Purpose – We aim to contribute to conceptual and empirical understanding of publicness in public sector accounting research by analysing how accounting technologies facilitated the transformation of public values of the UK tax authority.
Design/methodology/approach – We develop a conceptual framework for analysing public values in terms of relational power. Combining governmentality and Actor-Network Theory, we focus on the complex relationships through which human and non-human actors interact and the public values that emerge from these evolving socio-material networks. Based on a critical-interpretivist ethnographic study of interviews, documents and secondary survey data, we identify the emergent properties of accounting technologies in our case study.
Findings – We explain how accounting technologies facilitated the transformation of public values in the tax authority by reshaping relational power. Traditional public values were eroded and replaced by neoliberal values through a gradual change process (‘frog in the pan’) of (1) disconnecting workers and citizens both spatially and socially; (2) losing touch with the embodied nature of tax administration; and (3) yielding to a dehumanising performance management system. Neoliberal accounting technologies transformed the texture of relationships in such a way that workers and citizens became disempowered from effective, accountable and humane tax administration.
Research limitations/implications – Further research is needed that gains wider access to tax authority workers, extends the scope of the empirical data, and provides comparisons with other tax authorities and public sector organisations.
Practical and social implications – We show that a relational approach to public values enables identification of what is ‘valuable’ and how public sector organisations can become ‘value-able’.
Originality/value – We offer an interdisciplinary conceptualisation of publicness based on public administration literature, develop a relational conceptualisation of public values, and provide original empirical evidence about the changing publicness of the UK tax authority.