Is Accountability a Cure for Shirking? Bureaucratic Behaviors and Institutional Constraints


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Award date14 Aug 2020


Bureaucratic shirking is a serious problem in government and refers to that bureaucrats intentionally minimize efforts in shouldering their public responsibilities to satisfy personal interests. How to make bureaucrats work rather than shirk (lanzheng, 懶 政 ) and motivate them to put more effort on work has attracted much attention from scholars. Whether accountability reduces shirking and makes bureaucrats work hard has been debated. Using China as a case, this study seeks to examine the definitions, patterns, causes, and consequences of bureaucratic shirking. It pays special attention to the impacts of accountability on shirking and the ways in which bureaucrats respond to accountability pressures and conflicting expectations from multiple accountability holders. Different from the existing literature that normally connects accountability to positive resonance, this study argues that accountability does not necessarily lead to a reduction in shirking and that a “bad” configuration of accountability may lead to unintended consequences. Furthermore, instead of analyzing accountability as an aggregate concept, this study regards it as a multifaceted and complex mechanism which consists of different components. The impacts of different elements of accountability and their combinations on shirking are explored.

This study categorizes shirking into three types, namely evading, shifting and reframing responsibility, based on the content analysis of shirking cases. Evading responsibility is an obvious shirking behavior in which bureaucrats are totally unwilling to assume their responsibility by stalling or inaction. Shifting responsibility refers to the fact that bureaucrats pass the buck or responsibility to others. Reframing responsibility means that bureaucrats distort the intentions and contents of responsibility to project an impression of accomplishment. This study further develops four indicators of the accountability mechanism based on its three key phases, which include monitoring intensity in the information phase, discussion quality in the discussion phase, and reward-based or punish-based consequences in the consequence phase. After careful conceptualization, this study then explores the impact of these four elements of accountability on the three different shirking behaviors. The interactions of these elements on shirking are also explored. Methodologically, this research is based on a survey of 820 valid questionnaires among Chinese civil servants to explore the casual relationship between accountability and shirking. In addition, a survey experiment of a 2 (expectations: divergent or convergent) by 3 (accountability intensity: low, moderate, or high) between-subjects design is included in the questionnaire to explore the civil servants’ responses to conflicting expectations imposed by top-down and bottom-up accountability.

The study demonstrates that the increase of accountability does not necessarily lead to a decrease in shirking. This is because bureaucrats are not passive actors and they may cope with the intensity of accountability with defensive or shirking behaviors. The findings indicate that the control-centered dimension of accountability such as intensive monitoring and a punishment-based practice reduces shirking in evasion, but may promote subtle defensive behaviors such as shifting and reframing responsibility.

The incentive-centered dimension of accountability such as discussion and reward may mitigate defensiveness and promote cooperation, and thus reduce shifting and reframing responsibility. The survey experiment shows that bureaucrats tend to put more effort on a project when it is in line with citizens’ expectations regardless of the level of accountability intensity.