How Reputational Threats evoke Agency Responses: The Mediating Role of Task Measurability, Attributability and Goal Ambiguity

Public Administration
Koen Verhoest
Universiteit Antwerpen
Koen Verhoest
Universiteit Antwerpen
Jan Boon
Universiteit Antwerpen
Heidi Houlberg Salomonsen
Aarhus Universitet

The extent to which, and how, agencies will react to negative criticism from audiences (which we label reputational threats) will depend on the extent to which agencies feel accountable to these audiences about the issue, or reputational dimension, that is criticized. In this context, not only the nature of the audience that voices the reputational threat or the reputational dimension being criticized will matter, but also the extent to which audiences can make claims about agency behaviour and results which are hard to dispute by the agency (Busuioc and Lodge 2016: 250). The extent to which audiences’ claims are hard to dispute by the agency depends on whether the agency tasks (1) are easy to measure and observe by audiences, (2) yield results that are easy attributable to the agency’s behaviour, and (3) correspond to agency goals and priorities that are clear and unambiguous (see Wilson, 1989, Rainey and Chun 2005; Van Dooren et al., 2015).

In this paper, we build the theoretical argument that task characteristics in terms of task observability, attributability and goal ambiguity help to explain whether and how agencies respond to reputational threats voiced by audiences (i.e. no response, defensive or accommodating response). Underlying this causal link is the influence that these task characteristics have on the extent agencies feel the need to respond to certain criticisms from these audiences and the extent they feel accountable to them. We empirically test the theoretical argument by using data on the media reputation of 40 agencies in Belgium and Denmark over 10 years, which includes theresponses of these agencies in the meia. Additionally, by coding mission statements and performance agreements of the agencies, we measure task observability, attributability and goal ambiguity of the agencies’ task over time. In the statistical analyses we control for several agency characteristics.
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