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


Analysing and assessing accountability



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4 Analysing and assessing accountability

In Europe, there has long been a concern that the trend toward European policymaking is not being matched by an equally forceful creation of appropriate accountability regimes (Schmitter, 2000). Accountability deficits are said to exist and even grow, compromising the legitimacy of the European polity (Curtin, 2004; Bergman and Damgaard, 2000). But how can we make a more systematic assessment of the various public accountabilities regarding, in this case, the exercise of European governance, and establish whether and where accountability deficits do exist?

This paper has tried to get to grips with the appealing but elusive concept of accountability by asking three types of questions, thus providing three types of building blocks for such an evaluation. First a conceptual one: what exactly is meant by accountability? Accountability is often used in a very broad sense, as a synonym for a variety of evaluative, but essentially contested concepts, such as responsiveness, responsibility and effectiveness. In this paper the concept of accountability is taken in a much more narrow sense: a relationship between an actor and a forum, in which the actor has an obligation to explain and to justify his or her conduct, the forum can pose questions and pass judgment, and the actor can be sanctioned. This implies that the focus of accountability research should be on ex post facto processes in governance and not on ex ante inputs. The ex ante inputs in governance are very important for the legitimacy of the European Union, but they should be studied separately for what they are: forms of deliberation, participation, and control. Box 1 has identified seven elements that should be present to qualify a social relation or an institutional arrangement as a form of accountability.

The second question is an analytical one: what types of accountability are involved? On the basis of the narrow definition of accountability, a series of dimensions of accountability have been discerned, that can be used in the description of the various accountability relations and arrangements that can be found in the different domains of European governance. Taken together, these two building blocks provide a descriptive framework for more systematic mapping exercises: are the various institutions of the European Union subjected to accountability relations at all, and, if so, how can we classify these accountability relations?

The third question is an altogether different, evaluative question: how should we assess these accountability relations, arrangements and regimes? Three perspectives have been provided for the assessment of accountability relations: a democratic, a constitutional, and a cybernetic perspective. Each of these three perspectives may render different types of accountability deficits.

These building blocks cannot in themselves provide us with definite answers to the question whether there exist accountability deficits in European governance, because, ultimately, the evaluation of accountability arrangements in the European Union, to cite Elisabeth Fisher (2004: 511), ‘cannot be disentangled from discussion about what is and should be the role and nature of European institutions’. In the end, the assessment of accountability cannot be separated from the vision one has about what constitutes adequate democratic control, sufficient checks and balances, or good enough governance. These, often implicit, standards ultimately determine whether one judges the glass of European accountability to be half full or half empty. However, these building blocks can structure the debates about accountability and ground them in empirical research – at the very least they can help to determine whether there is anything in the glass at all.



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1 This paper is an adapted and extended version of a chapter on public accountability which will be published in E. Ferlie, L. Lynne & C. Pollitt (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Public Management, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2005 and a Dutch paper which was published in: W. Bakker & K. Yesilkagit (red.), Publieke verantwoording, Amsterdam: Boom 2005. I thank Paul ‘t Hart, Peter Mair, Thomas Schillemans, and Marianne van de Steeg for their valuable comments on previous versions of this paper.



2 In Germanic languages, such as Dutch, there is a distinction between verantwoordelijkheid and verantwoording, which to some extent resembles the contemporary distinction between ‘responsibility’ and ‘accountability’. But even here, both obviously are semantically closely related, they are derived from antwoorden, and therefore closely connected to ‘responsibility’. In Dutch policy discourse, ‘accountability’ is, therefore, often left untranslated, because it is taken to stand for a broad, loosely defined trend towards a more managerial approach in the public sector. In Dutch the word rekenschap (Rechenschaft in German) comes closest to the original, auditory meaning of accountability.


3 See Fisher (2004:510) for similar observations about the use of ‘accountability’ in the European context.

4 In German or Dutch this comes close to Verantwortung.

5 In French ‘contrôle’ has a much more restricted, reactive meaning. See Meijer (2002:3).

6 Stone (2000: 42) uses a somewhat similar spatial metaphor, and distinguishes upwards (to higher authorities), horizontal (to parallel institutions) and downwards accountability (to lower level institutions or groups), without, however, defining what constitutes ‘higher’, ‘parallel’ or ‘lower’. Moreover, he applies it to the ‘to whom’ question, thereby somewhat confusing the nature of the forum and the nature of the obligation.

7 See Day & Klein (1987); Romzek & Dubnick (1987), Romzek (1996), Sinclair (1996), Behn (2001: 59), Pollitt (2003: 93), and Mulgan (2003) for similar taxonomies.

8 Sinclair (1996:230), for example, also mentions personal accountability, in which the public manager is accountable to his or her personal conscience. However, I do not consider this as a form of public accountability.


9 See for the rise of administrative accountability in the EU: Harlow (2002:108-143), Magnette (2003), Lafan (2003), and Pujas (2003).

10 The rise of these administrative watchdogs raises interesting reflexive issues: how do these accountability forums account for themselves? See Pollitt & Summa (1997) and Day & Klein (2001).

11 This paragraph is adapted from Bovens (1998).

12 EC Treaty article 201, second paragraph.



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