Panel Paper: Accountability in Third-Party Governance: An Experiment on Attributions of Blame and Credit

Saturday, November 8, 2014 : 10:15 AM
Grand Pavilion IV (Hyatt)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

John D. Marvel, George Mason University and Amanda Girth, The Ohio State University
Private contractors routinely implement public policy in the United States.  Accountability problems arising from third party governance are well documented (Nabatchi 2011; Frederickson and Stazyk 2010; Bozeman 2007; Radin 2006; Romzek and Johnston 2005; Milward 1996), but some aspects of these problems have received little empirical attention.  This study addresses a little understood dimension of accountability – attribution of blame.  We ask: When implementation failures involve third parties, who do citizens blame for those failures?  Conversely, when implementation successes involve third parties, who do citizens credit for those successes?    

We draw on theories of attribution from psychology and on theories of accountability from public administration to argue that citizens will be inclined to blame government actors for implementation failures, even when those failures can plausibly be attributed to private contractors.  We also argue that citizens will be inclined to credit private sector actors for implementation successes, even when those successes can plausibly be attributed to government actors. 

We use a series of survey experiments that focus on the implementation of Obamacare (the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) to test our hypotheses.  Specifically, we randomly assign subjects to different implementation vignettes.  These vignettes are designed to differ in two ways.  First, they implicate either a government actor or a private sector actor for an implementation failure or success.  Second, they either weakly or strongly implicate that actor.  We are interested in whether subjects attribute more [less] blame and less [more] credit to government [private sector] actors, holding constant these actors’ actual culpability.             

Blaming or crediting the wrong party for implementation failure raises numerous implications for public management.  If citizens reflexively blame government actors for implementation failures and reflexively credit private actors for implementation successes, third-party governance will likely continue to gain in popularity and can erode citizen confidence in public institutions through misplaced blame and credit.  Private contractors are not as answerable to citizens and/or elected officials as public managers.  They are not bound by the same legal constraints to ensure transparency or responsiveness, among other public values.  Understanding the accountability dynamics in third-party implementation structures and the implications for contract performance and citizen attribution of blame and credit are a critical component of policy implementation and public management.