Public Accountability: a critical approach

Stewart Smyth

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


'Public Accountability' has been variously described as, for example, Chameleon-like, as ever expanding and as an iconic concept. Public accountability (PA) is a contested but fundamental concept in the structure of contemporary public services. However, much of the existing literature on PA can be seen as reductionist or managerialist. The experiences of public service-users rarely
feature and certainly not in the context as a potential agent for change. A second related strand concerns the introduction of New Public Management (NPM) models, and their impact on accountability in the public sector. A central line of argument is that to overcome the reductionist approaches researchers need to place their work in the broad context of these changes. To that end, this paper sets out a critical conceptualisation of 'public accountability', where it is seen as a dynamic social relationship through which civil society seeks to control and challenge the state. This critical PA conceptualisation is then applied to the context of Social Housing in England. The analysis highlights key changes in the structure of accountability relationships, but also stresses the opposition that the reforms have generated. Finally, the conclusion draws links to the debates in the anti-capitalist movement as providing a source of possible research projects.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)27-45
JournalJournal of Finance and Management in Public Services
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2007


  • Public Accountability
  • New Public Management
  • critical


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