Accountability in the Public Sector: Lessons from the Challenger Tragedy



The Rogers Commission investigation of the space shuttle Challenger accident was too narrow in its focus; an institutional analysis is needed to supplement the concentration on technical and managerial causes of the tragedy. Using an institutional perspective, we contend that the accident was, in part, a manifestation of NASA's efforts to manage the diverse expectations it faces in the American political system. Four types of accountability (legal, political, bureaucratic, and professional) are commonly used by public agencies to manage expectations of them. Yet, the presence of multiple accountability systems is not without costs. This case study shows that many of NASA's technical and managerial problems resulted from efforts to respond to legitimate institutional demands. Specifically, we contend that the pursuit of political and bureaucratic accountability distracted NASA from its strength: professional standards and mechanisms of accountability. Furthermore, agency reforms now being implemented and considered compound trends away from the professional accountability approaches used by NASA during the 1960s. Such reforms are just as likely to exacerbate the dilemmas facing NASA as they are to improve the agency's performance.

Publication Date

Spring 1987

Journal Title

Public Administration Review


American Society for Public Administration

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)


Document Type