Digital transformation in public sector accounting, auditing and accountability: palliative or panacea?

Submissions open 30th September 2023

Increasingly, nowadays a wide range of our social, economic, and political relationships are impacted by emerging technology and may be disrupted (e.g., Spano et al., 2022; Toth et al., 2022). The disruptive role of the digital revolution is currently a hot topic, capturing the attention of accounting professionals, practitioners, and academics. We are increasingly dealing with issues of actor trust, accountability, transparency, collaboration, and knowledge sharing (Tsanos & Zografos, 2016; Wagner & Buko, 2005; Stolze et al., 2015). This revolution has presented numerous challenges for accounting practice, as well as contested definitions of research quality and impact (Guthrie et al., 2019). The digital revolution has resulted in a slew of accounting research forums, conferences, special issues, and papers addressing the shifting landscape of accounting, auditing, and accountability in the face of technological transformations (e.g., Troshani et al., 2019; Locke et al., 2018; Bellucci & Manetti, 2017).

Research in this domain has rapidly devolved into entropy, with shaky and mixed results, unable to fully comprehend how and why certain phenomena are likely to shape the face of accounting, auditing, and accountability and to be shaped by these contemporary practices. Prior research has typically focused on private sector settings, and a significant amount of this research has been conceptual or limited to literature reviews. There is a great need for more empirical research which grapples with organisational and social complexities, particular in the public sector (Broccardo et al., 2023).

Over the last years the technological change trend has indubitably affected public sector with the aim to reach greater efficiency and effectiveness in public services and supposedly ensure fair, transparent, disinterested, and accountable public administration. This in line with concepts driving the New Public Management movement, which remain timely and relevant even though some of their rough edges have been softened with shifts towards New Public Governance (Almqvist et al., 2013; Wiesel & Modell, 2014). Moreover, it is increasingly crucial considering the advances of the "Digital Governance" and its implications for public sector accounting and accountability (Grossi and Argento, 2022).

Several institutions, including for instance education, law enforcement, and healthcare, are more and more reliant on technical components, like automated decision-making systems, e-government systems, and other digital tools, with initiatives that not necessarily respond to strategies and logics clearly deliberated and implemented. The hasty adoption of distance learning and teleconferencing systems during Corona Virus Disease (COVID) lockdowns is one example of how the rapid, frequently unplanned, and uncontrolled technologization affects public services. Artificial Intelligence is also creating a range of ethical and social dilemmas which include the possibility of wide-scale job losses in parts of the public service, as well the potential for discriminatory decision making which may affect minority groups (Toth et al., 2022). The growing interest in a range of blockchain-based solutions, from distributed ledger-based land registries to self-sovereign identities and central bank digital currencies, is the most recent chapter in a long history of standardized, objectified, automated, technocratic, and technological public administration (on this regard see also the 2022 Special Issue published on Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal “Accounting, accountability and assurance: Blockchain and new forms of digital currency”). However, much remains to be seen about whether the benefits of blockchain technology, and the ‘triple-entry accounting’ system it enables, will be fully realised (Cai, 2019).

The rush towards technological change in public sector has for sure prompted interesting and relevant solutions configuring best practices and laying the bases for the delivery of greater public value. Nevertheless, it also raises complex questions about the use of novel technological components that may or may not be ultimately adequate for the task for which they are used. Research on this regard is gaining momentum with increasing commitment by scholars to deepen these issues. Notably, only in the last few years contributions centred on the accounting, auditing, and accountability implications of digital innovations in public sector are starting to appear on accounting journals (e.g., Agostino et al., 2022; Carlsson-Wall et al., 2022; Chua et al., 2022; Otia and Bracci, 2022; Polzer and Goncharenko, 2022; Traskman, 2022; Uman et al., 2022; Broccardo et al., 2023). This literature offers diverse and interesting insights into the phenomenon. The papers published offer a valuable first glance at what we have, how we are coping with the new digital era of public sector, and what are the main challenges for the future of practice and profession. Empirical investigation of these issues, however, is still in its infancy (Scott & Orlikowski, 2012; Jeacle & Carter, 2011) and there is much more room - and need - for inquiry into these themes as many important areas such as risk management, performance management, disclosure, professionalisation and routinisation of new tech-related practices (see for instance Power, 2022), dimensions of investigation (macro, meso, and micro levels) countries, and institutional settings remain slightly touched upon.

Full comprehension of the manifold societal implications of the digital (re)volution is far from being achieved.

Not only the digital transformation shapes the objects of accounting and public governance, and accounting auditing and accountability practices. It could also be likely that such practices may reshape digital advances. That is, that we are now called to analyze digitalization as an object of accounting, auditing, and accountability digitalization as an instrument to change accounting, auditing and accountability, but also digitalization as the result of changing accounting, auditing and accountability pressures. This clearly without forgetting that that all that glitters is not gold. This special issue, therefore, may well shed light on the dark side of the moon of digital trends in the public sector in a timely and impactful way. Thus, the aim of this special issue is to answer the question of whether, how and under what circumstances tech trends in public sectors accounting, auditing and accountability represents a palliative or a panacea.

 The Special Issue

The special issue will accommodate a range of novel theoretical, methodological, and empirical investigations relevant to the topic. The guest editors encourage submissions covering a broad range of topics and possibly actively involving practitioners and policy makers. The following non-exhaustive list of questions will be considered:

  • Do emerging digital technologies improve or constrain public service delivery and values?
  • How and why are particular digital technologies adopted in the public sector accounting, auditing and accountability?
  • What are the social and ethical challenges of adopting new technologies in the public sector accounting, auditing and accountability?
  • How do digital technologies interface with existing systems in the public sector accounting, auditing and accountability? What are the challenges?
  • What are the risks in adopting digital technologies for public sector governance and how can these risks be managed?
  • To what extent do digital technologies enhance the democratisation and plurality of public services?
  • How do digital transformation paves the way for reconceptualizing and advancing new forms of accountability for the public sector?
  • What are the accountability and governance issues of implementing digital technology and how are these managed in the public sector sphere?
  • How do individual actors within public sector organizations deal with the implementation of digital technologies?
  • How are citizens and consumers of public sector services responding to technological transformations?
  • How are the professionals (accountants, auditors, controllers, etc.) responding and being impacted by digital technologies in the public sector?
  • What is the impact of establishing and running the digital platform-based public sector services (e.g. “digital twins”) on their quality and value creation?
  • How do digital transformation for public services paves the way for reconceptualizing and advancing performance measurement and performance management approaches and tools?
  • How does digital transformation impacts public services reporting systems?

The guest editors also signal that given the aim of the SI to prompt reflections on the basis of relevant extant practices, to go far beyond extant sketch comprehension focusing on novel empirical insights from varied contexts around the world and offering more concrete practical guidance and a ground for policy-making reflections, literature review submissions are discouraged at this time.


Main references

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Almqvist, R., Grossi, G., van Helden and C. Reichard (2013), Public Sector Governance and Accountability, Critical Perspectives on Accounting, 24 (7-8), 479-487.

Bellucci, M. and Manetti, G. (2017). Facebook as a tool for supporting dialogic accounting? Evidence

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Broccardo, L., Truant, E., & Argento, D. (2023). Digitalization and Management Control in the Public Sector: What is Next?. In Handbook of Big Data and Analytics in Accounting and Auditing (pp. 279-308). Singapore: Springer Nature Singapore.

Cai, C. W. (2021). Triple‐entry accounting with blockchain: How far have we come?. Accounting & Finance, 61(1), 71-93.

Carlsson‐Wall, M., Goretzki, L., Hofstedt, J., Kraus, K., & Nilsson, C. J. (2022). Exploring the implications of cloud‐based enterprise resource planning systems for public sector management accountants. Financial accountability & management, 38(2), 177-201.

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