External accountability relationships in the public sector are mostly studied as relationships between actors and forums, disregarding the issue about which accountability is rendered. However, these accountability relationships and their consequences differ per topic. Differences can be expected with respect to accountability for core versus non-core tasks. The disregard of accountability topics leads to a naïve understanding of accountability relationships and, potentially, to the inefficient application of accountability instruments in the public sector.
Accountability relationships are, for a large part, constituted by the formal accountability demands of a forum and the felt accountability by the actor. This study investigates the differences in accountability demands and felt accountability in Dutch public museums. It analyzes the differences in the accountability relationship regarding financial (non-core) and substantive, artistic (core) matters. Museums form an excellent opportunity to study accountability relationships in the public domain, because these organizations are politically insulated, but government-funded and, thus, they have to render accountability for their funding.
The study makes an inventory of accountability instruments through document analysis of accountability demands by municipalities and it analyzes the impact of such instruments on the board. Also, a survey based on a census of the 180 local museum boards has been fielded to this end. These data are supplemented with 11 in-depth interviews with museum directors.
This study is timely and important, because it shows that felt accountability among museum directors is only partly influenced by accountability demands. A reputational perspective on accountability relationships is, therefore, more insightful than a principal-agent perspective. Moreover, it shows that accountability about core tasks does not influence red tape perceptions, in contrast to financial accountability. These insights contribute to the theoretical debate about accountability and reputation, as well as they have practical implications for political influence in the arts sector and beyond.