Newcastle University Business School

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‘Passionate and professional': reconciling logics in public service accounting

Austerity in the public sector has brought the delivery of value-for-money into sharp focus. The drive for public value offers up many tough questions, not least: who are the public? And, what do they (we) value?

To address these questions, public service workers - those on the front line and, increasingly, those in support functions - have been called on to have a Big Conversation, to co-create services or otherwise increase their level of engagement with citizens.    

Published in Public Money and Management, research undertaken by Dr Clare Butler Senior Lecturer in Work and Employment at Newcastle University Business School and Professor Kathryn Haynes at the University of Hull, questions the logic that underpins this blanket call for the building of relationships between the public and public servants.

Based on interviews with 22 accounting practitioners in two local authorities in the UK, they argue that some roles require a degree of detachment and that achieving public value might depend on it.

The public have varying wants and needs, many of which will not and cannot be satisfied. In order to make fair and equitable decisions in a context of competing demands, historically the role of public servant required neutrality. In recent years, the relationship-building agenda has become more prevalent; making impartiality seem an outdated mode of practice, edging toward indifference.

Yet, as Dr Butler notes ‘this research find that public service accountants can struggle with the tension between their traditional role, which foregrounds neutrality, and recent demands for greater involvement with service delivery and citizens’. In response, she said that ‘many participants spoke of trying to gain a degree of detachment, which allowed them to undertake their role in what they considered to be a ‘proper’ manner.’

Dr Butler adds ‘participants did not speak in a way that suggests they want to be detached from the publics that they serve. Rather, the research highlights that for some workers and for some roles there might need to be a boundary - for the good of workers and the public - and that this should not be considered as impersonal or denoting indifference.’ 

Given the increasing pressure in the public sector, managers and human resource practitioners need to be aware of the issues raised by this research. This study’s findings suggest that public service accountants - and, maybe, public servants more widely - should be supported in achieving ‘civic professionalism’: making connections between their work and society as a whole, but avoiding personalisation.

Building on this study’s findings, and drawing on Moore’s public value framework, the paper also includes an exercise / thought experiment for those who may be tasked with delivering public value and/or supporting those who do. It starts by asking:

  1. Value - what is nature of public value in your role/team, and how do you create or enhance it?
  2. Accountable - how do you demonstrate accountability? Is the outcome of your/your team’s work of value to or valued by the public? How do you know?
  3. Legitimacy - how is your/your team’s work legitimized?

Thanks to the support of Taylor & Francis and Michaela Lavender, managing editor of Public Money and Management, the paper has been made open access and is now available online

Butler, C and Haynes, K (2018) ‘Passionate and professional’: reconciling logics in accounting for public service, Public Money and Management

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published on: 9 October 2017