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Accounting and accountability practices in times of crisis: A Foucauldian perspective on the UK government’s response to COVID-19 for England.

Ahrens, T. and Ferry, L. (2021) 'Accounting and accountability practices in times of crisis: A Foucauldian perspective on the UK government’s response to COVID-19 for England.', Accounting, auditing and accountability journal., 34 (6). pp. 1332-1344.


Purpose: This paper considers the accounting and accountability practices of the UK government response to COVID-19 for England, focussing on the first wave of the pandemic in 2020. Design/methodology/approach: Based on a close reading of the news media and official reports from government departments, Parliament select committees, and the National Audit Office, among others, this paper frames the UK government’s uses of accounting and accountability in its response to COVID-19. This is by using the categories of ‘apparatuses of security,’ Foucault’s schematic of government for economising on the uses of state power. Findings: The paper shows an important role for accounting is in the process of enabling the government to gauge the extent of the crisis and produce calculations to underpin its response, what Foucault called ‘normalisation.’ This role was unlike statistics and economics. The government relied most on monthly statistical reporting and budgeting flexibilities. By contrast, the multi-year Spending Review and financial reporting were not timely enough. That said, financial reporting fed into financial sustainability projections and enabled audit that could provide potential accountability regarding regularity, probity, value for money, and fairness. Our findings suggest that, conceptually, accountability should be added to the object-subject element of Foucault’s apparatuses of security because of its significance for governments’ ability to pursue crisis objectives that require popular assent. Practical implications: In view of the ongoing uncertainty, with the crisis extending over longer budget and financial reporting periods, a Spending Review is becoming ever more necessary for better planning, without limiting, however, the budget flexibilities that have proven so useful for rapid government responses. Moreover, the government should continue its accounting reforms post COVID-19 so that improved accountability and audit can contribute to enhanced future financial resilience. Originality/value: This is the first paper to apply Foucault’s notion of apparatuses of security to an analysis of government accounting and accountability practices.

Item Type:Article
Full text:(AM) Accepted Manuscript
Available under License - Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial 4.0.
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Publisher statement:This author accepted manuscript is deposited under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC) licence. This means that anyone may distribute, adapt, and build upon the work for non-commercial purposes, subject to full attribution. If you wish to use this manuscript for commercial purposes, please contact
Date accepted:14 April 2021
Date deposited:19 April 2021
Date of first online publication:18 May 2021
Date first made open access:16 June 2021

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