Accountability and Affective Styles in Administrative Reporting: The Case of UNRWA, 1951-2020
This contribution theorizes on the emergence of affective styles in the accountability reporting of public agencies. Under conditions of multiple accountability towards heterogeneous stakeholders, public agencies are expected to make increased use of sentiment in their reporting. Agencies’ differentiated modulation of positive and negative sentiment results in four ideal-typical affective styles: technocratic; political; alarming; and self-praising. The plausibility of this framework is demonstrated for the case of a major international public agency, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which serves several million Palestine refugees. We conduct a dictionary-based sentiment analysis of UNRWA annual reports published between 1951 and 2020, a corpus of 1.47 million words. Additional evidence from interviews with UNRWA officials and diplomats is also considered. Over time, the agency’s use of sentiment has increased in response to diversifying stakeholders and its affective style of reporting has changed repeatedly. Contrary to established theoretical expectations, multiple accountability not only increases positive reporting and self-praise. Rather, with increasing levels of negativity, the alarming and political styles of communication have played a much stronger role. These findings demonstrate that agencies’ chief goal in accountability reporting is not simply to elicit positive assessments from their respective accountability forums through self-praising language. Agencies may also aim to achieve ‘negativity congruence’ with accountability forums by increasing negative sentiment, thus compelling stakeholders to acknowledge the operational challenges agencies face.
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