Learning in public accountability relationships. Who you put in to it, is what you get out of it.
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It is generally assumed that those being held to account (actors) can learn something during public accountability relationships. However, so far little empirical research has been done to understand what, when and why actors actually learn during these accountability processes. For this thesis, the learning outcomes of the relationships between executive boards (as actors) and supervisory boards and client councils (as forums) were studied in nine care organizations and agencies. Interviews were held with secretaries of the forums and members of the executive board and when possible actual meetings of actor and forum were observed. The results show that the learning content is clearly different in the relationships with both forums. In the relationship with the supervisory board, executives improve their knowledge of external developments and develop new ideas on strategic issues. The contact with the client council is primarily useful when it comes to operational issues and improves an executive’s knowledge on internal developments. The data show that especially the personal composition of both actor and forum is an important factor that influences these learning outcomes. The expertise, attitude and network of forum members is decisive for what issues they raise and an active and open attitude of executives determines how they use this input. For public organizations, these results stress the need for a thorough selection of forum members. Moreover, frequent and thorough evaluations of the accountability relationship are essential to determine whether it remains an open relationship in which opinions can be shared. From an academic perspective, a main conclusion is that the importance of the human aspect has so far been underestimated in the work on public accountability. While most academic work has focused on formal regulations, the quality of the relationship and the content being discussed, more research is needed to establish what is of particular importance when it comes to the personal composition of forums.