Value for money as institutional object—rethinking the materiality of accounting
Département Comptabilité-Contrôle de Gestion
Invité : Thomas Ahrens (Université UAE)
This paper traces the agency of accounting to the values that are pursued through its materiality. It uses recent advances in the theory of institutional logics to explore the ways in which accounting can become an institutional object whose materiality becomes intertwined with the values that structure institutions. It illustrates its point with a genealogy of value for money (VFM) in English local government. Here, the institution is the state, the institutional object is VFM, and the value that is pursued is a version of rational administration, namely, a combination of being economical, efficient, and, to an extent, effective (known as ‘the 3 E’). Key to tracing the evolving relations between institution, institutional object, and value are practices that use VFM as well as related practices of administration, government, politics, etc. This means we can think of VFM as a material object or technology, but also as a practice. The latter is instantiated by what VFM experts and others do for a living, write about as academics or consultants, or praise or criticise as politicians, regulators, ministry or local government officials. The sphere of practices—VFM practices and others—offers a lever for political interventions. Practices change as new priorities make themselves felt, increasing, for example, the number of targets for local government efficiency, or creating ranking tables for elements of newly defined local government performance, thereby changing the nature of local-central government relations and, more broadly, the nature and values of the state. Such change is heavily conditioned by the nature of VFM, however. As an institutional object it helps realise new visions and to an extent values for the state, but its materiality also thwarts political efforts that fail to appreciate the possibilities and limitations of VFM and accounting more generally. Effective political interventions anticipate the material limits of VFM. VFM as institutional object becomes essential to the values of the existing state and (sometimes new) values that political projects can pursue. Diverse practices are deployed in efforts to portray the pursuit of the institutional object as being synonymous with the pursuit of institutional value. Yet, opportunities for questioning the value efficacy of the institutional object continue to present themselves to critics who seek to reform institutions through different alignments of practices, institutional objects, and values. Against the views of some governmentality scholars who would relegate values to something that merely functions as part of practices of government, we illustrate how long-lasting institutional values can be generative, or at least suggestive, of governmental practices.