Sjors Overman receives VENI for research into emotional effects of public accountability 

Sjors Overman (USG) received a VENI grant of 250,000 euros from NWO for research into the emotional effects of accountability. Within the project Better Public Accountability thanks to an individual approach, he will in the next three years investigate the emotions that accountability triggers in individual employees.

Overman will combine insights from psychology and public administration. In addition to interviews and surveys among all layers of government organisations such as ministries, inspectorates, and the police, he will also study facial expressions in a laboratory situation. These often provide a clearer picture of the emotional experience than what people say about it. The ultimate goal is to improve accountability wherever possible. 

'Accountability improves decisions and behaviour, but it has its limitations. We may not know all of the possibilities, but we certainly don't know the emotional consequences,' says Sjors Overman. ‘On the system-level we have some idea, but not on the individual level individual. So we are going to investigate that. 

What kind of emotions do you provoke when you ask for accountability? We know that everyone perceives their accountability demands in a distinct way. We investigate when accountability works and when it doesn't work anymore but, instead, leads to work pressure, frustration, or fear. Anxiety can lead to bad decisions and burn-out. Police officers, for example, sometimes have to make decisions with a major impact on people's lives in a split second; in such an instance, they shouldn't be anxious as a result of accountability demands'. 

Emotions, hierarchy and socialization 

'We will conduct research at the individual level at various hierarchical levels of the Dutch government to improve public accountability. We focus on senior civil servants, police officers, supervisors and independent experts, such as a director of the National Institute for Public Health, who may feel more accountable to their scientific peers than to a hierarchical manager. Or the inspector general of education, who is (or has been) a teacher herself and who probably also feels a connection with the profession, and not only with the hierarchical line from the ministry. This also has to do with socialization. 

What is particularly interesting is that we are also going to bring people into a laboratory situation,' Overman emphatically states, 'because we want to look at facial expressions in certain situations. Does someone look angry or sad? That often provides a clearer picture of their emotions than what people say about them'. 

Sjors Overman is assistant professor at the Utrecht University School of Governance (USG) of the faculty of Law, Economics and Governance. 

Read more in Dutch.