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

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Legal accountability: courts In most western countries, legal accountability is of increasing importance to public institutions as a result of the growing formalisation of social relations (Friedman 1985; Behn 2001: 56-58), or because of the greater trust which is placed in courts than in parliaments (Harlow 2002:18). These can be the ‘ordinary’ civil courts, as in Britain, or also specialised administrative courts, as in France, Belgium, and The Netherlands (Harlow 2002:16-18). In some spectacular cases of administrative deviance, such as the affaire du sang (the HIV contaminated blood products) in France or the Tangentopoli prosecutions in Italy, public officials have even been summoned before penal courts. For European public institutions and EU member states, the Court of First Instance and the European Court of Justice are additional and increasingly important legal forums (Harlow 2002:147-159). Legal accountability will usually be based on specific responsibilities, formally or legally conferred upon authorities. Therefore, legal accountability is the most unambiguous type of accountability, as the legal scrutiny will be based on detailed legal standards, prescribed by civil, penal, or administrative statutes, or precedent.

Administrative: auditors, inspectors, and controllers Next to the courts, a wide range of quasi-legal forums exercising independent and external administrative and financial supervision and control, has been established in the past decades - some even speak of an ‘audit explosion’ (Power 1994). These new administrative forums vary from European, national, or local ombudsmen and audit offices, to independent supervisory authorities, inspector generals, anti-fraud offices, and chartered accountants.9 Also, the mandates of several national auditing offices have been broadened to secure not only the probity and legality of public spending, but also its efficiency and effectiveness (Pollitt and Summa 1997). These administrative forums exercise regular financial and administrative scrutiny, often on the basis of specific statutes and prescribed norms.10 This type of accountability arrangement can be very important for quangos and other executive public agencies.

Professional accountability: professional peers Many public managers are, apart from being general managers, professionals in a more technical sense. They have been trained as engineers, doctors, veterinarians, teachers, or police officers (Abbot 1988; Freidson 2001). This may imply accountability relationships with professional associations and disciplinary tribunals. Professional bodies lay down codes with standards for acceptable practice that are binding for all members. These standards are monitored and enforced by professional supervisory bodies on the basis of peer review. This type of accountability relation will be particularly relevant for public managers who work in professional public organizations, such as hospitals, schools, psychiatric clinics, research institutes, police departments, or fire brigades.

Social accountability: interest groups, charities and other stakeholders In reaction to a perceived lack of trust in government, there is an urge in many western democracies for more direct and explicit accountability relations between public agencies on the one hand and clients, citizens and civil society on the other hand (McCandless 2001). Influenced by the debate on corporate social responsibility and corporate governance in business, more attention has been being paid to the role of NGOs, interest groups and customers or clients as relevant ‘stakeholders’ not only in determining policy, but also in rendering account (European Commission 2001; Algemene Rekenkamer 2004). Agencies or individual public managers should feel obliged to account for their performance to the public at large or, at least, to civil interest groups, charities, and associations of clients. A first step in this direction has been the institution of public reporting and the establishment of public panels. The rise of the internet has given a new dimension to this form of public accountability. Increasingly, the results of inspections, assessments and benchmarks are put on the internet. For example, in The Netherlands, as in the UK (Pollitt 2003: 41-45), the National Board of School Inspectors, makes its inspection reports on individual schools widely available on the internet. Parents, journalists, and local councils easily can compare the results of a particular school with similar schools in the region, because quantitative and comparative benchmarks are provided for, but they also have access to the quite extensive qualitative reports. Even though there is little evidence, so far, that many parents exercise exit or voice on the basis of these qualitative reports, local principals increasingly do feel obliged to publicly account for themselves (Meijer 2004).

It remains an empirical question to what extent these groups and panels already are full accountability mechanisms, because, as we saw, the possibility of judgment and sanctioning often are lacking. Also, not all of these accountability relations involve clearly demarcated, coherent and authoritative forums that the actor reports to and could debate with.

2.2 Who is the actor: The problem of many hands11

Accountability forums often face similar problems as public institutions, but then in reverse. They can be confronted with multiple potential actors. For outsiders, it is often particularly difficult to unravel who has contributed in what way to the con­duct of an agency and who, and to what degree, can be brought to account for its actions. This is the problem of many hands (Thompson 1980: 905). Policies pass through many hands before they are actually put into effect. Decrees and decisions are often made in com­mit­tees and cross a number of desks before they (often at dif­fe­rent stages and at different levels) are implemen­ted. New members of commit­tees, of administrative bodies, and of departments conform to the traditions, rules, and existing practices (or what they think are the traditions, rules, and existing prac­tices) and sometimes contribute ideas and rules of their own. However, they often leave before those ideas and rules can be put into practice, or before it becomes obvious that they did not work very well. Thus, the conduct of an organisation often is the result of the interplay between fatherless traditions and orphaned decisions.

Who then, should be singled out for accountability, blame and punishment? With large public organisations, there are four accountability strategies for forums to overcome the problem of many hands.

Corporate accountability: the organisation as actor Many public organisations are corporate bodies with an independent legal status. They can operate as unitary actors and can be held accountable accordingly. Most western countries accept corporate liabilities in civil, administrative, and even criminal law. Public organisations are usually included in these corporate liabilities, with the exception of criminal liability. Most European countries acknowledge penal immunities for all public bodies. Some, such as the UK, France, and The Netherlands, accept criminal liabilities for local public bodies, but not for the organs of the state. Only Norway, Denmark, and Ireland accept criminal liability of both central and local government (Roef 2001). Legal and administrative forums often follow this corporate accountability strategy. They can in this way circumnavigate the troublesome issues of identification and verification of individual actors. In the event of organisational deviance, they can turn directly to the organisation and hold it to account for the collective outcome, without having to worry too much about which official has met what criteria for responsibility.
Hierarchical accountability: One for all This is the official venue for public accountability in most public organisations, and with regard to most types of accountability relationships, with the exception of professional accountability. It is particularly dominant in political accountability relations, for example in the Westminster system of ministerial responsibility. Underlying hierarchical strategies of accountability is a pyramidal image of complex organisations. Processes of calling to account start at the top. The rank and file do not appear before external forums but hide behind the broad shoulders of the minister, the CEO or the commander in chief, who, at least in dealings with the outside world, assumes complete responsi­bility and takes all the blame. However, the lower echelons can, in turn, be addressed by their superiors regarding questions of internal, organisational accountability. In the case of hierarchical schemes, processes of calling to account thus take place along the strict lines of the `chain of command' and the middle managers are, in turn, both actor and forum.
Collective accountability: All for one Public organisations are collectives of individual officials. Theoretically, a forum could therefore also apply a collective strategy of accountability and pick any member of the organisation and hold it personally accountable for the conduct of the organisation as a whole, by virtue of the fact that it is a member of the organisation. This makes quick work of the practical sides of the problem of many hands. In the case of organisational misconduct, every member of the organisation can be held accountable. The major difficulty with collective accountability lies with its moral appropriateness. Collective arrangements of personal accountability are barely reconcilable with legal and moral practices and intuitions current in modern western democracies. They are not sophisticated enough to do justice to the many differences that are important in the imputation of guilt, shame, and blame. It makes a substantial difference whether someone, for example in the case of the Eurostat frauds, is the director of Eurostat who ordered secret accounts to be opened, the head of the financial department who condoned the unofficial deposits, or a simple statistician who was just collecting and processing data. A collective accountability strategy will only be appropriate and effective in specific circumstances, for example with small, collegiate public bodies.

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