University of St.Gallen
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Understanding management innovation in the public sector: path dependencies and contingencies of accounting reforms

abstract Governments at all levels have been exposed to major reforms in the last three decades. A large part of these reforms set focus on innovating public management structures and processes. One of the reforms many governments passed through, or are still dealing with, was the change of the accounting system from a cash basis to an accrual basis. Proponents of the change have created a long list of arguments to explain the necessity of the reform, and there is significant rhetorical convergence throughout the world. Nevertheless, accounting reforms differ between countries as regards content and starting time.
In 2006, Switzerland started the implementation of the so called "New Accounting Model (NAM)" at the national level and thus, changed its system to accrual accounting and budgeting. Some of us were actively involved in the reform process. Looking back at the beginning of the reform process in the mid 1990s and reflecting the different decision situations, we assume that such differences in accounting models between countries are results of a mixture of path dependent decisions and pure contingencies in the reform process.
With our research, we attempt to show this duality of choices using the case of the New Accounting Model of the Swiss Federation. Analysing the main choices from the emergence of the idea of a new accounting model up to the final parliamentary decision to implement the new model, we attempt to explain why the New Accounting Model is as it is today. In particular, the paper focuses on answering the following 'A-type' (field specific) research questions:
- What is the impetus for a government to start a management innovation such as accounting reform?
- Which factors lead to a particular reform model and innovation process?
In order to be able to get close to this general understanding of reform trajectories in accounting, we are using the Swiss case as an object of in-depth study. We will focus our empirical research on the following 'B-type' (project specific) research questions:
- Why did Switzerland start an accounting reform project, and why exactly at this time?
- What were the main problems to solve, have they been solved , and if yes why have they been solved in this particular way?
- Who were the main actors in the reform process, what was their contribution to the NAM, why did they / could they contribute to the NAM?
- What were the institutional boundaries that limited the contingency of the politico-administrative system in the course of this reform?
In order to find answers to these questions, we reconstruct the reform process from its beginning up to the decision to implement the New Accounting Model using Kingdon's agenda setting framework. Empirical data is collected from external and internal project documentation, verbatim transcripts of the plenary sessions of the National Council and the Council of States and of the meetings of the finance committees of both Councils, and of several interviews with actors involved in the reform process, including politicians, government employees, project managers, managers of lobbying organisations, consultants, scientists and journalists.
keywords Innovation, Public Sector, Reform, Accounting Model
type fundamental research project
status completed
start of project 2008
end of project 2011
additional informations
topics Public Sector Accounting Reform, Management Innovation in the Public Sector
methods Interviews, desk research
contact Lukas Summermatter