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

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Individual accountability: Each for himself During the judgement phase, which can involve the imposition of sanctions, hierarchical and collective accountability strategies often run up against moral objections, as a proportional relation between crime and punishment is by no means always evident. An individual accountability in which each individual official is held proportionately liable for his personal contribution to the infamous conduct of the organisation, is from a moral standpoint a far more adequate strategy. Under this approach, each individual is judged on the basis of his actual contribution instead of on the basis of his formal position. Individual officials will thus find it impossible to hide behind their organisation or minister, while those in charge are not required to shoulder all the blame. This approach is characteristic for professional accountability. In the case of medical errors, individual physicians are called to account by the disciplinary tribunal, which attempts to establish precisely the extent to which the physician’s individual performance satisfied professional standards.

2.3 Which aspect of the conduct: financial, procedural, product, and so forth

A condition for accountability was said to be that an actor must have an obligation to explain and provide justification for his conduct to a forum. There are many aspects to this conduct, making it possible to distinguish a number of accountability relationships on the basis of the aspect that is most dominant (Day & Klein 1987:26; Sinclair 1996; Behn 2001: 6-10). This will often concur with the classification made according to type of forum. In the case of legal accountability, the legality of the actor’s conduct will obviously be the dominant aspect while professional accountability will be centred on the professionalism of the conduct. Political and administrative accountability frequently involve several aspects. An audit by the Chamber of Audit, for example, may be classified as financial accountability if the focus is on the financial propriety of the audit, as legal accountability if the legality of the conduct is at issue, or as administrative if the central concern is the efficiency of the policy of the organisation. Another distinction found in the literature is that between accountability for the procedure or process and accountability for the product or content (Day & Klein 1987: 27).

2.4 The nature of the obligation: vertical, diagonal and horizontal accountability

Why would an actor render account to a forum? Very generally speaking, there are two possibilities: in the first place, because he is being forced to, or could be forced to and second, because he voluntarily does so. Vertical accountability refers to the situation where the forum formally wields power over the actor, perhaps due to the hierarchical relationship between actor and forum, as is the case of the executive organisation that is accountable to the minister or (over the head of the minister) to Parliament. The majority of political accountability arrangements, that are based on the delegation from principles to agents (Lupia 2003: 34-35), are forms of vertical accountability. In most cases of legal accountability too, the forum has the formal authority to compel the actor to give account, although this is not based on a principal-agent relationship, but on laws and regulations.

At the complete other end of the spectrum is social accountability. Here, a hierarchical relationship is generally lacking between actor and forum, as are any formal obligations to render account. Giving account to various stakeholders occurs basically on a voluntary basis with no intervention on the part of a principal. So far, the obligation felt by agencies to publicly account for themselves is moral in nature, and not based on legal requirements. Such accountability could be termed horizontal accountability.

Administrative accountability relations are usually an intermediary form, with account being rendered to another public organisation that has been charged by a principal – parliament or minister – to supervise or monitor the agent’s conduct. The National Ombudsman and the Chamber of Audit, inspectorates, supervisory authorities, and accountants stand in no direct hierarchical relationship to public organisations and have few powers to enforce their compliance. This could be described as a diagonal accountability system (Schillemans & Bovens 2004) because of the fact that it constitutes an intermediate form, namely that of accountability in the shadow of the hierarchy. The majority of supervisory authorities ultimately report to the minister or to parliament and thus derive the requisite informal power from this. These controlling agencies are auxiliary forums of accountability that were instituted to help the political principals control the great variety of administrative agents, but gradually they have acquired a legitimacy of their own and they can act as independent accountability forums.

Most forms of professional accountability also are more or less diagonal accountability systems of some kind. A strict hierarchy and a principle-agent relationship are absent, yet the external obligation to account is there.

Figure 2 here (vertical, diagonal and horizontal accountability)

2.5 Mapping accountability

A number of questions can serve as a guide in the empirical analysis of accountability relationships and arrangements. Obviously, the first question is whether a social relation or practice is an accountability relationship at all. This is a dichotomous exercise that follows the logic of either-or (Sartori 1970:1039). The main question is: do the phenomena in my sample qualify as full accountability or are they something else, such as participation, responsiveness or transparency?

Next comes the question of the kinds of accountability concerned, and the way in which these can be classified: what types of accountabilities are present? Various classification options were suggested in the previous section. Box 2 gives an overview of the various dimensions of accountability that can be distinguished on the basis of the narrow definition of accountability that has been used in this paper. These are distinctive, unrelated classification dimensions. Each accountability relation can be classified on each of the four dimensions separately.

Box 2: Types of accountability

Based on the nature of the forum

  • Political accountability

  • Legal accountability

  • Administrative accountability

  • Professional accountability

  • Social accountability

Based on the nature of the actor

  • Corporate accountability

  • Hierarchical accountability

  • Collective accountability

  • Individual accountability

Based on the nature of the conduct

  • Financial accountability

  • Procedural accountability

  • Product accountability

Based on the nature of the obligation

  • Vertical accountability

  • Diagonal accountability

  • Horizontal accountability

For example, one could classify the accountability of the president of the EU Commission to the European Parliament, based on article 197 of the EC Treaty, as political accountability because the European Parliament is a political forum; as hierarchical accountability because the actor, the president, acts on behalf of the Commission as a whole and has been given more extensive powers in the Nice Treaty to guide and control the other commissioners (Van Gerven 2005: 84); as financial or procedural accountability when the propriety of financial management by the Commission is at stake; and as vertical accountability because the European Parliament acts as a political principal and has the power to make its agent, the Commission, resign if the motion is carried by two-thirds of the votes cast, representing the majority of the members of the EP.12

Together, box 1 and 2 provide the tools for a mapping exercise. They can be used to take stock of the various formal and informal accountability mechanisms that a specific public organisation or sector is subject to.

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