Accountability in Public Administration

Efficiency cannot be achieved in public administration without accountability. According to Dubnick (2008), accountability can be defined as, “the means used to control and direct administrative behavior by requiring answerability to some external authority.” This system of public administration has its origin in the history of the American constitution and is also built on the Magna Carta principles. In addition, it is formed on the basis of the current checks and balances system. However, the term accountability in public administration has seen great evolution since its inception. As a result of this, new concepts evolved that were controversial to the original principles stipulated in the original classical theories. This paper will thus point out the differences and similarities within the new school of thought and the classical stipulations and finally give a stand on which approach is more viable and efficient.

During the classical age, accountability was taken to be a complex system of checks and balances whose main objective was to ensure that power was not abused and that freedom and individual improvement and development were protected for the benefit of the individuals and the whole society. The basis of this conception was inspired by a negative perception of governance and therefore had its philosophical essence was to reduce the power of the government. However, this implicated negatively on the power of the state. It was only reduced to the role of maintaining law and order. The government’s mandate never extended to the intervention in the social and economic development of the society. The development of the society was therefore autonomous and therefore imposed upon the government the role of maintaining the autonomy. Based on the rule of law, the society and the government both had to ensure that their actions were within the constitution and the law (OECD, 1995).

The socio-economic development of the society could not allow for the continuation of this form of approach to public administration. The new school of thought came up that did not found their concept on the negative conception of power which aimed at reducing it but were founded on a positive conception that aimed at expanding political power. However, the principles of its development did not divert far from the classical theory. In the new approach, the state had a role to play in the economic development and also the social development of the society and the individuals. The autonomous part of the society ceases giving the government the mandate to actively participate in social development and also in the intervention in economic matters. In the new concept, the state ceases to be a liberal one and becomes a welfare state. The state now takes an active position in the decision-making processes of both the traditional laws and the “new social services” which include housing, education, social security, health, and also other financial activities and sectors like banking, company ownership, and private insurance (OECD, 1995).

Several differences appear in the New and old public management in terms of accountability. These were triggered by the formulation of new principles after the failure of the old principles. Owing to the fact that the mandate given to the government after the failure of the classical approach to public administration was too big, the activities within the government’s responsibility became diverse and too extensive for it to handle. This led to the development of crises. The great mandate needed a great diversity of administrative apparatus which called for greater financial implications. The government eventually failed to live up to the financial expectations of the programs leading to economic contractions in many developed countries. This called for an intervention that resulted in new principles that differed from the older system in the following ways (OECD, 1995).

In the new school of thought also referred to as the new public management, the individuals in power were accountable for their activities based on the results of what they had undertaken. This clearly points out the positive approach to political power. Here, political power is trusted by the society which looks forward to seeing success from the activities undertaken by those in power. This was different from the initial theories that saw that political power was made up of people who would destroy the wellbeing of the society and therefore came up with means of ensuring that they were checked (OECD, 1995).

While the earlier concepts formed restrictions that dictated the way individuals had to act, the new school allowed for freedom of action. Those rules that were deemed unnecessary and which acted as restrictions and impediments to the performance of the administrative units and individuals were abolished. Regulations were simplified and rules were improved to ensure room for action. In addition, administrative units and individuals were given room for practicing alternative administrative activities which were not basically restricted within the formal regulations. This was different from the earlier concepts that called upon the administrative units to strictly adhere to the formal regulations so that power cannot be abused (OECD, 1995).

While the powers in the earlier concept were centralized and concentrated, the new administrative school was marked by decentralized and deconcentrated power structures that allowed for lower levels of public administration to increase their acting capacity. Furthermore, the new public administration allowed for coordination and decision making in the various decentralized units (OECD, 1995).

While the former public administration school conferred autonomy to the society and limited the administrative units, the new school offered autonomy to the administrative units allowing them to pursue the identified objectives and goals. This was achieved by the redefinition of internal guidelines which ceased from giving strict procedures into offering substantial goals and objectives. With the change in guidelines came the change in accountability where administrative units were not judged basing on their adherence to the guidelines but on the achievements of the stipulated goals and objectives (OECD, 1995).

While the former rules advocated for the autonomy of the citizens in terms of their social and economic endeavors, the position of the citizen in the new public administration changed from the active participant to an indirect participant who was viewed as the client and whose satisfaction had to be guaranteed. The role of the citizen here is to ensure that he communicates often with the administrative units through communication channels. This assisted the administrators to identify the actual needs of the citizens. These are among the several differences that were marked within the topic of accountability between the old public management paradigms and those of the new public administration (OECD, 1995).

Despite the differences, there were few marked similarities. In both cases, there was the need for regulation of the power of the individuals who are directly associated with management. In the initial public administration, the government had to play the role of maintenance of law and order in the effort to ensure that the autonomy of the society was maintained. This simply means that the government had to ensure that some elements within the society did not live to the expectations and destroy the autonomy. In the new public administration principles, the administrative units had to adhere to the goals and objectives of which any deviation from them would mean failure. While they were free to work in their own capacity, they had to ensure that the society, which is the client, achieved satisfaction.

Another similarity was that both methods aimed at ensuring society’s wellbeing. The different means simply acted as routes through which the final destination was the wellbeing of the society.

While the developers of the new public administration argue that the traditional paradigm of public administration was unable to cater to certain societal demands, my position remains that the new school offers a less promising perspective. I believe that the role of society can be more than just sitting down and waiting for the government to give everything and encourage it to consume. Dendhardt ( 2000) purports that competition and market forces are enough factors to steer equitable economic and social realities of the society. In addition, the new school of public administration kills entrepreneurial spirits within the society. I, therefore, advocate for the return to the earlier forms of public administration that would give the society the autonomy which should be guarded by the government.


  1. Dendhardt,R., B. (2000). Theories of Public Organizations. Orlando Florida: Harcourt Brace & Co
  2. Dubnick, M. (2008). “Accountability and ethics: reconsidering the relationship.” Rabbin, J. and Wachhaus, A. (eds) Encyclopedia of Public Administration and Public Policy
  3. OECD. (1995). Governance in transition: Public management reforms in OECD countries. Paris: OECD
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