the development of new budgets
in the UK devolved bodies
Cardiff University, Cardiff, Wales, UK
Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland
A˚ ge Johnsen
Oslo University College, Oslo, Norway
The University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Scotland, and
University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand
Purpose – This paper aims to examine an early stage of the institutionalization of accounting
practices in devolved UK governments, concentrating on: the construction by devolved bodies of a
“rational” set of planning and budgeting documents; the extent of homogeneity/heterogeneity in
organizational response to seemingly similar institutional pressures; and politicians’ cognition of
Design/methodology/approach – The paper uses neo-institutional theory to examine the planning
and budgeting documents of the devolved bodies and material gathered from semi-structured
Findings – The ﬁndings point to a process of nested translations, from mission through aims and
objectives to targets, with accounting numbers present only in the last stage whereby time-bounded
targets are formulated and used to assess achievements. Because of the negotiations around the
diverging interests of actors, the translation process is neither linear nor stable.
Originality/value – The paper contributes to the literature by: examining the emergence and use of
new accounting and budgeting systems in political organizations; understanding the experience of
institutionalization of accounting practices; and exploring the impact of accounting reform on political
deliberation and joined-up government.
Keywords Government, Accounting, Budgetary control, Organizations, Business planning,
Paper type Research paper
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
This paper is part of the “Devolution, Parliamentalism and Democratic Accountability: A
Comparative Study” project in the ESRC research program on “Devolution and Constitutional
Change”. We acknowledge the ESRC and the Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) for
ﬁnancial support. We also acknowledge the assistance of Gary Martin and Simona Scarparo.
Earlier drafts of this paper were presented at the European Accounting Association Congress,
Prague, May 2004, and the EIASM Public Sector Workshop, Oslo, October 2004. We are grateful
to two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments. Professor June Pallot passed away
on Friday 5 November 2004.
New budgets in
Received 1 December 2004
Revised 27 September 2005
Accepted 22 March 2006
Accounting, Auditing &
Vol. 20 No. 1, 2007
q Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Although the process of devolution in the UK has a long history of at least 120 years
(Bogdanor, 1999), it was not until the election of the Labour Government of 1997 that a
major devolution program was enacted as part of its political reform agenda. Following
referendums in 1997 (Scotland, Wales) and 1998 (Northern Ireland), support for devolution
was expressed by the electorate, to a stronger degree in Scotland and Northern Ireland
and a much weaker degree in Wales. Scotland was granted a Parliament with tax raising
powers and Northern Ireland and Wales were granted Assemblies with no such tax
raising powers, and all began to function in 1999. This recent experience of devolution in
the UK is part of an international trend that varies in the extent of devolution, for example
from the highly consensual model of Norway at one extreme to the much more centralized
model of New Zealand at the other extreme (Ezzamel et al., 2004); hence, the implications
of these developments go far beyond the UK.
The focus of this study is upon devolved governments within the UK, speciﬁcally in
Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The devolution process has proponents who
advocate devolution because of the beneﬁts of redrawing political territories (taking
political processes closer to local communities, increased transparency and
accountability for activities to local electorates) – a renewal of democracy (Jeffery,
2006). Opponents of devolution see this development as a weakening of the political
union between England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, with no obvious beneﬁt
for the economy or public services. There are numerous strands to the above scenarios.
In this paper we focus on whether a renewal of democracy (in the shape of more
responsive political bodies to local needs, greater transparency of the funding and
management of public services) is an outcome of the process of devolution, by
examining the development and use of budgets in the three devolved UK bodies.
One of the key changes that occurred as a result of political devolution in the UK
was that national governments became responsible for designing their planning
activities in the areas for which they held power, in the main health, education,
housing, local government and the economy. Each local government receives an annual
allocation of funds from the Chancellor, using the Barnet Formula (largely based on
headcount), which is then allocated by devolved administrations to their particular
priorities. Hence, devolution has led to a new discontinuity in which each National
Government now engages in a full budget cycle involving the preparation and
monitoring of its own budgets and supportive documentations.
This development creates an opportunity to examine budget construction and the
planning and budgetary process as a novel experience in national government. We
develop our research questions more fully following our theoretical framing. For now,
sufﬁce it to say that our concern is to understand how new accounting and budgeting
practices emerge and unfold in organizations. Our focus is of a micro nature; this is
intended as a contribution to the accounting literature that adopts institutional
sociology as a theoretical framework where researchers have bemoaned the lack of
sufﬁcient studies of micro-organizational practices (Hirsh and Lounsbury, 1997; Hirsh,
1997). Our study is also a study of accounting and budgeting practices in newly created
organizations, thereby offering the potential to contribute to our understanding of how
novel practices may begin to sediment and become institutionalized. As green-ﬁeld
sites, understanding the construction and functioning of accounting and budgeting
systems in these newly devolved institutions offers a contrast with studies of
organizational change in older organizations that have been the subject of previous
Each of the new devolved institutions includes accountability among its key
founding principles, and has similar arrangements aimed at its enactment. They all
have an executive (or cabinet), made up of ministers of the ruling party (or parties),
responsible for drawing up a programme for government and a related budget. The full
Parliament/Assemblies exercise their role of scrutiny of the executive through the
debating, in plenary sessions, of the legislative programme. Committees have powers
to scrutinize the work of the executive. In Northern Ireland and Scotland, the ﬁnance
committee is responsible for addressing overall budget priorities and ﬁnancial
scrutiny. It is required to gather and consider the views of the subject committees and
individual members of the parliament, and to scrutinise the expenditure proposals of
the executive. The results of the ﬁnance committee’s analysis inform the plenary
debate on the budget in the parliament. The executive should then take the outcome of
the plenary debate into consideration in their ﬁnancial plans. In contrast to Northern
Ireland and Scotland, Wales does not have a ﬁnance committee. The budget proposals
are scrutinized by the individual subject committees, which are invited to provide their
views on their spending priorities during the budget planning round, and to examine
and comment on the draft budget. In addition, individual members of the devolved
institutions can hold the executive to account through oral and written parliamentary
questions, and can ask for information in order to proceed with their enquiry.
The next section provides a brief overview of the relevant literature on planning and
budgeting in the public sector as a basis for the empirical work that is presented in this
paper. This is followed by a review of the thematic issues that inﬂuence each of the
devolved bodies’ overall planning documents (often referred to as programme for
government documents), and the extent of linkages between the mission and aims of
each body, between aims and objectives, and between aims, objectives and targets with
speciﬁc reference to the education and health plans. The paper then examines the links
between each institution’s aims, objectives and spending plans, as expressed through
the relevant budget documents and by our informants. The discussion and conclusions
sections draw out the main implications of the paper and summarize the key ﬁndings.
Our ﬁndings point to a process of nested translations, from vision through aims and
objectives to targets, with accounting numbers absent in all but the last of these stages
(where time-bounded and speciﬁc targets begin to be formulated and against which
achievements are compared). We argue that this process of translation is neither linear
nor stable; as negotiating the diverging interests of human agency are brought to bear
on the outcome of translation. We note the existence of certain key thematic similarities
but also differences in the planning and budgeting process of the three devolved
bodies, pointing simultaneously to the presence of both elements of isomorphism as
well as heterogeneity in the budgetary process. Finally, across all three devolved
bodies, most politicians encountered serious problems understanding budget contents,
and tended to seek help by relying on others with ﬁnancial expertise who effectively
became the gatekeepers to generating budget interpretations that most likely would
have impacted political debate.
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Theoretical framing, research questions and data
In order to address the above research issues, we have drawn upon neo-institutional
sociology as a theoretical framework. Our interest in neo-institutional theory is
motivated by its focus upon the construction and functioning of knowledge and rule
systems (such as budgets) in organizations. As Scott (1995, p. 136) has noted: “All
organizations are institutionalized organizations”. Organizations are socially
constituted and are subject to regulative pressures from constituencies such as
government and the public. They are also “the subject of institutionalized processes
that deﬁne what forms they can assume and how they may operate legitimately”
(Scott, 1995, p. 136). Institutions are conventions that exhibit rule-like characteristics
that operate between and within organization (DiMaggio and Powell, 1991).
Organizational structures are assumed to embody the myths of institutional
environments more than the demands of their activities. As Meyer and Rowan
(1977, pp. 343-344) have argued, such myths are “highly institutionalized, rationalized
and impersonal prescriptions” that specify in a rule-like manner avenues for pursuing
social purposes that are subsequently constructed rationally as technical purposes.
Organizations operate within organizational ﬁelds that reﬂect similar
characteristics such as product/service line or size, but also competitors, suppliers,
distributors and owners (Fligstein, 1993). Organizational action is constrained to a
greater or lesser extent by the actions of other organizations in the ﬁeld, including the
state through its regulative power. As Fligstein (1993, p. 6) has observed,
organizational ﬁelds are “the basic mechanisms of control of the external
environment available to managers and entrepreneurs”. Much of the extant
literature on institutional theory has tended to focus more upon practices that have
already become institutionalized; that is upon conformity, or isomorphism, to
institutionalized myths and beliefs. Conformity with such myths/beliefs is assumed to
bring the organization resources that are necessary to its survival and legitimacy.
Hence, the main focus has been on explaining observed structural similarities between
organizations, and upon revealing which mode of isomorphic behaviour was pursued:
coercive, normative and mimetic (DiMaggio and Powell, 1983; Scott, 1995).
Whilst earlier formulations of institutional sociology incorporated some limiting
assumptions, these have been subsequently questioned and addressed: the presumed
decoupling of organizational external claims of pursuing rational practices, in order to
gain legitimacy, from internal operating systems (Mezias, 1990); failure to account for
power (Covaleski et al., 1993; Fligstein, 1993); and the unwarranted assumption that
human agency is passive (Scott, 1991, 1995). These corrections have improved
considerably the attractiveness of institutional sociology. It is now recognized that
declared intentions and actual practices are not always decoupled; that power relations
are endemic in organizations; that agency is frequently proactive and that in the face of
pressure for conformity, organizations are capable of pursuing different responses to
similar institutional isomorphic pressures. Yet there remains a major concern that
previous research has given little attention to understanding processes of
organizational change as much of the previous work has focused upon practices
that had already become institutionalized. The theory tells little of how new practices
unfold, how they gradually become institutionalized, and how, if at all, they displace
previous practices. This concern has been raised by most recently by researchers who
pointed to the lack of attention given to organizational micro-practices (Hirsch and
Lounsbury, 1997; Hirsch, 1997; Dacin et al., 2002; Greenwood et al., 2002).
Accounting and budgeting systems in organizations are institutionalized practices.
Accounting and budgeting information are frequently susceptible to differing
interpretations depending upon the cognitions and interests of organizational
participants. Accounting and budgeting practices can be viewed as myths that
underpin, sustain, and even form belief systems concerning ideals such as rationality,
efﬁciency, effectiveness, and value for money. Meyer (1983, p. 235) has noted
“Accounting structures are myths. . . they describe the organization as bounded and
uniﬁed, as rational in technology, as well controlled and as attaining clear purposes”.
Conformity to certain accounting and budgeting practices can endow an organization
with external legitimacy by creating an impression that the organization is well
The myth of rationality has a powerful appeal particularly to government bodies
(Meyer, 1986). Indeed, rationality has been one of the key guiding principles stated in
UK government publications that relate to planning and control (e.g. HM Government,
1982; HM Treasury, 1992; HM Government, 1999), and this is also reﬂected in the
traditional literature on accounting and budgeting in government; an argument
consistent with the quest for legitimacy under institutional theory. Ansoff (1979) has
suggested that in pursuing their objectives, organizations need to follow a rational
management approach in order to cope with environmental uncertainty. Further, it has
been suggested that there is a need for speciﬁc and quantiﬁable objectives to guide
action in the public sector towards ultimate goals (Drucker, 1980; Anthony and Young,
1999). Johnsen (1999) also stressed the usefulness of ambiguity and decoupling
associated with rational management models when implementing and using
contestable management control models such as performance measures. Further,
Czarniawska-Jorges and Jacobsson (1989) have argued that public sector budgets are
“rituals of reason”, and hence have a key role to play in constructing reason and order
in organizations. We will therefore examine the planning and budgeting
documentations produced by the devolved bodies as statements of their declared, if
not necessarily always practised, rational pronouncements.
Accounting as a technology of calculation converts qualities, such as social welfare,
into quantities in terms of speciﬁc targets and performance indicators. This conversion
of qualities into quantities renders them visible. Such visibility is a double edge sword;
for while it plays into the hands of those wishing to claim credit for performance, such
as politicians, as they construct numbers that show them in favourable light; yet it also
renders such numbers susceptible to veriﬁcation by those who can generate alternative
numbers or place different interpretations on the same numbers. Further, what
accounting and budgeting systems fail to quantify can be made less visible, or even
invisible, thereby escaping serious accountability (Morgan and Willmott, 1993).
Given this theoretical framing, we articulate our research questions as follows. First,
we are concerned to examine the translation process through which vision and mission
statements issued by the UK devolved bodies are ultimately translated into budgetary
targets. Such a process of translation is intriguing, in that as translations cascade
through different layers there is scope for agency and interest to impact on what is
being translated (Latour, 1987). It is therefore relevant to examine the extent to which
budget targets and vision statements issued by each devolved body are aligned with
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each other. Failure to achieve such alignment, if it becomes the subject of scrutiny in
the external environment, could threaten the legitimacy of devolved bodies. Second, the
UK devolved bodies share some similarities but also exhibit many differences. We
wish to examine the extent to which thematic differences or similarities occurred in the
construction of budgets. At the heart of this concern is the presence of political and
institutional norms that impact on the budgetary process. Thus, within the context of
our theoretical framing, the question is: to what extent has the expected pressure for
conformity in the face of similar institutional isomorphic pressures resulted in similar
responses. Third, we seek to explore the cognition of politicians concerning the degree
of their understanding of budgets and the impact of such an understanding on political
deliberations that take place in the relevant parliament/assembly and on political
accountability. This should offer insights concerning the extent to which differences in
actor cognition and interest, as well as their position within the networks of power,
impact upon the process of institutionalizing new accounting and budgeting practices.
The data we mobilize to address the research questions comprise two sources: the
planning and budgeting documents for each of the devolved bodies and
We treat planning and budgeting documents as important for a number of reasons.
First, they are formal translations of declared institutional aspirations, and as such
their examination may reveal the political ambitions of the devolved bodies. Second, it
is possible to discern from them the extent to which the targets and performance
measures translated from vision statements map onto these statements. Third, in
devolved assemblies/parliaments these documents are likely to be drawn upon
extensively by politicians and lobby groups of different persuasions to deliberate and
conduct debate on policy and to exercise public accountability. Differences in interests
and cognition may lead to differing understandings of such documents. Fourth, the
targets and performance measures contained in such documents tend to be the
yardsticks against which both the aspirations of each devolved body and its success in
delivering promises may be considered by the electorate, or when targets are missed
highlighted by opposition parties in political debate.
Further, 58 interviews were conducted (18 in Northern Ireland, 22 in Scotland, 18 in
Wales) with members of the Executive (cabinet ministers and civil servants, 17),
members of Assembly/Parliament (28) and others (audit institutions, quangos, etc., 13).
The interviews were conducted over a period of 24 months beginning in October 2002.
Each interview lasted between one and one and a half hours, and all interviews were
tape-recorded and transcribed. The interviewees were asked about: the budget and
planning documents, the quality of and frequency of the information received; the extent
to which politicians experienced information overload; the extent to which budgets were
understood by politicians, and the degree to which accountability was exercised. The
planning and budgeting documents and the interview transcripts were then analyzed in
relation to the key research issues identiﬁed earlier. In order to focus our analysis, we
concentrate on education and health as two areas that attracted much of the attention of
the three devolved bodies. To preserve anonymity, we refer to our informants as PNI, PS,
PW, and NPNI, NPS, NPW when referring to quotes from politicians (P) and
non-politicians (NP) from Northern Ireland (NI), Scotland (S) or Wales (W).
Programme for government documents
This section examines plans for education and health in each of the devolved bodies’
overall planning documents. These plans and their detailed breakdown (see below) are
determined by the executive and civil servants in each devolved body. First, we
attempt to identify the degree of alignment between the individual visions (missions),
aims and objectives of each devolved body for education and health. Second, some
examples of education and health objectives are matched with targets deemed
important in the pursuit of achieving these objectives. Because of space limitations, we
restrict our analysis of these documents to the ﬁrst year of government in each
devolved institution. Our argument is that the quest for gaining external legitimacy
may be a driving force for each devolved institution to demonstrate an element of
internal consistency that links visions (missions) to aims to objectives to targets. We
call this series of alignments “nested translations” owing to the seemingly hierarchical
and logical nature of attempting to establish such an orderly link. We use the term
“translations” to emphasize the understanding that any such linking process
inadvertently involves a cognitive exercise by those involved in forging the link.
The Northern Ireland Executive – Programme for Government is presented as one that
promotes open and accountable government. Given the communal conﬂict that
prevailed in the recent history of Northern Ireland, the stated mission is to secure a
peaceful, cohesive, inclusive, prosperous, stable, just, society, learned and healthy
founded on the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, mutual trust, and the
protection of human rights, and promoting partnership, equality and mutual respect
(Foreword, Northern Ireland Executive, 2001a).
Education and health: The above mission is translated into aims for the Executive:
At the outset of both Investing in Education and Skills and Working for a Healthier
People (Northern Ireland Executive, 2001), the topics are brieﬂy introduced before
stating what the priorities for the Executive are. Attention is drawn to the central role
of education and training, “not only for their social impact, but also as major engines of
our economy” (Northern Ireland Executive, 2001, p. 14) by developing skill/knowledge
and gaining employment. The mission empahsizes: “the strong links between healthy
citizens, healthy communities and a healthy economy within our society” (Northern
Ireland Executive, 2001, p. 31), with the aim of reducing health inequalities, promoting
public safety and healthy living.
In education, it is stated that while 57 percent of year 12 pupils achieved 5 þ GCSEs
(General Certiﬁcate of Secondary Education) A* - C in 1999/2000, and this proportion has
been rising over time, it needs to rise still further, particularly for socially disadvantaged
pupils where only 31 percent achieved 5 þ GCSE at A*-C. Similarly, while the
proportion of pupils who do not achieve any GCSEs has dropped to 3.6 percent in
1999/2000, with the aim to reduce it further, particularly among the less well off groups
for whom the ﬁgure was 11 percent (Northern Ireland Executive, 2001, p. 42). It is also
indicated that surveys showed “19 percent of the existing workforce with few or no
formal qualiﬁcations, and 24 percent of adult population perform at the lowest levels of
literacy, with commitment to taking action to tackle these problems”. In the case of
health, similar targets were stated, e.g. by 2003 to achieve a 20 percent reduction on the
1996 level in the number of high and medium severity water pollution incidents, and to
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meet and maintain requirements for EU recognition of Northern Ireland’s low incident of
BSE. It is clear from the above, therefore, that numbers begin to dominate as translations
of mission, aims and objectives into seemingly precise targets.
The style of presentation combines both narrative and descriptive prose allied with
time-bounded, speciﬁc targets. For example, the Investing for Health Strategy Paper
set a number of high level targets for health improvement, showing awareness that
health is inﬂuenced by a wide range of social, economic, and environmental factors and
policies. The targets might include improving life expectancy for all while reducing the
gap between the most deprived and the Northern Ireland average; promoting mental
health and emotional well-being; reducing injuries and deaths from accidents;
promoting healthy diet and physical activity; and reducing the levels of respiratory
and heart disease exacerbated by air pollution.
The strategy to be implemented in each health area is intended to address the health
and well-being issues in the area (Northern Ireland Executive, 2001, p. 33); how issues
such as healthy life style in schools can be harnessed to improve health (Northern
Ireland Executive, 2001, p. 34); and time-bounded, speciﬁc courses of action that will
assist in achieving the objectives needed to be reached under the priority, for example
the health impact assessment introduced in April 2002. This varied presentation
approach allows for greater opportunity for demonstrating the anticipated effects of
cross-cutting policy implementation.
The above analysis shows the outcome of a process of nested translation, whereby
mission is translated into aims, objectives, and quantitative targets against which
achievements are compared. We are inclined to assume that the linkages entailed in
this nested translation are intended to convey a rational, carefully planned political
agenda for the people of NI.
The plans for the Scottish Executive are contained in, “Working together for Scotland –
A Programme for Government” (Scottish Executive, 2001a) with the vision “making a
difference for the people of Scotland”. The document is intended to account of what
the politicians have delivered against targets, showing commitment to improving the
lives of the Scottish people through delivery of social justice, creation of opportunities,
careful targeting of resources, meeting needs, and delivering better services. These
plans are intended to be achieved through the cooperation of the Executive with other
social partners in a “working together” mode.
Education and health: The education mission, “working together to give our
children the best start in life” (Scottish Executive, 2001a, section 2.4), was to be
accomplished by: ensuring that all children have access to early learning and quality
care; promoting social justice; modernizing schools; raising standards and achieving
excellence; strengthening leadership in schools and rewarding professionalism in
teaching. Under the aim of ensuring that all children have access to early learning and
quality care, one objective is: “Having delivered a nursery place for every four-year-old,
we will ensure a nursery place for every three-year-old whose parent wants it by 2002”
(Scottish Executive, 2001a, section 3.4). This objective is then linked to an allied status
report: “Achieved for four-year-olds (and) on track for three-year-olds: over 40,500 (68
percent) in pre-school education in July 2000” (Scottish Executive, 2001a, section 3.4,
and Table 1). For early support and improving schools, the following achievements
were listed: increased spend on “Sure Start Scotland” with resources for 2001-2002
reaching £19 million, reduced class sizes in primary one and two to 30 or less, provided
modern computers in schools, one for every nine secondary and 28 primary pupils and
provided two special increases in funding, totaling £48.9 million, speciﬁcally for books,
equipment and repairs in schools. Targets include reducing class sizes in primary three
to 30 or less, and increasing the number of modern computers to one for every ﬁve
secondary and every 7.5 primary pupils by 2002. The focus is therefore on the
maximization of all children’s potential, with an emphasis on achievement, high
standards and teaching-focused approaches.
To achieve the health mission, “working together to build a healthy, caring
Scotland” (Scottish Executive, 2001a, section 2.6), key aims are stipulated to monitor,
protect and improve people’s health, implement policies that address inequalities in
health, prevent disease and prolong life and deliver modern, person-centred, primary
and community care services. This is premised on providing a modern, high quality,
responsive and technology-driven NHS, working in partnership with patients to
provide services designed from the patient’s perspective. Examples of the
achievements include, funding 110 more doctors and 210 more nurses and
introducing a fairer way of sharing NHS funds to address what are perceived to be
the needs of deprived and rural areas. Targets include building eight new hospitals on
schedule, reducing patients wait for inpatient treatment from 12 to 9 months, launching
NHS24 to give round the clock access to health advice and services, and improving the
way vulnerable people are cared for through the new Commission for the Regulation of
Care. Thus, the need to improve health and community care services are highlighted,
and their operation is assumed to be secured through partnership between health
professionals and the community, and greater investment and actioning of NHS reform
by increasing accountability and reducing bureaucracy.
In the above, a hierarchical nesting of translations is evident: achievements are
reported by way of a broad mission statement, supported by a number of aims, with a
set of objectives listed under each aim, and permeated by ﬁnancial and non-ﬁnancial
metrics. For each objective, a note on its status with regard to implementation is given.
Each operational aspect deemed necessary for achieving the strategies is laid out in
terms of achievements and time-bounded targets:
what the Executive has achieved in speciﬁc terms in each operational area; and
what the Executive intends to do in the future to progress plans.
In the Plan for Wales 2001 (Welsh Executive, 2001a) the mission is offering a clearer
sense of direction for a modern Wales – its economy, its environment, its society, and a
commitment to improving public services in schools and hospitals. The programme of
reform intended to achieve this is based on universal and comprehensive provision of
services, community involvement, and support for those most in need (Welsh
Executive, 2001a, section 1.1).
Education and health: Separate strategic plans for education and health have been
developed: The Learning Country (Welsh Executive, 2001b), and Improving Health in
Wales – A Plan for the NHS (Welsh Executive, 2001c). With regard to education the
aim is: “to deliver better outcomes in schools, colleges, universities and work-based
training” (Welsh Executive, 2001b, p. 5). Moving on from the general to the speciﬁc, the
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documents stipulate that the Executive’s commitments are to be supported by a series
of objectives. For example, the commitment to giving children a ﬂying start has the
objective of ensuring “Early Years” education for all three-year-olds whose parents
want it. The commitment of having excellent schools and the highest expectations for
children is linked to the objective of increasing the funding for school buildings (£100
million a year for the next three years) to ensure progress to the 2010 target of all
buildings being in good physical condition.
Proceeding from commitments and objectives, greater speciﬁcity is introduced into
the planning process when time-bound, speciﬁc targets are announced. The speciﬁc
targets to be achieved by 2003/2004 were, no infant or junior classes have over 30
pupils; 90 percent of classes to be of at least satisfactory standard and 50 percent to be
good or very good; and that the number of 15 year olds leaving full-time education
without a recognized qualiﬁcation to be cut by 25 percent from 1999 levels. In addition,
it is anticipated that by 2010: over 75 percent of pupils ﬁnish compulsory education
attaining at least ﬁve GCSE A*-C or equivalent, with all remaining in education or
going on to training opportunities in employment, and none leaving unqualiﬁed; that
no school is assessed as failing; none has less than 35 percent of pupils achieving ﬁve
GCSE A*-C or equivalent; that all junior class sizes are below 25; 80 percent of pupils
achieve at the expected level at the end of Key Stage 4 (for children in years 10 and 11)
in all subjects of the curriculum; and that at least 25 percent of 16–19 year olds attain
the Welsh Baccalaureate.
With regard to health similar nesting translations emerge. The aspiration is for
reduction in variation in life expectancy between rich and poor, better health for all,
where the elderly can live in their own homes, and equal opportunities for all children
(Welsh Executive, 2001b, p. 8). In health targets to be achieved by 2003/2004 include:
increase the number of doctors in training by 65 percent and the number of nurses in
training by 35 percent; ensure 90 percent of NHS estate complies with statutory health
and safety requirements, including ﬁre safety; reduce overall waiting times, move
closer to levels that compare to the best; and achieve the maximum waiting times for
inpatient treatment for the priority areas of cardiac surgery (12 months), cataract
surgery (four months) and orthopedics (18 months). With respect to 2010, targets
include: increase life expectancy and reduce death-rates from major and long-term
illness, especially in most deprived communities; bring ﬁve-year survival-rates for
serious cardiac disease and cancers far closer to the best in Europe; and bring infant
mortality-rates far closer to the best in Europe, with the largest reduction in most
deprived communities. As in the cases of NI and Scotland, the outcome of a process of
hierarchical nested translation emerges: from mission to aims to objectives to targets
against which achievements are compared.
There are common thematic factors in the executive programs of all three devolved
bodies. The visions all promise grand aspirations stated in terms of either providing a
peaceful, cohesive and tolerant society (Northern Ireland), or making a difference to the
electorate (Scotland), or providing a clearer sense of direction to the nation (Wales).
Such visions are understandably grandiose and broad, as politicians attempt to mark
their ambitions and woo the electorate. Ambiguity that arises out of such vision
statements can be useful in building consensus and lubricating the functioning of
coalition politics (Downs, 1957; Baier et al., 1963).
A process of nested translation seems to be at work in all three cases, proceeding
from mission through aims, objectives, and targets, to achievements and back to
vision. The level of detail and speciﬁcity gradually increases with the move from vision
onwards, and gradually accounting and, as we argue later, budgeting numbers begin
to intervene, in the form of quantiﬁable, ﬁnancial and non-ﬁnancial, performance
measures and achievements. A demonstrably clear link of such nesting translation can
be argued to endow the process of government with visibility and external legitimacy.
Such a hierarchical nesting translation can convey an illusion of rationality and
purposeful behaviour on the part of devolved bodies, which in turn could enhance their
legitimacy and underpin their survival, as neo-institutional theory suggests (Meyer
and Rowan, 1977; Scott, 1995).
The intervention of numbers is not totally overwhelming; they are present in many,
but by no means all, cases. Thus, other targets are expressed in terms of unstated, but
presumably known, European benchmarks such as “meet and maintain requirements
for EU recognition of Northern Ireland’s low incidence of BSE”, or in even aspirational
terms such as providing an NHS service “attuned to the needs of the people” (Wales).
Political targets, therefore, are not seen to be the preserve of either ﬁnancial or
non-ﬁnancial numbers; rather they are utterances of both the precise and the
aspirational. However, it is clear from the above that numeric targets are an integral
part of political programmes. In Wales, there is stronger evidence of quantiﬁcation
compared to the other two bodies, an issue that is addressed later in our interviews.
The ambiguity of mission statements and the apparent precision of targets and
achievements could be a double-edged sword. Ambiguity makes it possible for the
executive of a political body to forge a link between some speciﬁc target or
achievement and the broad mission. By the same token, detailed targets and
achievements could be made to appear, say by opposition parties or lobby groups, to be
insufﬁcient to meet the mission, since the numeric nature of targets and achievements
can immediately invite comparisons with the past and the aspirations for the future.
Further, working back from targets and achievements towards objectives, aims and
mission may prove problematical. Indeed, despite the key differences in the stated
mission statements of the devolved bodies, it would be difﬁcult to discern these
differences purely from an examination of targets and achievements.
This use of numbers in the programmes of the devolved bodies can be explained in
terms of the prevalence of a “measurement culture” and a mode of “managing by the
numbers” (Ezzamel et al., 1990), whereby trust is placed in numbers in the pursuit of
objectivity (Porter, 1995) and external legitimacy. Numeric targets embody all what
numbers imply. As Porter (1995, p. ix) has noted, numbers “summarize a multitude of
complex events and transactions.” Further, any “quantiﬁcation is a technology of
distance” (Porter, 1995, p. ix), whereby numbers are capable of being used to manage at
a distance (Robson, 1992; Ezzamel, 2002). As quantiﬁcations, targets and performance
measures have the aura of a number system that is highly structured, rule-bound, and
uniform (McLeish, 1991; Ifrah, 1998).
Yet, it is important to recognize that many of the qualities of numbers’ systems,
such as the targets in the devolved programmes, could be more apparent than real. As
Porter (1995, p. 5) notes: “Mapping mathematics onto the world is always difﬁcult and
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problematical. Critics of quantiﬁcation in the natural sciences as well as in social and
humanistic ﬁelds have often felt that reliance on numbers simply evades the deep and
important issues.” Similarly, Boyle (2000), a populist writer, titled his book: The
Tyranny of Num8ers: Why Counting Can’t Make Us Happy, with the number “8”
displacing the letter “b” to signify the intrusion of numbers into every aspect of
contemporary life. As the targets of the devolved bodies combine the precise, numeric
and the aspirational, it may be that there is a feeling that such a combination will both
guard against the “tyranny of numbers” by showing relatively less reliance upon them
and ensuring that the “deep and important issues” are not evaded. The underlying
belief that numbers can be the ultimate translations of missions, aims, and objectives
seems to be based more on faith than on knowledge of an inherent representational
ability of numbers. A consideration of this process of translation continues below,
where we reﬂect on the instability of translation and the possible use of budgets as
myths of rationality and rituals of reason.
Budgetary practices: education and health
In this section we examine in some detail budget practices for education and health in
the three devolved bodies. We draw upon both formal budget documents and
interviews to examine how aims were translated into key objectives and then into
spending plans as contained in the budget, and we also examine budget format
(narrative vs. numbers), quality of information provided, information overload, and
cognition of budget numbers by politicians and its impact on political deliberations.
Formal budget documents
Using formal planning and budget documents we attempt to construct a map of aims,
priorities and spending plans for education and health. It was possible to do that for
each of Northern Ireland and Scotland, but not for Wales due to the inability to make
connections with the data available (see later). For illustrative purposes, and in the
interest of brevity, we only show the ﬁgures for Northern Ireland; this causes no loss of
information for although there are notable differences in the mission statements, aims
and objectives, of the devolved bodies, the connections we emphasize for Northern
Ireland are very similar to those of Scotland.
Northern Ireland: In examining the three devolved budgets, we note many
similarities but also some differences, particularly in the case of Wales. In the main,
budget documents have tended to provide an overview of the main areas and drivers of
spending and what the spending will achieve (see Figures 1 and 2). In Northern Ireland,
the aim of education (see Figure 1) is to provide for the highest possible standards and
equal access of education and development to all young people (Northern Ireland
Executive, 2001, p. 30, Figure 1), and in health “to improve the health and well-being of
the people of Northern Ireland” (Northern Ireland Executive, 2001, p. 42; Figure 2). This
is followed by a number of central objectives concerning education and health, before
reviewing any ﬁgures. For example, under each objective heading listed in the
preamble, each spending category that supports the achievement of that objective is
stated; then, for 2001-2002 and 2002-2003, amounts of expenditure are presented, both
with regard to resource spending and capital spending (Figures 1 and 2). These
amounts are then eventually built up into overall Departmental Expenditure Limits
(DELs). Year on year percentage changes in allocations are also shown. Each
department’s budget is then concluded by explanatory narrative; for example:
[. . .] total expenditure by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety will rise
by 9.7 percent to £2,527.7 million in 2002-2003. However, it is recognised that this includes a
transfer of £19 million of social security expenditure from AME [Annually Managed
Expenditure] to DEL which provides no new spending power to the department. The plans
will enable the department to maintain existing services and to make a meaningful response
to the rising costs of modern medicine. The plans, which take account of the Chancellor’s
pre-budget statement, will also enable some key service enhancements. Overall, the resources
will be allocated across a broad range of services to have maximum impact on the health and
well being of the community (Northern Ireland Executive, 2001, p. 44).
Scotland: In Scotland, the amounts spent on education and health in the previous year
are disclosed and matched in the budget with some of the activities the money helped
fund (e.g. reduction in Primary 1-2 class sizes to 30 or below in education or 955,000
operations in health). This is followed by the amounts earmarked for the coming year,
again matched with the activities they are planned to fund, e.g. providing pre-school
education places for 100 percent of three-year-olds. The introductory section presents
the planned spend in each function on education and health, along with some of the
Map of aim, objectives and
spending plans relating to
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planned funding activities, e.g. increasing spending in the modernization of school
buildings and equipment and improving services for cancer, heart disease and mental
illness. After the introductory sections the overall aims for education and health are
The overall budget allocations for education are split from the one line of the
introduction to two lines, showing how money is allocated between schools and
spending on children and young people. Responsibilities for school funding
arrangements are explained in terms of the role of each funding source (the Scottish
Executive, central government and local councils), with a detailed exposition of the
functions of each education body (Scottish Executive, 2001b). This exercise is also
carried out for spending on children and young people. After explaining the role of the
Executive in allocating speciﬁc grants, the Executive lays forth what they intend doing
with the money, in respect of the various categories covered by the education budget.
This includes a mixture of target-based objectives, along with more generic, strategic
outlooks. The budget closes with a statement of principal objectives, along with dates
by which they are due to be achieved.
The budget attempts to show how health is being improved and the objectives of
the strategic plan to which the Executive is operating, along with a description of how
Map of aim, objectives and
spending plans relating to
health: Northern Ireland
resources are utilized to meet these objectives. The budget breaks down health
spending across major categories showing health spending on a per capita basis across
different ages, thereby demonstrating the critical inﬂuence age has on demand for
healthcare services. Projections of the future effects of demographics on health
spending are presented. The budget speciﬁes what the health budget money will buy,
how the healthcare infrastructure operates in practice, how the healthcare agenda in
Scotland will be advanced and how future funding of the system is likely to be
increased. The document concludes with a statement of principal objectives and dates
by which they are due to be achieved which differ, as in the case of education, from the
key priorities. Overall, the budget is a mix of the numeric and narrative, but with the
narrative being dominant.
Wales: Detailed information on education and health is provided in tabular format
in relation to Original Plan (previous year), Original Baseline (current year), Total
Changes (current year), New Plans (next year), Original Baseline (next year), Total
Changes (next year), and Indicative Plans for each of the next two years. Items
accounted for include the amount being funded, both for speciﬁc projects (where one
ﬁgure or expenditure group item is stated) and for particular institutions’ total running
costs where line items are provided, for example the running costs for all health
authorities/trusts (where revenue expenditures in budgets, revenue receipts in budgets,
capital and provisions are stated). Provisions to cover the cost of most items of
depreciation and cost of capital charges are classiﬁed as Annually Managed
Expenditure (AME) and ring fenced by the central UK Government Treasury for such
The budget is presented in a heavily quantitative format, set out in a spreadsheet
with no explanatory narrative sections. In contrast to the budgets of Northern Ireland
and Scotland, this makes it difﬁcult to see how it relates to the various plans and
objectives of the Executive, as laid out in the Plan for Wales (Welsh Executive, 2001a).
We are unable to comment on the extent to which this bias towards greater
quantiﬁcation in Wales is a product of a particular type of expertise in civil service.
Alternatively, this may have been caused by the need for time to negotiate and settle
policies in the coalition Executive of Labour and Liberals. However, we have asked our
informants for some explanation of this phenomenon. One senior civil servant directly
involved in budget preparation justiﬁed the absence of narrative in the budget by
noting his preference for numbers because he perceived numbers to instill a sense of
certainty not possible with narrative:
At the end of the day my job is to make sure that this all adds up, and the problem with
narrative is that it is subject to interpretation. It is the old story, if you get ten lawyers they
can interpret the narrative in ten different ways and that is no good to me. Numbers have the
virtue that you can’t argue against them. People need that certainty for forward planning and
the Permanent Secretary as the accounting ofﬁcer needs that certainty because he is
responsible for the Assembly remaining within its budget year on year. So he is not going to
be interested in beautifully constructed but ultimately ﬂaky narrative (NPW).
In this sense, narrative is construed as an unwanted noise that breeds uncertainty and
ambiguity, in contrast to numbers that are trusted for their presumed precision and
certainty. In the political climate of a newly devolved Assembly, much uncertainty
prevails, and “managing by the numbers” (Ezzamel et al., 1990) may be seen by some
as a welcome relief and a means of uncertainty reduction/absorption (Galbraith, 1972).
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Such an explanation is also consistent with a neo-institutional theory understanding,
whereby budget numbers are seen as manifestations of calculative rationality aimed at
gaining external legitimacy (Meyer, 1986). However, alternative explanations of the
lack of narrative in the Welsh budgets emerged, with another informant offering
time-pressure as an explanation:
One of the difﬁculties we would have is: we are developing the narrative now, we are
beginning to use those strategic statements within the government at the moment. The real
test for that, in any budgetary process, comes down to the wire and there is a lot of intense
negotiation about the ﬁgures over months, and then weeks, and then days, as you get to the
end. And all the minds are focused on the data, informed by the narrative earlier. Whether we
would have the time in any real budgetary process to reconnect the data to the narrative, that
would be a challenge and certainly we don’t do that at the moment (NPW).
This justiﬁcation only serves to emphasize the importance of numbers in the Welsh
budgetary process; when time pressure becomes acute, what seems to get sacriﬁced is
the narrative as the supplement that is seemingly of marginal importance. As the
minds become “focused on the data” the narrative is pushed to the side in the quest for
concluding negotiations and producing an agreed budget “on time”. It is interesting,
however, why this supposed time pressure did not arise in the cases of Northern
Ireland and Scotland. Given the novelty of the budgetary cycle across all three
devolved institutions, it may be that those in charge of preparing budgets exhibited
fundamentally different mindsets concerning preference for numbers versus narrative;
such an explanation would be contrary to the traditional expectation of
neo-institutional theory of isomorphic conformity. In this case we would be
witnessing some heterogeneity in institutional response to similar pressures. This is an
issue that could be explored more in future research.
The somewhat utilitarian and stark presentational style of the Welsh budget is
counteracted by the publication of “Partnership Agreement” produced by the coalition
Executive made up of Labour (the party that in the ﬁrst Assembly elections held the
highest number of seats but without sufﬁcient majority to rule on its own) and the
Liberal Democrats (who joined in the political coalition to govern Wales). This
document, is the result of political compromise in that the policies in the Labour
election manifesto were revised to incorporate some of the policies to which the Liberal
Democrats were committed, and was used in the Executive’s budget planning round,
thus permitting more meaningful interpretation of the budget ﬁgures. The document:
[. . .] is a narrative. . . it is one of the key reference points in the budget turn around process
because it is commitment by Ministers, we have to ensure that resources have been allocated
to deliver the promises they made in the Partnership Agreement (NPW).
This document charts initiatives the Welsh Executive is responsible for under
departmental remits, and whether or not they have been actioned and funded. It is split
up along departmental lines and looks speciﬁcally at initiatives/targets promised, what
was promised in terms of plans anticipated, whether the initiative has been actioned
and whether or not funding was provided. An example from the education and lifelong
learning section is: “We will fully fund training grants for new primary school teachers
by increasing the total training budget to £8 million in 2001-2002 and £12 million in
2002-03” (Welsh Executive, 2001d, p. 1) – this initiative is shown as being actioned and
it is stated that provision is made for it in the baselines from 2001-2002. Hence, in order
to gain a most basic understanding of the budget, the Partnership Agreement must
also be read. However, even a careful reading of both documents is unhelpful in
attempting to draw out linkages between objectives/priorities and spending plans. For
instance, in the example just cited, monies associated with the initiative to fund
training grants may be included in two different expenditure groups in the ﬁnal
budget, e.g. within “Initial Teacher Training Bursaries” or “Teacher Development and
Support”. Without clearer lines of demarcation, it is difﬁcult to draw out any
meaningful linkages between planning and spending from the budget documents as
they are presently constituted. This lack of linkage between the two documents creates
a space in which politicians could pursue speciﬁc activities in the name of a given
overriding policy. This lack of clarity is in contrast to the thesis that forging clearer
links in the various government documents is a means of securing external legitimacy.
Explaining such an observation may require appeals to other explanations other than
those provided by neo-institutional theory. Whether the emergence of this space was
the result of a deliberate choice by the Executive or an unanticipated consequence of
political negotiation and compromise is unclear to us. While this possibility would be
of interest to examine, the nature of our study did not afford us the opportunity to
explore this issue in any detail.
Evident in the above is the intervention of accounting numbers as the translation of
political missions, aims and objectives into seemingly precise targets against which
actual achievements are measured. The underlying assumption is that this process of
translation is a means of producing a linear mapping of numbers onto missions and
objectives. Clearly, a linear translation is still likely to inﬂuence action as well as claims
to action. However, we suggest that what is missing in claims of linear translations is
recognition of at least two possibilities that are likely to render the translation process
more complex and its outcome more unstable. First, a linear, faithful translation would
require accounting to possess a technology of quantiﬁcation that can faithfully convert
political aspirations, missions and qualities into numbers. While it has frequently been
claimed that accounting has played similar roles in a variety of organizational settings
over time, the limitations of accounting in securing an unambiguous and precise
outcome have been widely discussed in the literature.
Second, even if accounting technology was capable of such a feat, the role of human
agency cannot be ignored. The budgetary process is frequently the locus of
negotiations of both organizational and personal interests as actors struggle to attend
to potentially conﬂicting priorities. As different actors seek to negotiate their interests
through the translation process, outcomes different to those originally anticipated are
likely to emerge (Latour, 1987). Moreover, in the political domain, politicians utter
promises and make announcements that, at least on occasion, may not necessarily map
onto previous plans and hence result in unanticipated outcomes:
You have to understand the way the political mind works, in that what they see themselves
doing is making a personal commitment to something. So they come and they are making a
speech to some important body and they want to express their commitment to reforms,
education let’s say, and they and their advisors have put together some form of words which
are intended to express their wish to see Welsh schools achieving more and more, but it ends
up coming out as “by 2006 all Welsh schools will achieve a minimum of so and so” (NPW).
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Information overload, budget cognition, and political deliberation
Neo-institutional theory identiﬁes cognition as a key concept in explaining
organizational behaviour. Cognition is impacted by several factors, including the
background/training of an individual, the amount of information received, personal
interests, and ability to comprehend certain types of information received. Interest in
accessing/using information is also frequently intertwined with the ability to
comprehend and process information. In this section, we focus on information overload
and interest in/ability to understand budget information.
Information overload: Politicians complained that they often received too much
information and that providers of information tend to use a scattergun approach,
disseminating everything to everyone regardless of individual interests. A difference
between politicians and non-politicians on this issue focused on the reason why so
much information was being produced; politicians tending to see the responsibility
lying at the door of those distributing the information, while non-politicians viewed
politicians’ compulsion with having everything that is available (regardless of their
ability to use the information) as problematical:
I think the amount is extraordinary and I think there is no way that any living person could
cope with the amount of stuff that comes through (PNI).
As part of the annual budget process, I think that the Executive at the moment is producing
about 12 different documents over the year. Some of them are the size of a telephone directory.
It is very difﬁcult to know what to do with it. And the Parliament has been overwhelmed by
ﬁnancial information (NPS).
There is a huge amount of information that comes our way, huge quantities of documentation
and that kind of thing that comes to the committee. Well, you spend a lot of hours reading.
And you, of course, look at sometimes the executive summary and look at the main
Such complaints of information overload were typical in the three devolved bodies.
Perception of overload may have been exacerbated by the difﬁculty most politicians
have experienced in understanding ﬁnancial information (see below). It may also be a
means of responding to criticisms that politicians have failed to act upon detailed
information made available to them, the excuse being that too much information
militates against the ability to consider all options given time constraints. In addition,
it was stated that achieving equilibrium between the amount and level of detail of
information ﬂowing between departments and members proved to be challenging.
However, gradually conﬁdence seems to be growing with interviewees suggesting that
more appropriate, tailored information was being made available. Department ofﬁcials
and civil servants are seen as crucial in reducing information load and guiding
The thing about the committees is that they are not really adequately resourced in terms of
staff . . . . But again this is (information overload) when I think the servicing of the committee
should help and say, “these are the issues, these are the things we think you should question
the minister on, that you should question the witnesses on, the issues you should pick out to
The question of whether or not sufﬁcient information is provided to politicians has two
dimensions. The ﬁrst relates to the problem of information overload discussed above: if
politicians are already overwhelmed with information, how could they cope with more?
One non-politician from Scotland commented: “the capacity of Parliament and the
committees to use the information is really very limited. They are demanding more, but
we don’t really see them making much use of it.” The second dimension relates to the
difﬁculty of reconciling members’ demands for information and departments’ ability to
provide relevant information. One informant illustrated this difﬁculty, while also
hinting at the emphasis on process:
The difﬁculty is if the balance is wrong. I feel for the department on this to a degree and
protocols are being developed on this all the time. But they have responded to the demands of
committees and they’re not sure some times what they should be providing or shouldn’t be
providing and then they’re castigated for not providing documents they would have thought
they wouldn’t have had to provide. So there is a focus on process on the part of members that
riles departments and they aren’t resourced to deal with it (NPNI).
In order to cope with the amount of information available, some participants expressed
the view that a discernment relating to the relevance of the information to their roles
was crucial. Effective mechanisms that ensured ﬁltering and focusing on important
issues were identiﬁed as being needed. Interviewees were keen to stress, however, that
the subject of information provision was one of learning and education. At the heart of
this process, the relationship between politicians and departmental ofﬁcials was
identiﬁed as being important:
We’re getting information, but at times it’s not the right information, it’s not detailed enough,
or perhaps it’s too detailed. And it is a learning process at the moment, as to what information
do we need as an Assembly, within the committee structure, to do our job effectively (NPNI).
Budget cognition. Only a small number of politicians were either interested in or could
read and digest the budget; these tended to have either accounting/ﬁnance background
or extensive previous experience in the public sector. The vast majority of politicians
interviewed said that the budget was something of a mystery, and this situation was
not helped in the case of Wales because of the lack of budget narrative. Politicians who
considered themselves lacking in ﬁnancial expertise tended to take a defensive posture
by attributing the ability to understand budgets to the domain of the “genius”, or those
with “a mathematical mind”, while presenting themselves as being better able to deal
with visual representations:
There are members of the Parliament who are interested in ﬁnancial issues – may be
10 percent. In fairness, most members are bored rigid by ﬁnancial budgeting issues (PS).
To be quite frank I think for most of us it [the budget] is probably above our heads because I
am not a statistician and I am not a mathematical genius. And I think in many respects I am a
visual person, charts, simple visual instruments. I can cope with those far better than looking
at spreadsheets (PW).
Similarly, another politician from the Welsh Assembly said: “I am pretty in-numerate,
so I ﬁnd the scrutiny of columns of statistics impossible.” Such cognition problems
have consequences, which could culminate in less than effective scrutiny and
monitoring of budgets. One politician, noting this difﬁculty, questioned whether or not
the Executive desired to be open:
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The ﬁnancial grasp and the minutiae of the budget largely passes over the head of the elected
members. It’s not to say we’re all stupid, it’s just to say that the accounting procedures and
the presentational aspects of it, the ﬁne working of it, is not easily understood by the
politicians. Now, is that deliberate or is every statement of that nature based like that? I
haven’t made up my mind on that. One thinks that some may be blinded by science, but
rather than admit to ignorance, they say wonderful, we’ll vote for that (PNI).
Such repeated emphasis by politicians upon their perceived lack of interest in, or
ability to comprehend, ﬁnancial information is striking. Inability to understand
ﬁnancial information may in itself encourage politicians to treat ﬁnancial information
as less relevant to their deliberations. Those who desired to mobilize ﬁnancial
information in their debate, and at the same time lacked the ability to understand such
information, tended to seek help either from their researchers or more likely from other
knowledgeable members of their party:
I don’t really mind who I go to, I will weigh up in my own mind how much credibility I would
give to other people’s comments. But I am sure that other members also go out and try to ﬁnd
other views (PW).
Much of the performance information in each devolved body is contained in the budget
and the budget reports. While there appeared to be some disagreement among
participants regarding their perception of the levels of performance information that
are produced, the vast majority were of the opinion that there was limited systematic
dissemination of what was available. In addition, the ﬂow and amount of performance
information were considered far from satisfactory:
[. . .] we only receive information on performance in brieﬁngs, when we actually search it
out. . . Now, hitherto, I would have to say that it’s been a bit short. Quite what the reluctance
is; is it that it’s not available because the programme is relatively new or is it because they
think that the programme is addressing the problem but they’re not quite sure, and they don’t
want to expose the fact that they’re pouring large sums of money into it without it having
proved itself? (PNI).
When it comes to ﬁnance and political debates, there is never enough information in detail on
how public money is allocated . . . It is very difﬁcult, really, to get to the guts of many
questions even with approval from the Treasury (PS).
[. . .] a lot of it [accounting information] is probably designed to keep us in the dark. There are
all sorts of bold part ﬁgures, that is the right expression, circulating about, but you don’t
really know what has been spent on what (PS).
With respect to performance information, there has been a focus on looking at inputs
and activity levels, rather than this loop being completed by reviewing the associated
issues concerned with outcomes and customer services, but that this was changing
because public bodies are:
Fabulous at ﬁring arrows at walls, drawing targets around them and then saying it was a
brilliant shot. The situation has now moved on to, there’s the target, now ﬁre the arrow at it
Given politicians’ limited cognition of numbers, scrutiny (and accountability) is likely
to be diluted as it appears that little use is made of accounting information in political
deliberations. Politicians were perceived by non-politicians as being more concerned
with how much money was being spent rather than with what it might achieve, and
that bids by non-ministerial politicians contained very little consideration of planning
and performance issues. For example, one minister suggested that there was enough
time to scrutinize but politicians were often more concerned with increasing
departmental allocations than in looking at what particular levels of spending would
achieve, a far cry from claims of rationality and efﬁciency that devolved bodies may
want to signal externally to enhance their legitimacy; this seems supportive of the
notion of decoupling suggested by neo-institutional theory (Meyer and Rowan, 1977;
DiMaggio and Powell, 1991):
Is there sufﬁcient total consideration to all that we’re doing? No . . . Everybody goes into their
own itsy, bitsy bit; there’s a lot of the bid chasing and there’s a lot of duplicity . . . It goes to
committees and they go through the budget recommendations but, so far, in the main, what
committees have done is to come up with views on budgets that have mainly been saying we
want more money, we want the department we’re scrutinizing to get more money, it needs
more money for this, that and the other . . . So, they have been coming back with criticisms on
the inadequacies of allocations, rather than coming back with questions or challenges about
the strategic merits of the spending plans (PNI).
Others also felt that the process of scrutinizing the budget could miss the point of
ensuring the delivery of public service as attention is focused on other priorities, or
simply members become obsessed with chasing the numbers:
What is it that people are coming to the table (to scrutinize the budget) to do? Are they
seeking to improve a service? Are they seeking to change priorities? Or are they simply
looking at numbers and saying, “well, if the numbers are alright, it must be OK”, and it is
really delivery of public service that we are here to deal with (PS).
Most devolved politicians had an extended experience in the public sector, as
professionals; e.g. medics, previous members of Parliament at Westminster, or
councilors, and some had previous extensive training in the accountancy profession.
However, the vast majority of politicians in the devolved institutions were very
inexperienced in ﬁnancial matters, and this has been cited as an explanation for the
apparent limited use of ﬁnancial information to inform political debate:
We have some inexperienced members here at the moment because we are developing a
political culture. Financial information is in many cases central to political decision making,
because it is about the amount of resources you apply and the value that you get from those
resources . . . A lot of people here in the Assembly still don’t understand how important it can
be to ask questions, even written questions, just to elicit that information about the levels of
actual commitments and so on (PW).
A number of interviewees noted the newness of the devolution experience as
contributing to the limited exercise of accountability and expressed an expectation that
things would evolve and improve through time. Evidence regarding how the budgeting
process had changed since its inception was proffered to support this, including:
putting in place changed structures to ensure more robust future scrutiny; and
addressing difﬁculties (e.g. a fairly tight timescale) identiﬁed by earlier pre-budget
The main themes of the above discussion are: signiﬁcant information overload that
at the limit results in some politicians ignoring the contents of most reports and only
reading the summary and recommendations; lack of interest by most politicians in
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ﬁnancial numbers, and serious difﬁculty faced by them in reading and interpreting the
numbers. From a neo-institutional theory perspective, these observations have a
number of implications. The desire to demonstrate rationality to external
constituencies in the quest for legitimacy places pressure on the devolved bodies to
demonstrate that their members both understand and make appropriate use of
accounting and budget information. If a decoupling of external signaling and actual
use is possible, as per the traditional thesis of neo-institutional theory (e.g. Meyer and
Rowan, 1977; Scott, 1995), then the above evidence would bear witness to this
decoupling being a common theme across all devolved bodies. However, this
interpretation assumes intention: actors can pursue rational behaviour but they choose
not to in pursuit of their interests. This models subjectivity as a proactive, rather than a
passive construct (Covaleski et al., 1993; Scott, 1991, 1995). Parts of the evidence cited
above are certainly supportive of such a possibility; we have encountered claims by
both politicians and civil servants that some politicians are simply not interested in
reading and using numbers. Thus, with their rule-like characteristics, budgets are
presented by devolved bodies as ideals of rationality, but beneath that veneer budgets
are no more than a myth in the process of being institutionalized. Given the prevalence
of the use of budgets in both the private and public sectors, creating a myth of
compliance with such rational systems can endow devolved bodies with legitimacy.
Yet, we have argued earlier that while such an explanation has much appeal, we
must resist the temptation to take it for given as a deterministic explanation. The
notion of complete decoupling between the declared and the practiced is problematical,
to say the least. Our empirical evidence throws some useful light on this issue. This
evidence suggests that a (small) number of politicians, because of their previous
backgrounds, not only have the necessary expertise to comprehend budgets but also
make use of budget ﬁgures in their political debate. At least for this (small) group,
decoupling does not hold. Further, our evidence suggests that at least some politicians
who lack expertise in ﬁnancial matters seek the support of advisors, civil servants or
colleagues to gain some understanding of numbers. In this case, at the very least, there
is an attempt to engage with the budget, thereby rendering the notion of complete
decoupling questionable. This latter possibility also admits another contingency to the
analysis; in so far as the advice given to the non-ﬁnancially expert is likely to be
coloured by the cognitions and interests of those who are providing help with the
Discussion and conclusions
In this paper, we have examined the planning and budgeting documents of the three
UK devolved national governments and supplemented these texts with
semi-structured interviews. We have drawn upon neo-institutional theory to guide
our collection and analysis of the data. Based on our theoretical framing, we have
identiﬁed three key issues that form the basis of discussion in this section: nesting
translations; homogeneities/heterogeneities in responding to institutional pressures,
and number cognition and political deliberations.
We have argued that, under neo-institutional theory, devolved bodies could enhance
their external legitimacy by demonstrating that a clear and logical set of linkages
underpin all their planning and budgeting documents. We called this “nesting
translations”. Although we did not examine the process of nested translations, we are
able to comment on its outcome by examining publicly available documents affords us
the possibility to. From such an examination, it was evident that there was a “drilling
down” of translations. Our use of the term “nested” signals the interconnected nature of
the various stages of translations, as each level is meant to follow from the one above it
and lead to the one immediately following it. However, our analysis suggests that this
nesting process is non-linear. The planning process was originated in broad, strategic
and visionary statements of declared intent on the part of the devolved administrations.
Even as broad, visionary statements, such pronouncements differed considerably in their
degree of speciﬁcity across the three devolved bodies. In Scotland, we encountered the
broadest of all three missions “making a difference for the people of Scotland”. In Wales,
a somewhat more detailed mission is stated, one that emphasizes a modern society,
including the economy, environment, with commitment to public services, in particular
schools and hospitals. Finally, Northern Ireland has the longest mission statement, with
explicit emphasis upon peace, cohesion, inclusiveness, reconciliation and tolerance.
Identifying what these broad missions mean is strongly dependent on the process of
translation. It would appear that these mission statements in their diversity are born out
of the speciﬁc historical settings of each devolved body. The most noticeable linking of
mission to history is in the case of Northern Ireland, where the desire to remove the
damaging effects of decades of violence between Catholics and Protestants is so
prominent. In Scotland, the pressure was on the Executive to demonstrate that
devolution will deliver better services and care. In Wales, there was at least the
perception that public services, in particular health and education, were not as well
supported as in the rest of the UK. Thus, the mission statement of each devolved body
was, at least in part, inﬂuenced by its speciﬁc socio-political setting, which immediately
gives rise to a measure of heterogeneity in the response of the devolved bodies to the
(similar) institutional pressures that came with the move towards devolution.
Such slogan-like statements were then translated into a succession of stages
involving: aims, objectives and targets. We noted how political missions began to
assume more speciﬁc, though still relatively broad, meanings when they were ﬁrst
translated into aims for broad policy areas/themes such as education and health. Thus,
for example, “working together to give the children the best chance in life” was seen by
the Scottish Executive as a translation of education policy that is consistent with the
mission of making a difference for the people of Scotland. Similarly, “developing the
learning country” was considered consistent with the aspiration to provide direction
for a modern Wales with well-supported public services. Second level translations from
aims to objectives still remained broad; in the case of education in Northern Ireland for
example, this entailed providing training and skills to secure gainful employment. At
best, such broad visionary material can produce some differentiating characteristics
between the Executive and opposition but not enough to ensure a sensible measure of
accountability. In these two levels of translations, numbers are absent as the missions,
aims and objectives are all stated exclusively as narratives. More detailed translations
are required in order for more precise differentiations to be derived and through which
the cabinet could enunciate its responsibilities towards the electorate. Such detailed
translations could be taken as a means of rendering accountability both possible and
transparent as a means of securing external legitimacy.
New budgets in
Translating and operationalizing objectives further involved the formulation of
time-bounded and speciﬁc targets where speciﬁc numbers begin to mediate as the
expression of political commitments in what is emerging as a “management by
numbers” culture (Ezzamel et al., 1990). Given the prevalence of such a management by
numbers culture within the institutional ﬁeld, the emphasis on numbers could be taken
as a means of the devolved bodies demonstrating their compliance with that culture
(isomorphic pressure). This focus on numbers was evident in each body; in some
instances, reference was made to past achievements and how these ﬁtted in with the
overall plan (in Scotland and Northern Ireland, though more so in Scotland), whilst
others focused solely on future intentions and plans (Wales). This situation in Wales
may be due to the Scottish and Northern Ireland documents being relatively more
comprehensive, as Wales developed separate planning documents for separate policy
issues. Targets, particularly those stated in numerical terms, seemingly became more
precise translations of the broad, less differentiating, mission, aims and objectives as
more precisely delineated measures of accountability to which the Executive could be
held. In this sense, the targets stated in the budget documents of each devolved body
provided a visible link back to objectives, aims and ultimately mission. It is these
precise targets that are likely to act as the yardstick against which actual achievements
and political aspirations could be contrasted and compared. This chain of seemingly
logical, precise translation, which we gleaned from our analysis of the planning and
budgeting documents, from missions ultimately into numbers, both creates and
reinforces a myth of rational governance, where trust is placed into governance by
quantiﬁcation. The budget in each devolved institution therefore can be seen to
function as a “ritual” of reason, seeking to legitimize the manner by which the devolved
bodies conduct themselves (Czarniawska-Jorges and Jacobsson, 1989).
Homogeneities and heterogeneities
The three devolved bodies shared some commonalities in their planning and budgeting
documents. First, a top-to-bottom management architecture (Meekings, 1995) was
evident in all bodies with one caveat; in Scotland, the formulation of the mission
statements was a more elongated process, and the Scottish programme for government
had much broader aims than in the other two institutions. In Scotland, there
appeared to be a greater preponderance placed on deﬁning, in Drucker’s (1980, p. 104)
terminology, “a lofty organizational objective”. Second, a systematic review
architecture (Meekings, 1995) was common across the devolved bodies, with the
periodic reporting of achievements being commonplace. Third, an integrated planning
and budgeting process (Meekings, 1995) was in place, though to a lesser extent in
Wales compared to Scotland and Northern Ireland. In considering the link and
coupling between planning documents and the budgetary documents, tight
arrangements were evidenced in both Scotland and Northern Ireland. In Wales, this
process was much less explicit and the reader needs to expend much more effort if the
interrelationships between all areas of planning and funding are to be made. This may
be a consequence of the existence of substantial alternative planning documents as
alluded to above. Thus, while we are witnessing strong tendencies towards isomorphic
compliance, there are still some elements of heterogeneity between the three devolved
bodies (Townley, 2002).
Further, there were quite apparent thematic emphases noted across the documents
of the three devolved bodies. Though the policy areas chosen for consideration
(education and health) were given wide coverage by all, in Wales they were
particularly held up as the beacons that would provide the guiding light for the
functioning and success of the Welsh Assembly. In Scotland, the achievement of social
justice was highlighted as the driving force in spurring on the endeavours of the
Executive. In Northern Ireland much was made of the exhaustive consultative and
inclusion processes that were worked through at each stage of the planning project,
possibly as a consequence of the overt conﬂict situation that preceded the introduction
of the devolved body there and which contributed to an environment that suffered from
what some (e.g. Carmichael and Knox, 2003) have referred to as the “democratic
deﬁcit”. Another striking element of the Northern Ireland documents is the focus on
completing the reporting loop, in achieving the objectives of the Executive. Its
departments have adopted not only Public Service Agreements (PSAs), but also
Service Delivery Agreements (SDAs), in line with current practice at Whitehall.
Finally, with regard to the overall style of the documents, they all share an
aspirational and invocatory style, with their eager and earnest urgings to improve the
lot of the populace of their respective citizens; indeed, some (Wilson and Wilford, 2001)
have had a less benign view of what some might see as utopian intentions- when
speaking of Northern Ireland’s ﬁrst programme for government, they state that it was
the “political equivalent of Motherhood and Apple Pie”.
It is evident from this discussion that there are elements of convergence, or
isomorphism, most likely of the normative type (Meyer and Rowan, 1977; DiMaggio
and Powell, 1991; Scott, 1995). There is also evidence of heterogeneity and diversity
(Townley, 2002) possibly because of the differences in the contexts of the three
devolved bodies. The extent to which greater isomorphism may occur in the future is
likely to depend on the extent to which elements of mimetic isomorphism begin to
creep in as those involved in the budgetary process across the three devolved bodies
begin to take more note of each other’s practices, or alleged best practices emerging
Number cognition and political deliberations
Cognition, how actors process and make sense of the information they receive, is a key
issue in explaining organizational action under neo-institutional theory. As symbols,
accounting and budgeting numbers shape the meanings actors attribute to activities
and objects, and hence cognition of numbers will inﬂuence the way actors make sense
of their working world (Berger and Luckmann, 1967; Berger and Kellner, 1981).
Numbers could result in developing a “way of doing things” that becomes
institutionalized within a particular organization as the rule-like means of addressing a
particular issue, say value for money accountability. A common theme shared across
the three devolved bodies is the limited degree of understanding of accounting and
budget numbers by most politicians. Within each party, only a few could digest the
numbers and had conﬁdence in interpreting and using them. The myriad of numbers in
budgets overwhelmed all but a few members in each party, even in Northern Ireland
and Scotland where narrative was conjoined with numbers. From a neo-institutional
theory perspective, this observation gives rise to a number of implications.
New budgets in
First, those key individuals with ﬁnancial expertise became the gatekeepers to
accounting and budgeting knowledge (Ezzamel and Bourn, 1990), as other members of
their parties had to draw on these experts to understand the numbers. These numerate
members became, intentionally or unintentionally, obligatory passage points (Latour,
1987) who had to be consulted by other members in the quest of attempting to
comprehend accounting and budgetary numbers. This is likely to have created a new
dynamic of power relations within each political party; one that favoured those with
Secondly, within each devolved institution the few politicians with ﬁnancial
expertise are likely to have had a large impact on political deliberations. These experts
are expected to lead any ﬁnancially inspired debate in plenary and committee
discussions, and they also had a major impact on shaping the debate conducted by the
less ﬁnancially knowledgeable, since the latter’s cognitive understanding of numbers
has been substantially informed by such knowledgeable members. To the extent that
ﬁnancial numbers might elicit different interpretations from those reading them, it is
those interpretations of the within-party experts that are likely to dominate the political
Third, the majority of politicians, who had modest ﬁnancial expertise, tended to
justify their difﬁculty in understanding numbers by claiming other cognitive
advantages, such as better ability to understand diagrams and charts, and/or by
simply submitting to the myth that being numerate means being a mathematical
genius. In this way, their inability to understand numbers was conveyed as something
that they do not need to feel ashamed of, since only super-humans are capable of
comprehending numbers; as one politician said “It is not to say we’re all stupid”. Such
justiﬁcation of lack of ability to comprehend ﬁnancial details stands in some contrast
to the position of members of the Assembly who were recognized as centres of ﬁnancial
expertise, those who could not only interpret, but also question, and argue with,
numbers by challenging the basis of their construction. The interaction of
power/knowledge could be seen most clearly in this contrast; power and knowledge
feeding off each other as knowledgeable agents can manipulate power relations better
to their advantage which then helps to render their claims to knowledge more credible.
Fourth, and this is a qualiﬁcation on the above points, the availability of ﬁnancial
knowledge centres (experts) within each political party did not always lead to
widespread ﬁnancially-inspired debate. Even those who called upon the experts within
their parties to help them comprehend budget numbers did not always deploy this
knowledge in debate. As some more experienced members noted, the extent and level
of debate was frequently disappointing. Perhaps those members who were less adept
at understanding numbers were inhibited to use the understanding they gained from
their more experienced colleagues explicitly in the debate, preferring to “wait and see”
how the debate developed, making use of their limited ﬁnancial understanding only if
they had to. This ﬁnding has parallels both in the UK and in other contexts. Likierman
and Vass (1984) reported that few Members of Parliament at Westminster could
comprehend accounting information. Olson and Sahlin-Andersson (1998) noted how,
despite attempts to embrace business-like accounting processes, Swedish politicians
rarely used accounting information in their deliberations. Even though the political
debate may seem wanting, judging by how the individual representatives act, the
overall political system may be relatively well informed when the division of labour
between experts and non-experts, between parliamentary committees, between parties,
and between lobbyists and media is taken into account (Downs, 1957).
Our study is of devolved bodies in transition and of accounting and budgeting
practices in the process of being institutionalized. This is a particularly crucial stage
within the neo-institutional theory framework; it is during such episodes that
organizations, such as the devolved bodies, seek to pursue whatever institutionalizing
processes that subsequently deﬁne what forms they can follow and how they can
secure legitimacy (Scott, 1995). With their rule-like characteristics, accounting and
budgeting can be highly ritualized and institutionalized practices; hence, the
importance accorded them by all three devolved bodies (Meyer and Rowan, 1977).
However, our ﬁndings may be limited by the transitional nature of our period of
investigation. For example, politicians’ cognition of accounting calculations and other
numbers may signiﬁcantly improve over time, and so may the quality and frequency of
provision of information. Our ﬁndings are therefore necessarily preliminary, and more
research is required to both reﬁne our ﬁndings and extend enquiry to cover issues
other than those examined here. However, we believe that this paper has shed further
light on some of the tensions in a number of key themes in neo-institutional theory: the
extent to which organizational efforts to demonstrate rationality in its programmes of
management is constrained by the ability to produce a translation that maps onto these
programmes; the dynamics of possibilities of heterogeneities in organizational
responses to similar institutional pressures; and the impact knowledgeable experts in
mediating the cognitions, and hence the actions, of the less expert.
1. We are unable to comment upon any attempts to categorize performance measures or
explore their character because of the absence of public documentation on debate prior to the
construction of budgets.
2. The time lag between the opening of the parliament in 1999 and the publication date of this
document in 2001 may suggest programs for government are less essential for the
functioning of such political bodies than assumed as more informal means of governance
may have been pursued. Another possible explanation is the presence of a coalition
government in which negotiations and co-ordination may have required time. This, however,
has to remain as a speculation as we do not have the material that would allow a careful
examination of this possibility.
3. However, somewhat perversely, what would be regarded as “objectives” within the rational
planning model were actually referred to as “aims” in the Scottish document.
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