The Performative Effect of the Economic Theory of Productivity in the Public Sector: The Introduction of a New Common Charts of Accounts for the Danish Universities

Thomas Skinnerup Philipsen

Student thesis: Master thesis


The last 40 years productivity has been a central part of reforming the Danish public sector, despite knowledge gaps about what public sector productivity is and how to measure it. In 2018 a new common charts of accounts (CCA) for the university was introduced with the aim of producing unit costs and benchmarking universities to increase productivity. This thesis investigates the effect of productivity theory on the design and implementation of the CCA.
Using Actor-Network Theory and Callon’s concepts of performativity and translation, this the-sis analyzes how productivity is constructed and translated into the Danish public sector and the effect it has on accounting systems and practices. Using public documents and reports a network analysis is made of the Ministry of Finance (MoF) to understand how the public sector productivity is constructed and how this concept has been translated into the public sector. The second part analyzes the performative effect of productivity in the design and implementation of a new CCA for the university sector. The analysis is based on a case study where data was collected through semi-structured interviews and documents. Interviews were made with representatives from several universities, the Ministry of Education and Research and the MoF. Relevant documents encompass consultant reports, ministerial reports and meeting documents from the committee work on the CCA.
The results point towards the central role that productivity has in shaping the public sector and how the MoF is part of a network with national and international actors that problematizes the lack of productivity in the public sector and proposes economic theory as the solutions to this. The MoF drives the translation of the concept of productivity into the Danish public sector. Due to the inability to measure the overall productivity of the sector, organizational level productivity is pursued via accounting reforms that are greatly inspired by productivity theory.
The CCA is an example of this and the analysis shows the long-lasting problematizing of the universities’ accounting practices that led to the final version of the CCA. For the CCA to be accepted by the universities the final version became diluted from what productivity theory proposes but this still creates overflows, such as increase administrative costs and lower educational quality. The CCA does little to improve the internal management of the universities and mainly reflects a need to include the universities in the MoF’s frame of public sector productivity.
The results can help start a debate on the normative nature of economic theory and the consequences of blindly pursuing productivity on the cost of other aspects of the public sector. For research within accounting the results reveal that more research should be conducted into the dual role accounting systems have in performing economic theory, as they can support it but also be used to hinder it. This points to a further need to understand the complex relationship between economics, accounting and practices of accounting.

EducationsMSc in Strategy, Organization and Leadership, (Graduate Programme) Final Thesis
Publication date2020
Number of pages88
SupervisorsPeter Skærbæk