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

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3 Assessing accountability

An altogether different exercise is the assessment of the adequacy of a particular accountability arrangement or of a complete accountability regime to which a particular agency or sector is subject. Here we leave the realm of empirical description and enter the world of evaluation and, ultimately, prescription. This is much more a matter of degree and these assessments follow the logic of more-or-less (Sartori 1979: 1039).

This evaluation can proceed at at least two levels. First of all, one could undertake a more internal, procedural evaluation of the propriety of a particular accountability mechanism or of a specific, concrete accountability process. This could be called procedural or internal adequacy.

Secondly, one could evaluate accountability arrangement or regimes on a more systemic level and focus on the external effects of the accountability processes. This could be called systemic or external adequacy. In this case the evaluation is based on the functions that accountability arrangements fulfil in political and administrative systems. I will discuss both types of assessments.

3.1 The internal assessment of accountability: Principles of good accountability

The internal evaluative perspective sees at the quality of a particular accountability process itself: does the procedure comply with the minimum due requirements of an accountability procedure? In a procedure-oriented analysis of this kind, the following questions come to mind: Is there (any guarantee for) an adequate and proper provision of information by the actor? Does the forum receive timely and sufficient information from the actor in order to enable a well-founded judgement of his conduct to be made? Carefully managed embedded press conferences, such as those held by the American military during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 may, in the nominal sense, represent a form of public accountability. However, the information provided was often scanty in the extreme, or biased in favour of the authorities, and their was little room for inquisitive probing by journalists, thus disqualifying this as good accountability.

Next, there is the question of due process during the debate about the actor’s conduct. Is the forum prepared to allow the actor sufficient opportunity to explain and to justify his conduct, or does it immediately pass judgement? Has it been made clear to the actor what the standards are in relation to which his conduct will be judged? An example of public accountability arrangements where these requirements were violently trampled upon were the forced public accountability procedures in the former communist dictatorships, as described e.g. by Milan Kundera in his book The Joke, in which dissidents were publicly forced to present themselves as class enemies. Even in the democracies of the western world, instances of public accountability occur, such as political accountability to the media, in which the principle of hearing and being heard is wantonly disregarded.

The third question that arises is whether the forum is able to pass sound judgement. Is the forum sufficiently independent of the actor or is the actor in actual fact the judge in his own case? This can be an important factor in the case of self-appointed panels and visitation committees. Yet the opposite can also arise, as in the case of a biased forum. Is the forum sufficiently neutral or has it exhibited a strong bias toward the actor? Do the facts warrant the judgement? Is the sanction adequate in the light of the judgement?

This series of questions, respectively about the quality of the provision of information by the actor, the quality of the procedure, and the quality of the forum’s judgement, afford a framework for a normative analysis of accountability procedures. These might offer a basis for the development of a coherent system of requirements for appropriate and proper accountability, the principles of good accountability.

Box 3: Proper Accountability

Proper provision of information

  • Does the actor provide information about his conduct in a timely fashion?

  • Is the information reliable?

  • Is the information sufficient?

Proper debate

  • Is there sufficient opportunity to pose questions?

  • Are both sides heard?

  • Has the actor sufficient opportunity to explain his conduct?

Proper judgment procedure

  • Is the forum independent?

  • Is the forum unbiased?

  • Are the standards clear?

  • Do the facts warrant the judgment?

  • Are the sanctions proportionate?

3.2 Evaluating the external effects of accountability: Three perspectives

The key question is obviously what the actual effects are of the various types of accountability and how to judge these effects. At this level, inadequacies can either take the form of accountability deficits: a lack of sufficient accountability arrangements; or of accountability excesses: dysfunctional, negative effects of the accumulation of a range of accountability mechanisms. The former inadequacy can be hypothesized for various aspects of European governance (Arnull & Wincott 2002; Harlow 2002; Fisher 2004), the latter is increasingly reported by executive agencies and public managers (Anechiarico & Jacobs 1996; Power, 1997; Behn 2001: 30; Halachmi 2002a; Tonkens 2003). The questions remains however: how do we establish whether these different sorts of inadequacies do exist?

For an institutionalised ideal that is so broadly supported and applied, there are very few references to be found in the literature that could lead to such an evaluation being performed, let alone any reports on systematic comparative research conducted in this area. Authors such as Van Twist (1999), Behn (2001), Halachmi (2002b) and Mulgan (2003) offer discussions of the many dilemmas and design problems in the structure of accountability arrangements, but the underlying normative questions – what is the purpose of public accountability in a constitutional democratic state and what are the evaluation principles for accountability arrangements ensuing from this? – tend to be glossed over in these contributions.

So why is public accountability important? What is the purpose of the various different forms distinguished in this paper? In the academic literature and in policy publications about public accountability, three answers recur, albeit implicitly, time and again. Public accountability is important to provide a democratic means to monitor and control government conduct, for preventing the development of concentrations of power, and to enhance the learning capacity and effectiveness of public administration (Aucoin & Heintzman 2000). Each of these three answers yields a separate theoretical perspective on the rationale behind public accountability and a separate perspective for the assessment of accountability relations.

The democratic perspective: popular sovereignty Public accountability is extremely important from a democratic perspective, as it makes it possible to call to account in a democratic fashion those holding public office (March & Olsen 1995: 141-181; Mulgan 2003). This is an approach that reaches back to the tenets of Rousseau and Weber, and has been theoretically defined using the principal-agent model.

Previously, we saw that the modern representative democracy could be described as a concatenation of principal-agent relationships (Strom 2000; Strom 2003; Lupia 2003). The people, who are the primary principals in a democracy, have transferred their sovereignty to popular representatives, who, in turn, have transferred the drafting and enforcement of laws and policy to the government. The ministers and secretaries of state in government subsequently entrust the execution of their tasks to the many thousands of public servants at the ministries, who proceed to delegate part of their tasks to more or less independent bodies and institutions. In due course, the public organisations and the executive public servants and the end of the chain have the task of spending billions in taxpayers’ money, using their discretionary powers to furnish licences and subsidies, impose fines, and for jailing people.

Each principal in the chain of delegation seeks to monitor the execution of the delegated public tasks by calling the agent to account. At the end of the accountability chain are the citizens, who pass judgement on the conduct of the government and who indicate their displeasure by voting for other popular representatives. Hence public accountability is an essential condition for the democratic process, as it provides the people’s representation and the voters with the information needed for judging the propriety and effectiveness of the conduct of the government ( Przeworski, Stokes & Manin 1999).
The constitutional perspective: prevention of corruption and abuse of power. A classic benchmark in the thinking about public accountability is found in the liberal tradition of Locke, Montesquieu and the American Federalists (O’Donnell 1999), to name but a few. The main concern underlying this perspective is that of preventing the tyranny of absolute rulers, overly presumptuous, elected leaders or of an expansive and ‘privatised’ executive power. The remedy against an overbearing, improper or corrupt government is the organisation of institutional countervailing powers. Other public institutions, such as an independent judicial power or a Chamber of Audit are put in place next to the voter, parliament, and political officials, and given the power to request that account be rendered over particular aspects. Good governance arises from a dynamic equilibrium between the various powers of the state (Witteveen 1991; Fisher 2004: 506-507).

The cybernetic perspective: enhancing the learning capacity In a cybernetic perspective on public accountability, the purpose of accountability lies more in maintaining and strengthening the learning capacity of the public administration (Van den Berg 1999: 40; Aucoin & Heintzman 2000:52-54). Accountability is not only useful as a check, it also leads to prevention. Accountability forces administrators to trace connections between past, present and future (‘t Hart, 2001). An administrator who is called to account is confronted with his policy failures and he is aware that, in the future, he can be called upon again, even more pitilessly, to render account. The public nature of giving account teaches others in the same position about the accountability process. Parliamentary inquiries, for example – especially when broadcast on TV – cast their shadow well ahead, far beyond the concrete issue forming the subject of the inquiry, and can oblige numerous administrators and public servants to adjust their policies.

There is a longstanding cybernetic tradition in political science and related fields with which this idea neatly fits. At the heart of this tradition is the question of the extent to which political systems are capable of dealing adequately with changes in environment and with feedback about their own functioning (Deutsch 1963; Easton 1965; Luhmann 1966). In this context, Lindblom (1965) referred to the `intelligence of democracy’: the superiority of the pluralist democracy to that of other political systems lies in the greater number of incentives it contains to encourage intelligence and learning in the process of policymaking.

Public accountability is a crucial link in this cybernetic approach, as it offers a regular mechanism to confront administrators with information about their own functioning and forces them to reflect on the successes and failures of their past policy. Public accountability mechanisms therefore crack open political and administrative systems, especially where these tend to allow themselves to be guided by signals and initiatives from the very bosom of the system itself. Easton referred to this as being oriented toward ‘withinputs’ instead of ‘inputs’ and toward ‘feedback’ from the environment, while Luhmannians employ the graceful term ‘autopoiesis’ to mean the same thing (In ‘t Veld 1991). In the learning approach, therefore, accountability is an essential part of what Argyris and Schon (1978) call ‘deutero learning’: an institutionalised capacity to learn.
These are three major perspectives on public accountability. Behind these three perspectives, however, lurks a far bigger, more abstract concern of public accountability. Public accountability is indirectly of importance because ultimately, it can help to ensure that the legitimacy of the public administration remains intact or is increased. This effect is partly the consequence of the other effects (democratic control, a power equilibrium and responsiveness enhance the legitimacy of the administration) and partly an independent effect. Media, interest groups and citizens are all adopting an increasingly more critical attitude toward the government. Respect for authority is fast dwindling and the confidence in public institutions is under pressure in a number of western countries (Elchardus & Smits 2002). Processes of public accountability in which administrators are given the opportunity to explain and justify their intentions, and in which citizens and interest groups can pose questions and offer their opinion, can promote acceptance of government authority and the citizens’ confidence in the government’s administration (Aucoin & Heintzman 2000:49-52).

In the incidental case of tragedies, fiascos, and failures, processes of public account giving may also have an important ritual, purifying function - they can help to provide public catharsis. Public account giving can help to bring a tragic period to an end because it can offer a platform for the victims to voice their grievan­ces, and for the real or reputed perpetrators to account for themselves and to justify or excuse their conduct. This can be an important secondary effect of parliamentary inquiries, official investigations, or public hearings in case of natural disasters, plane crashes, or railroad accidents. An example is the Hutton Inquiry into the death of David Kelly, which opened within weeks after his body was found. Also, the South African ‘truth commissions’, and various war crime tribunals, starting with the Tokyo and Nuremberg trials, and the Eichmann trial, up to the Yugoslav tribunal, are at least partly meant to fulfil this function (Dubnick 2002: 15-16). Public processes of calling to account create the opportunity for penitence, reparation, and forgiveness and can thus provide social or political closure (Harlow 2002: 9).

Box 4: The importance of public accountability


Democratic control

Checks and balances





3.3 Evaluation frameworks for public accountability

The three perspectives outlined above offer more systematic frameworks to evaluate the effects of accountability arrangements. (The two other, indirect rationales for public accountability will not be further discussed, as these concern meta-effects that are difficult to evaluate, or play a role in special cases only).

The question central to the democratic perspective is whether the accountability arrangement adds to the possibilities open to voter, parliament or other representative bodies to control the executive power. Thus viewed, the main concern is that the accountability arrangements yield relevant information about the conduct of the government. The major issue in assessing accountability arrangements from this perspective is whether they help to overcome agency problems, such as moral hazard (Strom 2003): do these accountability arrangements help to provide political principals with sufficient information about the behaviour of their agents and do they offer enough incentives to agents to commit themselves to the agenda’s of their democratically elected principals?

From a constitutional perspective, the key question is whether the arrangement contributes to the prevention of corruption and the abuse of powers. This standpoint demands that public accountability forums be visible, tangible and powerful, in order to be able to withstand both the inherent tendency of those in public office to dexterously evade control and the autonomous expansion of power of the all-encompassing bureaucracy. The major issue from this perspective is whether accountability arrangements offer enough incentives for officials and agencies to refrain from abuse of authority. Does the accountability forum have enough inquisitive powers to reveal corruption or mismanagement, are the available sanctions strong enough to have preventive effects?

The cybernetic perspective obviously focuses on the question of whether the arrangement enhances the learning capacity and effectiveness of the public administration. This viewpoint will judge accountability arrangements and other feedback mechanisms to be successful if they generate feedback information and stimulate elite groups to reflect and to debate about the significance of this information with others (Van der Knaap 1995). The crucial questions from this perspective are whether the accountability arrangements offer sufficient feedback, but also the right incentives, to officials and agencies to reflect upon their policies and procedures and to improve upon them.
The central ideas, dominant evaluation principle, and a few concrete research questions that could be used in an evaluation study are provided for each perspective in the framework below.

Democratic perspective: accountability and popular control

Central idea

Accountability offers actors with democratic legitimacy possibilities to control administration, policy and organisation.

Central evaluation criterion

The degree to which accountability arrangements or regimes directly or indirectly contribute to the possibilities for actors with democratic legitimacy to monitor, evaluate and adjust the propriety and effectiveness of government conduct.

Concrete evaluation questions

a. Are there any accountability forums in which actors with democratic legitimacy participate and can the latter rely on having an adequate information position and enforceable sanction options at their disposal?

b. To what extent do the accountability arrangements indirectly provide information to democratically legitimised actors about the propriety and the effectiveness of the conduct and actions of government bodies?

c. To what extent does the accountability arrangement itself allow for the adjustment of the conduct of government bodies in the direction desired by the actors with democratic legitimacy?

d. Do the accountability arrangements offer enough incentives to agents to commit themselves to the agenda’s of their democratically elected principals?

Constitutional perspective: accountability and equilibrium of power

Central idea

Accountability is essential in order to withstand the ever-present tendency toward power concentration in the executive power.

Central evaluation criterion

The extent to which accountability forums are able to contribute to the prevention of corruption and the abuse of powers.

Concrete evaluation questions

a. Do the accountability forums have a sufficiently adequate information position (availability of data, processing capacity)?

b. Do the accountability forums have enough inquisitive powers to reveal corruption or mismanagement?

c. Do the accountability forums have incentives to engage in proactive and alert account holding?

d. Do the administrative bodies have incentives to engage in proactive and sincere account giving?

e. Are the available sanctions strong enough to have preventive effects?

f. Does the accountability arrangement help to discourage corruption and improper governance?

Learning perspective: accountability and reflective governance

Central idea

Accountability is an essential condition for learning by administrative bodies and holders of executive positions.

Central evaluation criterion

The degree to which accountability arrangements stimulate administrative bodies and officials to achieve a higher awareness of the environment, increase self-reflection and induce the ability to change.

Concrete evaluation questions

a. Does the accountability arrangement contribute to the availability of information about former and current administrative actions for the administrative body involved and a wider range of administrative bodies?

b. Does the accountability arrangement stimulate internal reflection and the ensuing learning conduct in administrative bodies and those holding public office?

c. Does the accountability arrangement stimulate the accountability forums and the administrative actors to (supervising) the institutionalisation and dissemination of lessons learned?

The existence of these various perspectives makes the evaluation of accountability arrangements a somewhat equivocal exercise. First of all, accountability arrangements may score well on one perspective, but not on others. For example, it can be argued that the accountability maps that are emerging around non-majoritarian European agencies are more up to standards from a constitutional than from a democratic perspective. Increasingly, the activities of these agencies are monitored by the Court of Justice and they have become subjected to scrutiny from the European Ombudsman and OLAF (Curtin 2005). However, the link with forums that are democratically legitimised remains very indirect.

Moreover, these perspectives need not always point in the same direction. What is considered beneficial from one perspective, may very well be judged detrimental from another perspective. For example, judicial review of laws and regulations may be considered as an adequate form of public accountability from a constitutional perspective, and at the same time as inappropriate form a democratic perspective, because it suffers from what Alexander Bickell (1962) has called ‘the counter majoritarian difficulty’: it limits the exercise of popular sovereignty through the legislative branch. Similarly, overly rigorous democratic control may squeeze the entrepreneurship and creativity out of public managers and may turn agencies into rule-obsessed bureaucracies. As Mark Zegans observed, ‘rule-obsessed organizations turn the timid into cowards and the bold into outlaws.’ (quoted in Behn 2001: 30). Too much emphasis on administrative integrity and corruption control, which would be considered beneficial from a constitutional perspective, could lead to a proceduralism that seriously hampers the reflexivity, and hence also the efficiency and effectiveness, of public organisations (Anechiarico & Jacobs 1996).

To complicate things further, within each evaluation perspective there always remains the question of standards and levels of sufficiency. Behind each assessment ultimately lies a theory, often implicit, about what constitutes sufficient democratic control, or adequate checks and balances, or satisfactory reflexivity. What, for example, is a sufficient level of democratic control of European executive agencies? What should be the yardstick: the level of control of independent agencies in the average member state or should we develop an independent yardstick for European institutions?

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