had direct responsibility for the management of the process of grant allocations to community groups, but was unable to provide justifications for her decisions, which favoured electorates held by members of her party.

[3.] In particular, these were the 2002 terrorist attack in Bali and the decision in 2003 to commit Australian forces to the war against Iraq.


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University of Canberra, Australia
Table 1:
Accountability dimensions by type of mechanism

Dimension Internal (examples)

Political Political control Parliament

Bureaucratic Central agency Legal/quasi-legal
 control Parliament
 Accountability Market

Table 2:
Changed APS Environments and Types of Accountability

 Character of Type of
 Environment accountability accountability

1970s Traditional Accountability as Ministerial
 public process responsibility
 administration Accountability for Transaction control
 inputs by central agencies
 Administrative/legal New administrative

1980s Management Decentralization of Accountability
 responsibility management
1980s Political Control/hierarchy Political

1990s External/ Accountability in Customer/client
 client focus terms of customer: accountability
 * choice of providers
 * quality assurance
Mid- Market (e.g. charters) Market/Contract
1990s Competition Purchaser provider, management
Late- contestability,
1990s contracting Output/
 Outcome; accrual
2000s Whole of budgeting Shared
 government Collective accountability?
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Article Details
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Author:Halligan, John
Publication:Public Administration Quarterly
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Dec 22, 2007
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