Date01 September 2016
Published date01 September 2016
doi : 10. 1111/p adm .12243
The establishment of autonomous agencies has been a strong trend in the public sector across coun-
tries for about 25 years. In line with the ofcial rhetoric accompanying such reforms, almost all
reform evaluations have focused on various kinds of performance improvements. This article inves-
tigates a set of behavioural consequences of such reforms, which have been claimed by the blame
avoidance literature, but have never been subjected to systematic empirical analysis. In particular,
the article examines how a reform of agencication inuences the propensity of agency managers to
blame the political principals when the agency is subject to public criticism. Furthermore, it exam-
ines how the reform inuences the blaming rhetoric of ministers and MPs. Toevaluate such reform
effects systematically, the article introduces a new empirical approach and illustrates the utility of
the approach in a case study of the transformation of the national Danish railway company from
1995 to 2007.
Many public administration reforms in recent decades have implied a break-up of for-
merly monolithic bureaucracies into separate agencies. These agencies are often headed by
senior public servants operating within a framework agreed on by ministers but at arm’s
length from the minister and with some discretionary space in terms of achieving their
objectives (see Peters and Pierre 2001; Flinders 2008; Pollitt and Bouckaert 2011). There has
been much controversy over the denition of agencies, but there seems to be agreement
that an agency,in terms of agencication, concerns an organization that: ‘(1) is structurally
disaggregated from the government and (2) operates under more businesslike conditions
than the government bureaucracy’ (VanThiel 2012, p. 18). Furthermore, agencication has
implied a marked increase in the number of agencies and public sector organizations. The
reform trend has not been uniform, and the shape of reform varies both within and across
countries (Verhoest et al. 2012), but the trend is sufciently documented to warrant further
theoretical and empirical scrutiny.
This article focuses on the effect of changes along two dimensions of these agencication
reforms. The autonomy dimension reects the creation of moreautonomous organizations
in relation to previously integrated ministerial departments (see Peters and Pierre 2001,
p. 6). The numerosity dimension reects the proliferation of organizations often generated
by agencication reforms. This proliferation can stem from increased competition and/or
the division of large organizations into independent and specialized units. Central to the
latter dimension is the multiplicity of new actors entering the scene as a more or less direct
consequence of these reforms.
The blaming/blame-avoidance aspect has been claimed to be an important rationale
behind public administration reforms involving delegation of autonomy (Fiorina 1982;
Flinders 2008; Hood 2011), yet such effects have not been systematically investigated
empirically. Instead, former evaluations primarily assess whether the reforms have
Peter B. Mortensen is at the Department of Political Science, the University of Aarhus, Denmark.
Public Administration Vol.94, No. 3, 2016 (630–646)
© 2016 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
produced the quality improvements and economic gains ofcially claimed for them (see
e.g. Peters and Pierre 2001; Pollitt and Bouckaert 2011; Verhoest et al. 2012). In response
to this research decit, this article examines an important set of behavioural reform
consequences, namely how agencication shapes agency managers’ blaming strategies.
The behaviour of agency managers constitutes a crucial component of the argument that
agencication results in blame avoidance for the political principals. If the managers do
not reduce their use of public accounts blaming the political executives after reforms that
increase the autonomy of the agency,then there is little reason to believe that such reforms
produce stronger lightning rods for the political leaders.
Thus, it is important to examine whether more delegated autonomy to the agency level
actually makes agency managers more reluctant to pass blame upwards to the minister
when the agency attracts negative, public attention. Furthermore, given the inow of new
organizations following such reforms it is important to investigate to what extent this
aspect of agency reforms increases agency managers’ use of blame shifting directed at
other actors and agencies within the relevant policy domain, an effect that may contribute
to increased coordination problems and conicts in the aftermath of reform.
To investigate such effectsof agencication reforms, the article introduces a new empir-
ical approach based on the content coding of a large number of public accounts by agency
managers. The utility of the approach is illustrated in a case study of the transformation
of the Danish Railway Company (DSB). Unlike railway services in many other countries,
the Danish Railway Company has never been fully privatized. Yet, it has been through
a process of structural disintegration from the Department of Transportation and today
it operates under business-like conditions. Going into the 1990s, the DSB was organized
as a traditional state enterprise nanced by government grants provided for in the bud-
get. As a state enterprise, it was an integrated part of the Ministry of Transportation and
of a hierarchy headed by the Minister of Transportation. By 1 January 1999, however, the
DSB was transformed into a government-owned corporation with its own board of direc-
tors. The legislation prescribing the new organizational status of the DSB was approved
by a large majority in the Danish parliament. The DSB was removed from the budget
to be nanced by a contract with the Ministry of Transportation and by revenues from
contracts on railway services abroad won in competition with other railway companies.
Furthermore, parts of the DSB were gradually hived off and turned into new and more
specialized corporations and organizations, which along with the introduction of com-
petition increased the number of organizations within the railway policy domain. Thus,
given the above denition of agencication, the reforms of the DSB are highly relevant to
a study of agencication effects.
The empirical analysis evaluates the effects of these reforms based on the content coding
of more than 5,000 newspaper articles about issues related to the DSB from 1995 to 2007.
From these articles more than 1,100 public statements from top-level managers employed
by the DSB have been extracted. All these statements are public responses to negative
coverage of issues related to the DSB and all statements have been content coded according
to whether they: (1) blame the political executives, (2) blame other actors, or (3) represent
other accounts such as excuses or justications.
Based on this data set, and using multinomial logistic regression, the article reports
the rst systematic analysis of how agencication reforms may inuence agency man-
agers’ propensity to blame upwards and/or sideways when responding to public criti-
cism. Furthermore, utilizing the different timings of the railway sector changes, the anal-
ysis provides evidence about which effects can be attributed to the gradual proliferation
Public Administration Vol.94, No. 3, 2016 (630–646)
© 2016 John Wiley& Sons Ltd.

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