PhD Defence: Navigating between the state and the streets


On Tuesday 30 May 2023 at 14.15 hrs. Lars Brummel will defend his PhD thesis Navigating between the state and the streets: when and why social accountability matters for public sector organisations.

In recent years, there has been a lot of media attention for organisations implementing public tasks. This often revolves around the question of how these organisations deal with citizens and to what extent they are still sufficiently attentive to their clients and other social stakeholders. In discussions about the Childcare benefits scandal, gas extraction in Groningen or the nitrogen crisis, for example, social accountability is often seen as a way to increase citizens' or clients' influence and control over implementation and to restore public trust in the government. 

The organisations implementing public tasks are organisations that are remote from politics, such as the UWV, the Social Insurance Bank, Staatsbosbeheer, and the CBR but can also be smaller, such as the Flower Bulb Inspection Service. They consist of independent administrative bodies (about 90) and executive agencies (about 30) such as, for example, DUO, RIVM and Rijkswaterstaat. There are also other forms such as planning agencies and safety regions. 

Social accountability

While 'accountability to the state' still remains important for democratic control of public organisations, 'accountability to the street' in particular can help improve policy implementation and enhance the reputation of and support for public organisations.

Public organisations are not only accountable to the government, they are also accountable to various societal stakeholders, such as citizens, clients and/or service users. There are usually high expectations about these forms of social accountability. But what is the actual level of importance of social accountability within policy implementation? 

In his doctoral research on these organisations, Lars Brummel offers a nuanced view on social accountability and how it is experienced by directors and executives of implementing organisations. 

He finds that social accountability is important, but not a solution to the possible failure of democratic control and oversight by ministries or parliament.

Especially important when there is greater (social) media pressure

Brummel's research shows that public organisations' priority is accountability to the government. Nevertheless, public organisations assign relatively high relevance to their accountability to social stakeholders, even if they are not always obliged to do so. The relevance of social accountability is especially bigger for public organisations that experience more media attention, and especially pressure from social media.

Limited degree of control, but strategic added value

Yet implementing organisations experience client and user councils as a form of control only to a limited extent. In particular, the councils offer advice, feedback on plans or insight into the citizen perspective. Directors and managers of public organisations may consider this important, but accountability is mainly of practical and strategic use to them in this case. They can learn from it, improve the implementation of plans and enhance their organisation's reputation by opening themselves up to accountability to clients and citizens.

Increasing support and trust

Finally, social accountability also matters for public support: citizens are more likely to accept adverse decisions by public organisations when organisations are accountable for them to a panel of citizens. Accountability to a group of citizens also gives them more trust in public administration, Lars Brummel's research shows.

Lars Brummel is post doc researcher at Leiden University and PhD student at the Utrecht University School of Governance (USG).

Start date and time
End date and time
Utrecht University Hall, Domplein 29 Utrecht (guests) or online
PhD candidate
L. Brummel
Navigating between the state and the streets: when and why social accountability matters for public sector organisations
PhD supervisor(s)
Prof. T. Schillemans
Dr. S.P. Overman MSc
More information
Full text via Utrecht University Repository