Accountability and Accounting: Insights from Russian Public Sector Reform
The past four decades or so have witnessed enormous efforts to modernize the public sector worldwide under the banner of New Public Management (NPM). A bewildering diversity of meanings regarding NPM and its effects has been expressed over time, including the viewing of it as a comprehensive package of ideas (Hood 1991), a label for the clusters of reforms, variations on a theme (Hood 1995), the leading tool box for healing all the managerial wounds, or “the cruellest invention of the human spirit” (Lapsley 2009). Despite the often spotty and sometimes even detrimental results (Hood and Dixon 2016; Hyndman and Lapsley 2016), today NPM has circled the earth by diverse paths, landed in various settings, and become entrenched in both theory and practice around the world.
One of the main pillars and fundamental tenets of NPM-driven reforms was a growing preoccupation with the notion of accountability. Indeed, numerous and repeated calls were voiced loudly by governments almost everywhere to make public sector managers more accountable for results, instead of granting them more power and autonomy. In the aftermath of these calls, the search for forms of accountability, concerned with effectiveness, efficiency, and the overall performance of public sector organizations, was initiated. The Russian state was not immune to this global trend. At the outset of the new millennium, appeals to boost efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability began to be widely echoed in the country, serving as the truths, in whose name the Russian public sector was to be revitalized. In this context, the need for reinvention of the post-Soviet model of the state was widely acknowledged, and a large-scale reform package was promoted by the federal government. This encapsulated, among other things, an updated version of accounting and financial reporting to be practiced within the Russian public sector.
This chapter seeks to elucidate the role(s) that the notion of accountability has played in the reconstruction of Russian central (federal) government accounting. Special emphasis is placed on linking the central government reform initiatives aimed at bringing greater (and novel forms of) accountability within the Russian public sector with those endeavors to implement them in one state-sponsored university of Russian tertiary education (hereafter, the university or educational establishment). Notably, it is beyond the scope of this chapter to reach a verdict on whether the findings are applicable to other settings, implying that the generalizability of results to other Russian public sector organizations (including universities and other higher educational establishments) and/or levels of government may be quite problematic.
The remainder of this chapter proceeds as follows. Considering the importance of accountability and providing that it is still (relatively) ill defined, this chapter first aims at shedding some light on the ongoing debate of what accountability is and what the relationship between accountability and accounting represents. It then introduces some thoughts and reflections on public sector accountability. Furthermore, the interplay between accountability and accounting within the wider context of the Russian public sector reforms is described, using the evidence obtained from the university. In doing so, two levels are clearly differentiated in this chapter, incorporating the initiatives of the federal government (i.e., the macro-level) with efforts made to implement them locally (i.e., the micro-level). Finally, some concluding remarks are offered.
Toward Defining Accountability
Accountability is always good; no one can deny this. However, it is hard to imagine an organization that is branded “too accountable” (Koppell 2005). While there is a wealth of literature on this topic, there is a clear-cut consensus that accountability is still an inherently “contentious,” “complex,” “heterogeneous,” “contradictory and indeed contrary,” ill-defined, and poorly structured concept (Almqvist et al. 2013; Sinclair 1995; Kearns 1994; Roberts 1991; Mulgan 2000). Sinclair (1995, p. 219) refers to the “chameleon of accountability,” which is a “cherished concept, sought after but elusive.” Nevertheless, the author continues that “Accountability is multiple and fragmented: being accountable in one form often requires compromises of other sorts of accountability” (Sinclair 1995, p. 231). Likewise, Kearns (1994) claims that “It is laden with competing assumptions and complicated by contextual factors that make the notion of accountability the ultimate ‘moving target’” (p. 187).
The lack of clarity and coherence regarding the meaning of accountability is particularly striking in the extant literature. On the one hand, a wide array of closely related and often-overlapping terms abounds. This includes, but is not circumscribed by, responsibility, responsiveness, answerability, blameworthiness, and transparency. Although holding various conceptual implications, they are sometimes used interchangeably. On the other hand, accountability connotes bureaucratic control and enforcement in some articles, democracy and integrity in others, while still other commentators treat accountable as synonymous with law-abiding. It is evident that the meanings above are often not consistent with one another, implying that organizations cannot be accountable in all the senses implied by this single word.
The concept of accountability has gained increasing popularity recently. Not surprisingly, a search for the word “accountability” in Google resulted in over 319,000,000 entries, evincing a stupendous interest in the topic! Responding to this growing interest in accountability, a significant amount of research of a multidisciplinary nature has emerged in the literature. This embraces such fields as public administration, political science, accounting, ethics, and governance. In that regard, it is noteworthy that some peer-reviewed international journals incorporate the word “accountability” in their titles. Among those are Accountability in Research; Financial Accountability and Management; Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal; Social and Environmental Accountability Journal; Journal of Leadership, Accountability and Ethics; and Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability.
The traditional view of accountability is that of a relationship involving “the giving and demanding of reasons for conduct” (Roberts and Scapens 1985, p. 447). In this broad sense, accountability can be seen as “a chronic feature of daily conduct” (Giddens 1979, p. 57). At the very heart of this relationship is stewardship. If one is accountable, then one is answerable to another party and bound to render an account for actions taken, decisions made, and assignments completed, in either in written form or verbal communication (Ijiri 1975; Robinson 2003; Roberts and Scapens 1985). Specifically, the former, who is obliged to render the account for actions taken, is known as the steward, agent, or accountor, while one entrusting power and authority and to whom the account is presented is the principal or accountee.
Furthermore, the accountability relationship normally requires the accountor (agent) to account for his [her] activities assigned by the accountee (principal) and their consequences for the benefit of the latter (Ijiri 1975). Therefore, an accountant joins this accountability relationship between the accountor and the accountee, as a third party. More specifically, the accountant enters into this relationship with the primary goal of assisting the accountor in accounting for his [her] activities and their consequences and, at the same time, providing information to the accountee. This is to say that accounting operates in a principal–agent relationship (Mellemvik et al. 1988; Gårseth-Nesbakk and Timoshenko 2014) and that the accountant is involved in a dual relationship – one with the accountor and another with the accountee (Ijiri 1975). The same can be said for an auditor, whose main task is to provide “professional expertise and judgment” to both the accountee and the accountor, for the purpose of determining whether accounting activities performed by the accountant satisfy required practice.
One of the elements of accountability is control of the organizational activities. As indicated above, this is what has become known in the literature as the control objective of accounting (see e.g., Mellemvik et al. 1988; Gårseth-Nesbakk and Timoshenko 2014). The UN Manual on Government Accounting accentuates the role of accounting systems in ensuring that applicable laws and regulations are followed; that financial records and statements provide a “true and fair” result of operations; that the accounts and reports are issued and disseminated in time; and that expenditures are within approved ceilings (The UN 2000). This is coined fiscal accountability.
In their examination of the relationship between accounting systems and systems of accountability, Roberts and Scapens (1985) stress the role of the former in providing strict temporal order for an organization. Accounting systems are said to divide organizational life into accounting periods and contribute to generating regular reports. What is more, accounting involves the establishment of the most important boundaries of an organization – those internal and external boundaries that are determined by the system of accountability. The latter corresponds to the concept of an accounting entity, according to which, “Accounting is possible only when there is an area of economic interest that can be defined.” Thus far, accountability provides for the “binding” of organizational time and space (Roberts and Scapens 1985, p. 448).
“… is a system designed to facilitate the smooth functioning of accountability relationships among interested parties”;
“… starts with the recording and reporting of activities and their consequences, and ends with the discharging of accountability.” (p. 32)
With the passage of time, however, the scope of accountability has been considerably enlarged to incorporate novel and more complex relationships. This renewed viewing of accountability goes well beyond its core sense of being called to account for one’s actions. Munro and Mouritsen (1996) suggest that accountability should be comprehended as a broad concept, one that transcends a formal order to encompass a complex system of reciprocal rights and obligations that abound in organizations. Roberts (1991) emphasizes the latter and argues that accountability also involves heterogeneous social practices, by means of which we tend to remind each other about our reciprocal dependence. Such reciprocal dependence can be thought of in both instrumental and moral terms; we are bound up with each other not simply in narrow, calculable ways but also, more broadly, in intended and unintended ways. That is why Roberts (1991) divides the concept of accountability into individualizing and socializing forms. In turn, Lindkvist and Llewellyn (2003) propose using the terms accountability and responsibility to connote instrumentality and morality, respectively.
As a matter of fact, it is the individualizing form of accountability which tends to dominate the mainstream body of research. Linked to formal organizational structures, it generates “…a sense of the self as essentially solitary and singular, nervously preoccupied with how one is seen” (Roberts 1991, p. 355). However, in a more constructive vein, Roberts identifies a socializing form of accountability that may counteract these negative consequences. While still behind the curve, a growing interest in investigating this form of accountability or responsibility, as Lindkvist and Llewellyn (2003) name it, has been documented recently. All in all, whereas the individualizing form of accountability relates to the system world where the instrumental logic of work prevails (e.g., accounting practices), the socializing form of accountability or responsibility portrays the life world characterized by noninstrumental interaction.
Accountability is, thus, not only a formal order but also a moral order, a system of reciprocal rights and obligations (Roberts and Scapens 1985). Indeed, rather than demonizing the formal accounting system as the decisive force in achieving organizational control, the interplay between a variety of formal and informal mechanisms is currently recognized (Lindkvist and Llewellyn 2003). The practice of accounting institutionalizes the notion of accountability and the right of some people to hold others to account for their actions (Roberts and Scapens 1985, p. 448). In fact, this also means that the absence of accounting results in the absence of accountability.
Some Thoughts and Reflections on Public Sector Accountability
Accountability in the public sector has been given extensive literature coverage (Mulgan 2000). Even though there is a clear-cut agreement that accountability in the public sector is a prerequisite, there is a tiny consensus on which mechanisms should prevail at any point in time. This has resulted in “a complicated web of multiple, overlapping accountability relationships,” within which public officials must operate (Romzek 1998, p. 197). The search for ways to keep public officials accountable has led scholars to identify various types of accountability, and a great deal of research effort on the topic is vividly indicative of that (Sinclair 1995; Romzek and Dubnik 1987; Kearns 1994; Bovens 2009). Although the professional and scholarly community may never reach agreement on one definition of accountability, it is deemed beneficial to elaborate an analytical framework that acknowledges the viability and contextual relevance of several definitions, as a guide for formulating strategies and policies in this arena (Kearns 1994, p. 187). It is pertinent to note here that the discussion below does not aim to provide all of the definitions that exist but, rather, those definitions that are the most illustrative.
To begin with, public sector accountability may exist at various levels, given a spectrum of stakeholders. According to Chan (2003), a distinction can be made between the three levels of accountability. The first level is internal accountability within the executive branch, where lower-level officials (i.e., bureaucrats) are accountable to their superiors (i.e., the elected members of the government). The second and higher level is internal accountability of the executive branch to the legislature. This kind of accountability is based on the proposition that elected officials occupying seats in the legislature are more directly accountable to the people than are appointed officials in administrative positions. The third and highest level of accountability is external accountability of the legislature to the electorate and general public. This fact is pointed out by, e.g., McCormick and Tollison (1981, p. 24): “In a representative democracy voters-taxpayers can be considered as analogous to owners (principals) and politicians as analogous to managers (agents)”, or, in the words of Sterk (1988, p. 659): “Legislators are agents. They act on behalf of people they represent, not for themselves as individuals.”
Various types of accountability relationships (Adopted from Romzek and Ingraham (2000, p. 242))
Sources of expectations and/or control
Degree of autonomy
Values and behavioral expectations of diverse accountability types (Adopted from Romzek and Ingraham (2000, p. 242))
Type of accountability
Obedience to organizational directives
Rule of law
Compliance with external mandates
Deference to individual judgment and expertise
Responsive to key external stakeholders
As the literature demonstrates, public sector managers tend to “work under one or two of these types on a daily basis with the remaining types being in place but underutilized, if not dormant” (Romzek and Ingraham 2000, p. 242). In addition, there is often a shift in focus, meaning, and priority among heterogeneous types of accountability in times of change (Romzek 1998). To illustrate, in his study of the reform of the Italian public sector, Panozzo (2000) points out that managerial accountability has become transformed into a matter of legal compliance – management by decree – rather than a mechanism for promoting change. In a similar vein, Kurunmäki (1999) has documented a narrowing of the basis of accountability resulting from Finnish health care reforms, which led to a conflict with the broader societal conceptions of accountability held by medical professionals.
All the above fits squarely with a widely cited empirical study of accountability by Sinclair (1995). The author explores the way chief executives in the Australian public sector perceive and practice their accountability and unveils five types of accountability – political, public, managerial, professional, and personal. For public sector managers, political, parliamentary, or “upward” accountability is expressed in the desire to be loyal to one’s political party. The duty to serve clients and the public constitutes public or “outward” accountability. In the aftermath of NPM efforts and assiduous attempts to reinvent the public sector around the globe, more recent theorizing has given much more prominence to managerial or financial accountability (Panozzo 2000). The latter embodies the concepts of managerial autonomy, efficiency [the rational use of resources in the process of achieving objectives], and effectiveness [the achievement of programmed objectives]. It is reinforced by the very impetus for quantification, that is, specification of measurable results (i.e., outcomes), performance or objectives by managers and their superiors, accompanied by a relaxation of formalized controls over inputs and processes (Sinclair 1995). Finally, professional and personal accountabilities to one’s profession and one’s code of ethics are also indispensable components in Sinclair’s typology. Sinclair’s findings provide strong evidence indicating that the aforementioned types of accountability are not mutually exclusive but contextually dependent. This means that organizations may be accountable in more than one way.
Accountability and Accounting in the Light of Russian Public Sector Reform: A Macro-Micro Link
The First Wave of Public Sector Reforms in Post-Soviet Russia
The dominant accountability pattern established within the Russian public sector during the 1990s was exclusively concerned with the budgetary process. In this context, the annual federal budget was reckoned to be the major tool for demonstrating, enforcing, and discharging internal accountability between the Federal Assembly (the national legislature of the Russian Federation) as the principal and the Russian Cabinet of Ministers (the Government, the national executive body of the Russian Federation) as the agent. Not surprisingly, this clear-cut emphasis on the budget gave birth to a system of budgetary (or Treasury) accounting, capable of measuring and communicating actual budgetary performance versus authorizations. The report on the federal budget execution was the main and solely accounting statement to be submitted to the Russian legislature. Indeed, the setting was characterized by the sudden disappearance of Soviet methods of control over budget execution through the banking system. This eventually prompted novel ways of doing accounting in the Russian public sector. The Treasury accounting and financial reporting system, in fact, filled this void (Timoshenko and Adhikari 2009a).
While there was a growing preoccupation with the government’s overall management of the macro-economy at the federal level via the budget, Russian public sector entities were forced to comply entirely with preestablished rules for budget limits and expenditures implanted by their overseeing government agencies. This laid down the foundation for a system of accounting for budget institutions. As the evidence gained from the university demonstrated (Timoshenko 2008; Timoshenko and Adhikari 2009b), the educational establishment was compelled to report to its main supervisory body in Moscow and the regional treasury department on the use of all its funds, from both budget and off-budget sources. Any failure, delay, or mistake in so doing could lead to sanctions imposed by government officials. Interestingly enough, other users of financial statements apart from the state were simply not emphasized.
This resulted in a strong one-way relationship between the state as the principal and the university as the agent, making subordinate accountability to the Ministry/Agency the prevalent pattern for the university. Thus far, the system of government accounting and financial reporting established during the 1990s was designated to facilitate the smooth functioning of this accountability type. In this context, the dominant tenet of accounting was control and legal compliance, directed at ensuring that the needs of the state were implanted into the university accounting system and that the recognition of its requirements was assured; that applicable Russian laws and regulations were followed; and that the accounts and reports were issued and disseminated in time. For example, funds allocated to the educational establishment for scholarships had to be utilized for that purpose and not for another! Otherwise, sanctions might be imposed, up to the halting of state financing. The same scenario might occur, given the university’s failure to submit its reports in time. What occurred was a detailed rule for almost every conceivable transaction, intended to prevent spending in excess of appropriations and to secure the collection of revenues as specified in the budget. In a nutshell, accounting was seen as a mere exercise, leaving the university accounting department with no involvement other than following rules set in Moscow.
Reform Efforts Toward NPM in Russia: Reality or Rhetoric?
The turn of the new millennium witnessed the meteoric rise of public sector reforms in Russia under the umbrella of NPM. In this context, a variety of ambitious, large-scale top-down government initiatives came to the fore, heralding a discernible shift in the ideology imbuing Russian public administration. Among the key items on the menu from the NPM “cuisine” in Russia were the structural reform of government agencies and other reforms of all federal relations and self-government, the launch and implementation of performance-oriented budgeting and medium-term financial planning, as well as a stride away from traditional cash accounting toward more informative business-like accrual accounting (Timoshenko and Adhikari 2009a). Indeed, rather than being a matter of legal compliance with the state’s requirements in the course of budget execution, there was a growing preoccupation at the macro-level with running public sector entities in a more effective and efficient way.
In this context, the federal government appears to have commenced the modernization process itself by essentially reorganizing its executive branch. The updated structure of the Russian Cabinet of Ministers was vigorously supportive of this, containing a clearer accountability framework in relation to its previous pattern. For example, the Federal Ministry for Education and Science was restructured into two federal agencies and two federal services under its supervision in attempts to discern the formulation of state educational (and research) policy from its provision. This underlined the emphasis of Russian reforms on heightened accountability within the executive branch, so that, rather than being held accountable for the correct use of inputs, ministries/agencies/services could be held accountable for the results of using those inputs. Therefore, enhancing managerial accountability became a top priority at the macro-level.
With a clear-cut appeal for a shift from a culture of execution to a culture of results at the macro-level, the situation varied markedly at the micro-level. As the evidence obtained from the educational establishment indicated (Timoshenko 2008; Timoshenko and Adhikari 2009b), several accountability forms acted in conjunction with one another on a daily basis there. Remarkably, with the university as an entity formally accountable to the state in legal terms, some teachers and researchers saw themselves as more responsible to their clients, rather than to the university employing them. Among those clients were free-from-charge and fee-paying students, academies, parents, industrial firms, and potential employees. Having said this, there was an obvious need to be responsive to the concerns of varied contractors who had a legal, moral, or ownership-type right to know how the university spent its money and what results were achieved. All this, without any doubt, denoted the existence of the socializing (that is, professional, political, and personal) forms of accountability within the educational establishment.
Notwithstanding the fact that the university became responsive to the concerns of its clients, hierarchical administrative accountability to the ministry/agency remained the potent type of accountability for the educational establishment. Indeed, even though a constellation of actors had a stake in university affairs, the federal officials in Moscow played the most decisive roles in university affairs. Notably, the university’s accounting statements continued to be treated as confidential documents and not transparent to the general public, even though the university charter required this. In fact, only those university administrators with budget responsibility were permitted to access information within the auspices of their authority. Rather than being intentional, this probably represented an entrenched habit inherited from the Soviet past, when all financial statements had been regarded as confidential documents. It should be noted, however, that the situation has altered dramatically since the early 2010s, when Internet users were given access to plentiful data regarding all public sector organizations throughout the country, including their financial statements.
Thus far, the federal government continued to dictate the way accounting was to be practiced at the university. Under these circumstances, the university was coerced by the federal authorities to alter its accounting and financial reporting system from cash to accruals, irrespective of its wants and wishes. Widely touted by the Federal Ministry of Finance’s officials, a new myth of accrual accounting was dispatched to the university as either a suitable replacement for or a possible complement to the myth of cash. Just as cash accounting was a deeply entrenched way of accounting for public monies at the educational establishment, over many years, accrual accounting was meant to supersede or complement the former.
However, the empirical evidence gathered from the university suggests that an up-to-date version of accounting and financial reporting calibrated at the macro-level did not significantly encroach upon the existing budgetary practices locally. It is therefore not surprising that cash-basis data was still extensively used and indeed constituted the sole source of information in the day-to-day management of university operations (e.g., the payments from fee-paying students) and in the budgetary process. As such, the launched accrual-based financial statements were merely seen as an additional burden for the university accounting department. All this leads one to conclude that changes at the central government level penetrated down to the university in form – and much less in practice. Most likely, the introduction of a novel version of accounting by the Russian state was regarded as more of a symbol of legitimacy for the university rather than of an actual financial management tool.
The following conclusions are worth mentioning here. Firstly, an inextricable relationship does exist between accountability and accounting. Albeit more in rhetoric than practice, appeals for a more accountable Russian public sector gave birth to a new, more informative accrual-based accounting system. This is to say that the practice of accounting institutionalizes the notion of accountability (Roberts and Scapens 1985), implying that any shift in focus and priority among the diverse patterns of accountability leads to important repercussions for the accounting system. Consequently, when researching (public sector) accounting, a special reference to accountability is a prerequisite.
Secondly, the very meaning of accountability underwent a complete and dramatic change in the aftermath of the Russian public sector reform. More specifically, calls for greater and novel forms of accountability triggered by NPM-style reforms worldwide can help comprehend the Russian public sector accounting change in the following manner. On the one hand, at the macro-level, the rise of a concern regarding accountability can be seen as linked to the rise in efficiency and effectiveness as a key part of the strategy to revitalize Russia’s public sector. On the other hand, at the micro-level, a concern with accountability may be characterized as an imposition of new accounting techniques and practices by the federal government in attempts to regulate the university in the very name of augmented efficiency and effectiveness. The latter argument aligns with Schedler’s (1999) view of accountability as enforcement, or “the capacity of … agencies to impose sanctions on power holders who have violated their public duties” (p. 14). All this is to say that accountability is indeed context-specific.
Finally, while NPM (now no longer new) was the dominant doctrine of administrative reform and the leading toolbox for healing all the managerial wounds throughout the 1990s and in the early twenty-first century, the 2010s are far from the best of times for NPM. In that regard, questions remain unanswered as to whether NPM actually led to better accountability in the public sector worldwide. With the relevance of NPM steadily on the wane and its potential exhausted, and with some academic commentators even presaging its ultimate demise, public administration is clearly undergoing a paradigmatic shift toward brand-new [post-NPM] avenues of thought (Klijn 2012; Christensen and Lægreid 2011; Osborne 2006; O’Flynn 2007; Almqvist et al. 2013). So, more than likely, four decades of the ideological hegemony of NPM in the global public sector arena seem to be history now, giving birth to what is generally referred to in the contemporary literature as New Public Governance. Having increasingly come into vogue, this emerging conceptual framework pledges to eradicate the debilitating effects that the managerialism of recent decades caused. This may result in updated (perhaps, more horizontal) accountability types and changes in the way accounting is (to be) practiced.
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