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Tuesday, January 18, 2005

On the work of "gatekeepers" (a rant - revised and resubmitted)

[The original version of this post was a rant too much for friend Domonic, and on reflection I decided it was a bit too harsh on Professor Koppell (who also took me to task). Thus, here is a 'revised and resbmitted' posting -- demonstrating, I hope, that peer review does in fact work if given half a chance....]

After spending too many blogs on personal matters, I think it is time to do a few that will help justify the name of this blog site. Given the proliferation of scholarly articles about accountability being generated by colleagues in public administration, accounting, political science, psychology, criminal justice, etc, etc., there is plenty to write about. The problem is where to begin.

A good point of departure is a particular comment that caught my eye in a piece by Jonathan Koppell of Yale. His article in the January/February 2005 issue of Public Administration Review ("Pathologies of Accountability: ICANN and the Challenge of 'Multiple Accountabilities Disorder'", pp.94-108) starts with a complaint about something that plauges all students of the subject: the ambiguity of the concept of accountaiblity. "The perpetuation of fuzziness regarding this important term," he argues, "is a failing of our discipline" (p. 94), and he then sets out his own typology as a means for confronting this collective shortcoming. "I do not suggest a new, all-encompassing definition of the word," he disclaims. "There are enough already!" (95)

To his credit, Koppell is clear about both the problem and his intention of leading us toward resolution. "Ambiguity in the operative notions of accountability is not a benign problem," he notes, for it "can undermine an organization’s performance.... Organizations trying to meet conflicting expectations are likely to be dysfunctional, pleasing no one while trying to please everyone. Ironically, this may include failures of accountability—in every sense imaginable" (95). He proceeds to label this dysfunctionality "multiple accountabilites disorder (MAD)," and again is straightforward and clear in his objective of tackling the problem head on.

Koppell's execution of his argument is admirable, and his case study agency (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers -- ICANN) is an excellent choice. But there is something telling about the fact that the field's top "gatekeepers"+ were impressed enough with this work to give it space in the field's leading academic journal. For while the presentation and logic of the paper are indeed quite good, the work is flawed in a number of respects that reflects some basic weaknesses in our field rather than in Koppell's article. Let me touch (actually, let me 'rant') on a couple.

First and foremost, like too many other articles on accountability (and many other topics) published in our leading journals, there is little or no demand that the authors be familiar with (or at least acknowledge) the accumulated knowledge in the field. Koppell's work, for example, ignores a wealth of conceptual work on accountability that addresses the very issues he focuses on. Instead, he is allowed to selectively construct "straw men" and "cherry pick" from the literature in a way that serves his argument, but does little or no justice to our current knowledge of accountability. As in other examples too numerous to recount, the field's gatekeepers fail to challenge authors to provide a thorough review of the literature that will substantiate the claim (implied by submission to the leading journal in the field) that this paper will make a signficiant contribution to the accumulating knowledge of public administration. Instead, the editors and reviewers of PAR and other journals tend to be more concerned with page length and the rhetorical tightness of a presentation. By not insisting on a substantial review of the literature in which the author must demonstrate an awareness of other schoalrship on their topic (both within and outside PA), we foster a culture of rhetoric rather than scholarship. The result, in Koppell's case, is an under-reading and mis-reading of the research on accountability.

Koppell's work reflects a second and more profound problem in our field -- the bias toward a normative agenda for PA scholarship, one that accepts and values (without challenge or serious reflection) the premise of any work that seeks to make PA function "better". If the gatekeepers were doing their job, Koppell would not have been allowed to presumptively declare that the ambiguity of accountability is a "failing" of the discipline (why is it not a failing of our political system, or even the English language?), nor would his assertion that the existence of conflicting accountabilities (i.e., MAD-ness) is dysfunctional been permitted to stand as a justifiable premise upon which to construct his argument. At minimum, Koppell should have been told to revise and resubmit his work with a clear defense of these assumptions. [Frankly, I doubt that he could have met that challenge, for it is in the very nature of governance and our political world that PA must contend with conceptual ambiguities as well as "multiple, diverse and conflicting expectations". In fact, had Koppell been asked to dig a bit further into the literature produced by "Romzek and her coauthors," he would have discovered an approach that claims that the very raison d'etre for accountability was to deal with such conflicts!)

Again, let me stress that I am not blaming Koppell for the shortcomings of this publication. Rather, a stronger approach to the editorial gatekeeping and peer review functions of the field would have resulted in a much more significant contribution to the our knowledge of accountability. Nor is it fair to lay the blame at the doorstep of the current editors of PAR or the peer reviewers for this particular piece, for their standards and decisions are indeed reflecting those of the PA field.

Which leads to my general argument (made elsewhere) that the problem lies with the reluctance of our field to come to terms with its role as a social science. This is not the place to reassert that point, although my reaction to the Koppell piece and several other articles in PAR and other PA journals has rekindled my interest in raising this issue with my colleagues....

+It is relevant to the following rant that I declare that I was one of those "gatekeepers" in a past life when I served as managing editor of PAR; and I suspect my present role as an editorial board member and peer reviewer means that this posting is a bit of self-flagellation....
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