In Between Competing Ideals : On the Relationships among Accounting, NPM, and Welfare

Abstract: We know that public organizations today are expected to manage activities on multiple, and somewhat incongruent ideals. Since the development of the New Public Management (NPM) wave, public organizations have been increasingly subject to governance by markets, economic frugality and outputs for the purpose of improving efficiency. At the same time, they are also required to manage their daily work according to the ideals of needs, equity and professional expertise, which have traditionally been foundational to the realization of a welfarian agenda. Together, these requirements make up dual expectations of public organizations as well as the accounting technologies used to manage them: a form of paradoxical management that seeks to measure, evaluate and document both efficiency and welfare. But how do actors realize these plural ideals in practice? And what is the role of accounting in this? These are some of the aspects and problems with control that lie at the very heart of this dissertation.Based on 41 interviews and 28 observations in a Swedish school context, this dissertation shows how the paradoxical expectations become manifest in the design and use of accounting technologies. On the one hand, it shows how school actors attempt to integrate welfare and NPM in practice by relying on accounting technologies, which results in hybrid outcomes. On the other hand, the dissertation also shows the fragility of such a style of governance, which continuously leads to failures and breakdowns that actors have to readdress as a consequence of attempting to achieve competing ideals by relying on accounting.By leaning on governmentality as a metatheoretical framework, this dissertation contributes to some new understandings of control in public sector contexts. First, in contrast to the literature on colonization, which suggests that the expansive use of accounting is a direct threat to welfarian ideals, this dissertation shows that accounting can equally serve as a means for welfarian ideals to eclipse NPM. Second, in contrast to the stream of separation that treats the loose or minimal use of accounting as a mechanism for sealing off welfare from NPM-led intrusions, the dissertation shows that even a marginal or loose application of accounting can in fact be conceived as a threat to welfarian ideals. Third, this dissertation also provides additional understanding in relation to the hybridity approach, not only by illuminating how NPM and welfare were brought together through various hybrids, but also by showing how these hybrids were facilitated by accounting technologies, whose functions served to make integration a practically viable outcome amenable to both breakdowns and reintegration. Overall, the dissertation thus contributes to current knowledge on public sector governance in general, and more specifically about the relationships among accounting, NPM, and welfare, in terms of their entanglement, disentanglement, interdependencies, and modes of reproduction in public sector life, a gap also echoed by recent calls in research.