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Accounting for Public Services: Reconsidering Publicness in Accounting Research and Practice

Journal call for papers from Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal

Guest Editors

Enrico Bracci, University of Ferrara, Italy.
Iris Saliterer, University of Freiburg, Germany.
MariaFrancesca Sicilia, University of Bergamo, Italy.
Ileana Steccolini. University of Newcastle, UK.


Public sector accounting scholarship has witnessed enormous developments over the last three decades (e.g. Broadbent & Guthrie, 1992, 2008; Lapsley, 1988; Steccolini, 2019). However, it has been criticised as being too insulated from other disciplines, with limited impact on public policy (Humphrey & Miller, 2012). Also in need of stronger theorisation (e.g. Broadbent & Guthrie, 2008; Goddard, 2010; Kerry Jacobs, 2013, 2016; Jan van Helden, Johnsen, & Vakkuri, 2008).
Public services are created in a complex environment, haunted by wicked problems (Jacobs & Cuganesan, 2014) and faced by shrinking resources, as well as the emergence of unexpected events and crises (Bracci, Humphrey, Moll, & Steccolini, 2015). The attainment of public interest takes place in an abstract arena, rather than in the specific domain of public sector organisations. Also the necessity to consider global and emerging issues such as climate change, sustainable economic development, biodiversity and ecological account (Bebbington & Unerman, 2018; Russell, Milne, & Dey, 2017; Uddin & Tsamenyi, 2005; Weir, 2018). While the public sector can represent a context of research, publicness can represent an idea around which to develop research as the attainment of public goals and interests, rather than to the organisations and concrete spaces where the related activities take place. Interdisciplinary accounting scholars should explore how accounting and accountability can respond to the challenges posed by a shifting and increasingly intangible publicness (Cooper, 2005; Steccolini, 2018), calling for alternative accountability mechanism (e.g. integrated reporting, Villiers, Rinaldi, & Unerman, 2014). Whereby accounting provides the processes and operational ways in which the public interest and public value are decided upon, planned, accounted for in an abstract public space (Miller & Rose, 1990, 2008).
The concept of publicness emerged in public policy and administration literature following the seminal contribution of Bozeman (1987) arguing that all organisational forms are public to a certain extent. Since then, several contributions followed by defining the dimensions of publicness (Boyne, 2002), ethical issues (Berman, West, & Cava, 1994), and decision processes (Nutt & Backoff, 1993). More generally, publicness refers more to the attainment of public goals and interests, rather than to the organisations and concrete spaces where the related activities take place.
Focusing on publicness in public sector accounting research is useful at least for three reasons (Steccolini, 2019). First, it may give meaning to “public sector and services”, differentiating and specifying how “type(s)” of publicness impacts on accounting and accountability. Second, relying on publicness as a multifaceted concept permits understandings the richness of extant fragmented contextual studies, by defining the boundaries and thus specifying under which conditions certain aspects are observed, and which are the features that impact on and are impacted upon by accounting. Third, allows the reacting to previous calls for more engagement with policy and public administration literature, strengthening inter-disciplinarity and widening the impact of accounting studies.

Purpose and scope of the special issue

This AAAJ special issue provides an arena for interdisciplinary public sector accounting scholars to propose, debate and identify forward pathways for looking at publicness in accounting research.
Contributions are thus called that explore publicness in accounting research as an educational exploration into  if and how accounting accounts for, but also impacts on, issues of wider social relevance, such as the creation and maintenance of public value, co-production and hybridization of public services, austerity, crises and wicked problems, and performance management (Steccolini, 2019). Contributions that address publicness in a variety of ways and from a variety of theoretical and methodological stances are welcome, covering, among others, the following topics and open issues:

  • the impact of publicness on accounting and accountability and the roles of accounting and accountability in shaping publicness
  • how accounting interacts with other disciplines to address the practical and scholarly challenges posed by changing conceptions of publicness
  • how accounting and reporting tools and techniques, including, among others, social accounting and integrated reporting, contribute to making the public value more or less visible, and shape conceptions of what public value and the public sphere are
  • the uses (and abuses) of accounting information by politicians, managers, citizens, and their consequences for organisations, policies, and the society
  • the roles of accounting when public interests are pursued under extraordinary conditions and crisis (e.g., climate disasters, financial/economic and social crisis) or to address wicked problems
  • how accounting is implicated in co-production processes and the implications and challenges of co-production and hybridisation for accountability in the public arena.



Bebbington, J., & Unerman, J. (2018). Achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, 31(1), 2–24.
Berman, E., West, J. and Cava, A., (1994), “Ethics management in municipal governments and large firms exploring similarities and differences”, Administration & Society, Vol 26, No 2, pp.185-203.
Boyne, G. A., (2002), “Public and Private Management: What's the Difference?”, Journal of Management Studies, Vol. 39, No. 1, pp 97-122
Bozeman, B., (1987), All organisations are public: Bridging public and private organisational theories, Jossey-Bass Inc Pub.
Bracci, E., Humphrey, C., Moll, J., & Steccolini, I. (2015). Public sector accounting, accountability and austerity: more than balancing the books? Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, 28(6), 878–908.
Broadbent, J. and Guthrie, J. (1992), “Changes in the public sector: a review of recent ‘alternative’ accounting research”, Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal, Vol. 5 No. 2, pp. 3-31.
Broadbent, J., & Guthrie, J. (2008). Public sector to public services: 20 years of “contextual” accounting research. Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, 21(2), 129–169.
Cooper, C. (2005). Accounting for the public interest: public ineffectual or public intellectuals? Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, 18(5), 592–607.
Goddard, A. (2010). Contemporary public sector accounting research – An international comparison of journal papers. The British Accounting Review, 42(2), 75–87.
Humphrey, C., & Miller, P. (2012). Rethinking impact and redefining responsibility. Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, 25(2), 295–327.
Jacobs, K. (2013). Making Sense of Social Practice: Theoretical Pluralism in Public Sector Accounting Research: A Reply. Financial Accountability & Management, 29(1), 267–4424.
Jacobs, K. (2016). Theorising Interdisciplinary Public Sector Accounting Research. Financial Accountability & Management, 32(4), 469–488.
Jacobs, K., & Cuganesan, S. (2014). Interdisciplinary accounting research in public sector: dissolving boundaries to tackle wicked problems. Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, 27(8), 1250–1256.
Jan van Helden, G., Johnsen, Å., & Vakkuri, J. (2008). Distinctive research patterns on public sector performance measurement of public administration and accounting disciplines. Public Management Review, 10, 641–651.
Jacobs, K. 2013), “Making sense of social practice: theoretical pluralism in public sector accounting research: a reply”, Financial Accountability and Management, Vol. 29 No. 1, pp. 111-115.
Jacobs, K. (2016), “Theorising Interdisciplinary Public Sector Accounting Research”, Financial Accountability & Management, Vol 32, No 4, pp. 469–488.
Lapsley, I., (1988),"Research in Public Sector Accounting: An Appraisal", Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Vol. 1, No 1, pp. 21 – 33
Miller, P., & Rose, N. (1990). Governing economic life. Economy and Society, 19(1), 1–31.
Miller, P., & Rose, N. S. (2008). Governing the present : administering economic, social and personal life. London: Polity.
Nutt, P.C. and Backoff, R.W., (1993), “Organisational publicness and its implications for strategic management”, Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, Vol. 3, No 2, pp.209-231.
Russell, S., Milne, M. J., & Dey, C. (2017). Accounts of nature and the nature of accounts. Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, 30(7), 1426–1458.
Steccolini, I. (2019). Accounting and the post-new public management. Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, 32(1), 255–279.
Uddin, S., & Tsamenyi, M. (2005). Public sector reforms and the public interest. Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, 18(5), 648–674.
Villiers, C. de, Rinaldi, L., & Unerman, J. (2014). Integrated reporting: Insights, gaps and an agenda for future research. Accounting Auditing and Accountability Journal, 27(7), 1042–1067.
Weir, K. (2018). The purposes, promises and compromises of extinction accounting in the UK public sector. Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, 31(3), 875–899.