Accounting and the state: transparency as the art of government

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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In this thesis, I explore how accounting is used by the British state in order to govern its citizens. Specifically, I investigate the emergence of ‘the transparent state’, the state that claims to make its inner workings visible to its citizens through the publication of vast arrays of online, financial and non-financial information, audit and performance measures, ranking, ratings and statistics. The state claims that the visibility produced by ‘transparency’ is democratising and empowering for its citizens. I consider how this form of visibility compares to the ways in which the state has appeared to and/or concealed itself from its citizens throughout history. Focusing on suicides in prisons in England and Wales as the empirical context for this study, I theorise the relations that are established between the state and the citizen through transparency by drawing on the interrelated notions of ideology and spectacle. In doing so, I make three key contributions. First, I contribute to the literature on transparency in accounting by demonstrating that part of the power and allure of transparency does not derive from its numerical content, but its particular aesthetic form as a pristine and glossy digital representation of complex and messy realities. Second, I develop the literature on transparency by focusing not on the internal organisational effects of demands to be transparent to external others, but on the external users of transparency, proposing that transparency addresses these users as individualised, isolated and passive spectators. Third, I contribute to the literature on accounting and governing in democracy, proposing that in transparency we find not an empowering and democratising practice, but a ‘spectacle’ in which the state produces a democratic appearance, an idealised ‘self-portrait’ of a social order that cannot be touched, changed or argued with. Thought of as such, transparency is an object of ideology par excellence as it deepens the subservience of citizens to the state whilst promising to do precisely the opposite.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2020


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