Public accountability a framework for the analysis and assessment of accountability arrangements in the public domain

Relationships, arrangements and regimes

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1.7 Relationships, arrangements and regimes

Accountability is a relationship between an actor and a forum. This can be an occasional, contingent and informal relationship, for example between a politician and an inquisitive host in a talk show on television. In the case of public accountability these relations often have been institutionalised. They have been laid down in rules; standing practices and fixed routines may be in place, or the accountability process may be laid down in fixed forms, values, and instruments. I call an accountability relationship that has taken on an institutional character an accountability arrangement. An occasional, self-instituted evaluation of an independent agency does not constitute an accountability arrangement; a recurring, protocolled national academic research exercise certainly does.

An accountability regime is a coherent complex of arrangements and relationships. An example of this is the political accountability of the members of Cabinet in a parliamentary democracy. This parliamentary accountability comprises a system of interconnected, standardized forms of accountability, including obligations to inform, interpellations, parliamentary debates and inquiries, that in the Netherlands have been laid down in the Constitution, the Parliamentary Inquiry Act, the rules of procedure for the Houses and in unwritten constitutional rules.

Accountability maps will often consist of various layers. Public institutions, such as the European Commission for example, may be subjected to various accountability regimes, such as a political regime to the European Parliament and the Council, a legal accountability regime to the European Court, and an administrative regime, comprising of accountabilities to OLAF, the European Ombudsman and the European Court of Auditors. Each of these regimes may, in turn, consist of various formal arrangements and informal practices and relations.

2 Types of accountability

Public accountability comes in many guises. Public institutions are frequently required to account for their conduct to various forums in a variety of ways. Figure 1 can help in making a further classification according to type of accountability

Figure 1 (accountability) about here

Figure 1 illustrates the various elements contained within the concept of accountability. There are four important questions to be asked in this connection.

The first question in relation to accountability is always: to whom is account to be rendered? This will yield a classification based on the type of forum to which the actor is required to render account.

A second, logical question is: who should render account? Who is the actor required to appear before the forum? In ordinary social relationships amongst citizens, it is usually clear who the actor is who will render account. This is a far more complicated question to answer when it comes to public organisations.

The third question is: about what is account to be rendered? This concerns the question of the aspect of the conduct about which information is to be provided. This can yield classifications on the basis of e.g. financial, procedural or programmatic accountability (Day & Klein 1987:26; Sinclair 1996; Behn 2001: 6-10).

The fourth question regards that of why the actor feels compelled to render account. This relates largely to the nature of the relationship between the actor and the forum, and in particular to the question of why the actor has an obligation to render account. This will subsequently lead to classifications based on the nature of the obligation, for example obligations arising from a hierarchical relationship, a contractual agreement or which have been voluntarily entered into. This yields a classification based on spatial metaphors: vertical, horizontal, or diagonal accountability.6

2.1 To whom is account to be rendered: the problem of many eyes

Central to my definition of accountability is the actor-forum relationship. I propose therefore to elaborate first on the classification of accountability according to the question of to whom the actor is accountable. Public organisations and public managers operating in a constitutional democracy find themselves confronting at least five different types of forums and hence at least five different kinds of public accountability.7 I have deliberately used the words ‘at least’, as this classification is not a limitative one.8 These forums generally demand different kinds of information and apply different criteria as to what constitutes responsible conduct. They are therefore likely to pass different judgments on the conduct of the public organisation or the public official. Hence public institutions are not infrequently faced with the problem of many eyes: they are accountable to a plethora of different forums, all of which apply a different set of criteria.

Political accountability: elected representatives, political parties, voters, media

Political accountability is an extremely important type of public accountability within democracies. Here, accountability is exercised along the chain of principal-agent relationships (Strom, 2000). Voters delegate their sovereignty to popular representatives, who in turn, at least in parliamentary democracies, delegate the majority of their authorities to a cabinet of ministers. The ministers subsequently delegate many of their authorities to their civil servants or to various, more or less independent, administrative bodies. The mechanism of political accountability operates precisely in the opposite direction to that of delegation. In parliamentary systems with ministerial accountability, such as the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Germany, public servants and their organisations are accountable to their minister, who must render political account to parliament (Flinders, 2001; Strom, Müller & Bergman 2003). In some sense, the people’s representatives render account to the voters at election time. Thus viewed, each of the links in the chain is, in turn, not only principal and agent, but also forum and actor. It is only the two ends of the chain – the voters and the executive public servants – who do not exchange roles. In nations characterised by political cabinets and political appointments, such as the United States, France and Belgium, political parties and party barons often also function as important, informal political forums. In many countries, the media are fast gaining power as informal forums for political accountability (Elchardus 2002; RMO 2003).

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