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Re-locating accountability through technology: From bureaucratic to electronic ways of governing public sector work

Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to explore the implications of e-government for horizontal/social accountability (to citizens) by looking into its shifting location. Its main purpose is to show how the introduction of information and communication technology in the public sector changes how public sector work is organised, shifting the traditional sources of accountability and to discuss the implications of those changes. Design/methodology/approach – The study comes from desk-based research that brings together the literature on electronic government and accountability studies and situates them in the context of a bureaucratic public sector. Findings – It shows that e-government entails digitalization of public sector work by restructuring work, re-organising public information and knowledge and re-orientating officials-citizens relation. It argues that in the e-government era accountability is inscribed in the technology and its embodied standards; is a horizontal technological relation that renders officials accountable to the handling of digital interfaces; and renders citizens co- producers of digital information responsible for bringing the public to account. The paper shows that these changes do not necessarily bring better or worse accountability results but change the sources of accountability bringing shifts in its locations, thereby rendering it more precarious. The paper ends by discussing the implications of digital accountability for good public administration. Originality/value – With the unprecedented level of attention currently being paid to “digital government” at the moment, this is a timely paper that seeks to address the accountability implications of these shifts. The study offers a practice-based, relational definition of accountability and a Weberian account of bureaucratic government, followed by an exploration of ways in which this is being challenged or replaced with a new informatisation enabled/supported by new “technologies of accountability”.