Old and New: Privatization and the Accountability Challenge

It is hardly news that the use of various forms of privatization and contracting out in public service delivery poses accountability challenges. The lead article in this month’s issue explores that problem through an analysis of the hybrid accountability mechanisms that developed when three nations contracted out their employment services. As Bastian Jantz, Tanja Klenk, Flemming Larsen, Jay Wiggan note in their conclusion, the extended chains of accountability in these hybrid arrangements put considerable distance between public authority and service providers. The authors also emphasize, however, that through good design, elements of accountability in the market for a service can complement traditional democratic accountability mechanisms. This insight is reinforced in a significant way in Mohammed Nurunnabi’s study of the privatization of higher education in Bangladesh, also in this issue. Where accountability mechanisms are faulty or non-existent, privatization can fail. The fallout can extend beyond the effects of the privatized program itself.

Twenty years ago in A&S, as part of his analysis of the impact of Third Wave transformations on the American administrative state, Bob Durant (1998) also explored the accountability challenges of privatization, which he situated in an agenda of “downsizing, defunding, and devolution.” He warned about the consequences for this agenda of failing to take accountability seriously, and the threat to accountability as an value that the agenda posed. In important ways, one can see both of these problems manifest in the Bangladesh case.

Finally, lest the reader think that the meaning and measurable significance of privatization is well settled, “The Irony of Privatization” by Hugh Miller and James Simmons (1998) is worth a visit, or revisit. Using the tools of deconstruction, the authors revealed, not surprisingly, that debates about privatization boil down to language games, “sometimes played sincerely, sometimes disingenuously” (p. 529). I would only add that since such language games are in fact power games, the worst possible result obtains when privatization opponents play sincerely and proponents play disingenuously. In those cases, the opponents try to engage in a good-faith debate about the best ways to deliver services both efficiently and effectively, while proponents promote privatization as a cover for rent seeking.


Durant, R. F. (1998). Agenda setting, the “Third Wave,” and the administrative state. Administration & Society 30, 211-247.

Miller, H. T. and Simmons, J. R. (1998). The irony of privatization. Administration & Society 30, 513-532.

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