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- Defining Accountability
- Typologies of Accountability
- Mechanisms of Public Sector Accountability
- Legislative Scrutiny
- Auditors and Other Monitoring Agencies
- Freedom of Information and the Media
- Intra-Organizational Accountability
- Systems of Democratic Accountability
- Accountability in International Relations
- Single Versus Multiple Accountability
- Accountability in Networks
- Accountability and the New Public Management
Accountability has become a key concept in both public administration and democratic theory. Its meaning is contested, but the general definition “obligation to answer for the performance of duties” would fit most versions. In this sense, accountability is a relationship between two parties—the person or organization answering or being held to account (the accountor or agent) and the person or organization to whom the account is owed (the account holder or principal). Analysis of accountability therefore begins with the double question: Who is accountable to whom? Accountability obligations depend on the terms of the relationship and on its institutional context, leading to two more key questions: (1) For what is the accountor accountable and (2) how? This research paper covers the following topics: defining accountability, typologies of accountability, mechanisms of public sector accountability, democratic accountability, accountability in international relations, single versus multiple accountability, accountability in networks, and accountability and the new public management (NPM).
Though the English word accountability has a respectable historical pedigree (the Oxford English Dictionary records its use from the late 18th century), its prominence in political science dates only from the 1980s, before which time the cognate term responsibility was preferred. (Indeed, linguistic equivalents of “responsibility” are still dominant in other European languages that lack a direct parallel for “accountability.”) The rapid rise of “accountability” can be traced to its adoption by public choice theory, particularly principal-agent theory, and by management theory, which in turn greatly influenced democratic theory and public administration. However, the relative lack of intellectual history and of cross-disciplinary seminal texts has meant that academic analysis of accountability has proceeded in a haphazard, fragmented, and repetitive fashion. Different subdisciplines, including comparative politics, international relations, deliberative democracy, constitutional law, and public management (further subdivided into U.S. and European versions) have each been developing their own parallel theories of accountability, with little cross-fertilization or sense of common purpose.
Though the core sense of accountability, the obligation of the accountor to answer for the performance of duties, is uncontroversial, disagreement occurs over what should be added to that core. Most analyses also include the capacity of the account holder to impose sanctions or other remedies on the accountor as a necessary complement to full accountability. However, some versions confine accountability to the initial informing and discussing stages, omitting the requirement for any rectification. In effect, they equate accountability with transparency, another popular term with which accountability is frequently linked. Certainly, in complex modern systems of public accountability, some accountability mechanisms, such as parliamentary inquiry or media investigation, can provide transparency but lack the capacity for imposing sanctions, leaving that function to other agencies such as courts or the executive. But transparency on its own, with no prospect of correction or other adverse consequences, falls short of full accountability.
In its core sense, accountability, like accounting itself, is essentially retrospective or ex post, in that it is concerned with information and explanation about past actions of the accountor. Discussion about future actions is, therefore, not, strictly speaking, an exercise in accountability. However, in a continuing relationship between principal and agent, ex post can easily overlap with ex ante, as in election campaigns when incumbent representatives not only defend their past actions but also outline their future plans. Indeed, some theorists have wanted to distinguish two types or aspects of accountability, ex post (retrospective) and ex ante (prospective) accountability, while others have included all communication between political leaders and the public as part of an ongoing accountability dialogue. Such usage, while understandable because of the obligations of democratic governments to engage in continuing discussion with their citizens, extends accountability beyond its normal focus of answering for past actions. Similarly, government consultation with stakeholders about future policy certainly helps keep politicians and bureaucrats in touch with relevant sections of public opinion, but it does not necessarily imply accountability in the strict sense of accounting for previous decisions.
Accountability is also sometimes taken beyond its retrospective core when it is equated with institutional devices for limiting or constraining power. For instance, constitutional checks and balances, such as federalism and the separation of powers, are sometimes described as mechanisms of account-ability because they limit the legal power of governments and prevent them from abusing the rights of citizen. Such constraints may certainly involve accountability mechanisms, for instance, when a government oversteps its legal powers and is called to account by the courts. However, constitutional laws and regulations themselves are essentially prospective in focus, seeking to limit and control future actions of governments. The mere fact that laws and regulation constrain the power of governments need not in itself imply that they are instruments of accountability.
Significant disagreement also surrounds how far accountability is to be distinguished from other, closely related concepts, namely, responsibility and responsiveness. “Responsibility” and “account-ability” share parallel conceptual histories, both originating in the notion of answering (“responding,” “giving an account to”) to someone. “Accountability,” as the obligation to answer for the performance of duties, generally implies a relationship between two or more parties, in which one party is subject to external scrutiny from others. “Responsibility,” on the other hand, typically refers to the internal deliberations and actions of a single person or organization.
This division of conceptual labor is by no means universally observed. “Responsibility” sometimes includes answering to others as well as making individual choices, as, for instance, in the classic British conventions of “responsible government” and “ministerial responsibility.” Indeed, before the rise of the term accountability, responsibility regularly covered both external and internal aspects (as its equivalents still do in other European languages).
The popularity of “accountability” has seen it extended in a similar fashion, but in the opposite direction, to include not only external scrutiny but also the internal capacity for considered and conscientious action usually described as acting “responsibly.” For instance, where members of caring professions, such as social workers and health professionals, have a strong vocational commitment to serving the interests of the community, this concern is sometimes identified as in itself constituting accountability to the community, regardless of whether members of the community actually have any rights of scrutiny or complaint. Similarly, members of the nonprofit charitable sector commonly see themselves as accountable to the recipients of charity even though they are not, strictly speaking, answerable to them. Particularly where professional standards or values are publicly articulated, voluntary adherence to such standards can be seen as a form of accountability without any requirement to report externally or without external any mechanism for others to demand compliance. The accountability has become internalized, as though the conscientious professional is in an imaginary dialogue with his or her clients and answering to them.
The question of whether an internalized sense of service should be accepted as a form of accountability recalls the perennial debate over the relative merits of professional discretion compared with external scrutiny as a means of securing public service in the public interest. The issue was classically discussed by Carl Friedrich and Herman Finer in the 1940s as a debate over two contrasting types of responsibility but is now typically described as a clash between two types of accountability. Conceptual clarity might be better served if accountability were reserved for external scrutiny and rectification, recasting the Friedrich-Finer debate as being between the respective merits of (internal) responsibility and (external) accountability. However, the emotive pull of “accountability,” like that of “democracy,” makes supporters of professional discretion unwilling to accept what would amount to an accountability deficit. Instead, they prefer to see themselves as embracing a special form of accountability.
Similar extensions beyond the core meaning of accountability derive from the connection between accountability and responsiveness. Accountability, as the obligation to answer to external scrutiny, derives its main justification from its contribution to responsiveness, understood as the readiness of institutions and officials to respond to the needs and interests of those whom they serve. In public administration, for instance, responsiveness, the alignment between official action and public preferences, is the goal to which the accountability of governments is a key means. However, accountability procedures of external scrutiny, such as review and audit, are not the only mechanisms for making governments responsive. For instance, changing the organizational culture of a public agency toward a greater client focus and concern for service quality can make the agency more responsive to the public but need not involve additional accountability procedures of scrutiny or inquiry. Yet many in such an agency would typically claim that it had become both more responsive and more accountable, in effect identifying accountability with responsiveness.
The link between accountability and responsiveness also arises with market mechanisms. Markets are unquestionably instruments of responsiveness.
They find their main rationale in their capacity to align the provision of goods and services with the preferences of consumers and citizens. But are they therefore instruments of accountability? According to a strict understanding, organizations operating in a market, particularly private companies, are accountable primarily to their owners and shareholders, not to their customers. They may be accountable to individual consumers who have purchased goods or services, and they may also be publicly accountable in the sense of being liable to scrutiny for complying with any relevant law and regulations. But overall responsiveness to consumer preferences comes from the consumers’ capacity to choose between alternative suppliers in a competitive market. Suppliers adjust to consumer demand not because of any complaints or scrutiny from potential customers, who have no such rights against a supplier, but because they will go out of business if they have no customers.
Markets are thus primarily “exit” mechanisms for securing responsiveness. Dissatisfied customers vote with their feet. Accountability, on the other hand, as normally understood, is a “voice” mechanism, allowing dissatisfied members of the public to complain and to seek information and rectification from an organization. In this case, markets do not count as accountability mechanisms. Nonetheless, because competitive markets have the capacity to force service providers to take note of consumer preferences and, in some sense, to “answer” to expressed demand, to describe them as instruments of accountability can have a certain plausibility.
In the same way, organizations that respond to peer or public opinion through concern for their corporate reputations are sometimes said to be exhibiting “reputational” accountability. Again, there is no direct connection or dialogue between the supposed “accountor” and the “account holder,” no right of the public or the organization’s peers to call the organization to account, and no formal obligation of the accountor to accept sanctions or redirections from others. Again, however, the emotive force of the term accountability leads sympathetic observers to classify such responsiveness as instances of account-ability. Moreover, in modern democratic societies, reputational effects are often the result of media publicity and scrutiny. There are good grounds for seeing the media as agents of accountability, holding public figures and organizations up to scrutiny, even though the media may have no formal rights to demand information or to impose sanctions. As with transparency in general, however, such accountability without rectification is inchoate and incomplete.
Accountability is thus a chameleon-like concept that readily takes on new, additional senses from the different contexts in which it is used. Because external scrutiny and sanctions, the core of account-ability, are so central to checking abuses of power and to the processes of representative democracy, the term itself is easily extended to other mechanisms and processes that secure the same overall objectives, including legal and regulatory constraints, market competition, and public service professionalism and commitment to the public interest. These extensions and variations have been driven by the emotive power of the term combined with the lack of widely recognized academic authorities on the topic. To expect agreement on a single concept of accountability is unrealistic. But, at least, analysts of accountability could become more aware of the well-established variations in usage and more willing to place their own versions within that larger conceptual context.
Typologies of Accountability
Most analyses of accountability divide it into different types, though, as with the definition of accountability, there is no agreement on a typology or even on the meaning of some of the labels. Some typologies are based on distinctions in the subject matter of accountability (for what), for instance, between accountability for contestable outcomes (“political”) or for agreed tasks (“managerial”) and accountability for different types of activity, such as finances, processes, and performance. Other typologies focus more on the institutions and mechanisms of accountability, for instance, “political,” “legal,” “bureaucratic,” and “professional.”
Several classifications are built on distinctions in the direction of accountability, such as “vertical,” which can include “upward” accountability within a structured hierarchy as well as downward to citizens and customers, and “horizontal” and “outward,” which refers to accountability to institutions or individual of roughly equal status. A “360-degree” accountability implies accountability in all directions: upward, outward, and horizontal. “Internal” versus “external” accountability can refer to the difference in to whom an organization is accountable, internal referring to those who exercise clear ownership or delegation rights while “external” refers to those who have no such rights but are nevertheless affected.
Typologies tend to be context dependent. For instance, writers on developmental politics and democratization have employed the contrast between “horizontal” and “vertical” accountability to stress the importance of having executive governments accountable (horizontally) to other coequal institutions, such as courts, legislatures, and auditors. Horizontal accountability has become equated with the rule of law and constitutional government, seen as prerequisites for successful representative democracy. In international politics, on the other hand, types of accountability identified in one influential study (hierarchical, supervisory, fiscal, legal, market, peer, and reputational) reflect the political realities of international relations and the absence of some of the more robust accountability mechanisms, such as elections and legal sanctions, available within nation-states.
In the public administration literature, the structure of accountability typologies tends to follow constitutional structure, with a sharp division between the approach in the United States and that in the parliamentary systems of the United Kingdom (UK); other Westminster systems such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand; and Western Europe. In the United States, the separation of powers, along with federalism, makes bureaucrats independently accountable to a range of institutions, including the president, Congress, and the courts, forcing them to juggle between competing accountability demands. Analyses of accountability tend to stress the discretionary role of bureaucrats and the varied types of accountability forum—hierarchical, political, legal, and professional—in which they operate.
In parliamentary systems, by contrast, bureaucratic accountability centers on the hierarchical chain of accountability through ministers to parliament and the public, associated with the traditional conventions of ministerial responsibility and described variously as “parliamentary” or “political.” To this have been added other, supplementary types, such as “legal,” “judicial” (to cover accountability through courts and tribunals), or “managerial,” referring specifically to the output-focused accountability emphasized in the NPM.
Not only do different typologies contain different sets and combinations of individual types of accountability but particular individual types also vary in meaning between different typologies. Political accountability, for instance, is sometimes confined to politicians and to processes involving politicians while at other times it refers, more broadly, to contestable outcomes involving non-elected officials as well as elected politicians. Legal and judicial accountability typically imply the processes of courts and the legal system. But they vary as to whether they are confined to the judicial branch of government or also include quasi-judicial tribunals or other executive-based institutions such as ombudsmen and freedom of information rules. Legal accountability has also been defined even more broadly to cover external monitoring for compliance with legally established rules, which therefore implies that legislatures scrutinizing compliance with their own legislation are engaging in legal accountability.
Finally, professional accountability also has no settled meaning. Sometimes it refers to the account-ability that members of an expert profession owe to each other (peer accountability). For example, some professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, can be held to account by disciplinary bodies drawn from the profession itself. Less formally, members of a profession, including public servants, may be monitored and called to account through shared networks and collegial relationships. However, professional accountability has also been applied to the independent exercise of ethical norms of a particular profession, which have been internalized through socialization into the profession. In this case, professional accountability is being identified as a sense of professional responsibility, quite detached from any external scrutiny.
Mechanisms of Public Sector Accountability
The complex accountability structures surrounding modern governments involve a wide range of institutional mechanisms, which vary according to the section of government on which they focus (who?), the type of issue that they investigate (for what?), and the procedures they follow (how?).
In a representative democracy, the basic accountability mechanism is the general election at which incumbent executive leaders present themselves to the voters and seek a renewal of their mandate to govern. Elections compel elected politicians to explain and justify their actions and give the citizens the opportunity to listen and impose a verdict. Elections legitimize the control exercised by political leaders over the executive bureaucracy and thus underpin the accountability of agency heads to ministers and of junior officials to their superiors through the hierarchical chain of command. Though elections may be held at infrequent intervals, their indirect influence on government accountability is immense, through the threat of future of retribution imposed on unpopular governments.
Elections may be powerful but they are also blunt. Their effectiveness as accountability instruments can be compromised by their forward-looking function of selecting an incoming government. Voters may be deflected from sanctioning an unpopular government by the perception that the alternative leadership is even less palatable. Accountability is also denied where incumbent leaders do not stand for reelection (most notably in the case of second-term United States presidents). Moreover, because elections require a general judgment over a whole regime and its overall program, they do not allow for more fine-grained accountability on particular issues or decisions. Electioneering is dominated by general slogans and misleading rhetoric and does not offer much scope for accurate information or serious discussion.
Elections therefore need to be supplemented by a range of other accountability mechanisms and should not be seen as the sole instruments of democratic accountability, as is the tendency in theories of democracy built around the single act of voting and electoral choice. Conversely, regimes that lack elections, though undemocratic, may still offer citizens opportunities to hold their governments to account, for instance, through legal processes or complaints procedures.
Between elections, the major institution of accountability is the legislature. Though primarily defined in terms of their lawmaking functions, modern legislatures have ceded much of their legislative initiative and discretion to the executive branch, especially in parliamentary democracies where the main legislative chamber is typically under the control of the ruling party. In compensation, legislatures have increasingly emphasized their accountability role as the main forum where the executive is required to answer to the public.
Legislatures hold executives to account through a variety of avenues. One is the requirement for regular reporting on executive activities. All government agencies and statutory officials are obliged to report periodically (usually annually) to the legislature on their general performance. Information provided to the legislature thereby enters the public realm and is available for general debate and discussion.
Legislatures also have the right to question members of the executive and subject them to public scrutiny. In Westminster-based democracies, conventions of ministerial responsibility require ministers to answer to parliament for the conduct of their departments, to provide information about decisions, and, where necessary, to impose remedies. Similar conventions exist in most parliamentary democracies where ministers are accountable to parliament. Ministerial responsibility has been a topic of perennial controversy, mainly because of a widespread but erroneous belief that it requires ministers to take personal responsibility for the actions of subordinates and resign when major mistakes are discovered to have been made within their departments. Such “sacrificial” resignation is rarely, if ever, undertaken and the doctrine of “vicarious” responsibility on which it is based (that ministers are personally responsible for the acts of subordinates) does not accord with practice. When ministers resign, they do so because of personal faults of their own making, such as misleading parliament or engaging in improper or corrupt conduct, and the decision is usually politically determined in terms of minimizing damage to the government’s popularity.
Ministerial resignation is a side issue in assessing the role of ministers’ responsibility in government accountability. Much more important, and the basis of the effectiveness of ministerial responsibility as an accountability mechanism, are the obligations it imposes on ministers to answer to the public on matters of public concern, either in parliament or directly through the media. Though ministers are not required to take personal responsibility for all actions of their subordinates, they must provide information and justification when asked. Refusal to respond publicly, which is common among leaders of private organizations, is politically unacceptable for elected politicians. At the same time, however, while avoiding outright deceit (which remains a strong ground for forced resignation), ministers can readily prevaricate and avoid disclosure of embarrassing information. Moreover, their monopoly of the right of public response can carry the corollary that departmental officials remain out of the public eye, which can shield them from legitimate public scrutiny.
To circumvent the problem of bureaucratic anonymity, legislatures also question public officials directly, usually through a system of legislative committees. The practice of committee scrutiny is most highly developed in the U.S. Congress, which, through the separation of powers, is an active partner in shaping government policy and has a legitimate interest in overseeing the whole conduct of government business. In parliamentary systems, the scope of questioning is somewhat more confined, exempting appointed officials from answering on issues of government policy, out of deference to the democratic mandate of the elected leaders. Even so, restricting questions to administrative matters for which officials are more immediately responsible still allows considerable opportunity for holding the bureaucracy to account.
All governments are subject to legal accountability through the courts because courts determine whether the government has acted within the law. The operation and effect of this power vary with a country’s legal and constitutional structure. One contrast is between Anglo-American countries, where cases involving the government are heard in the same courts as civil cases, and some European countries, notably France, where a completely separate court structure is reserved for cases involving the state. Another contrast concerns the scope of judicial review. Where the constitution, as in the United States, defines and limits the powers of both Congress and the president, the courts become a forum for holding the government generally accountable across a wide range of substantial policy issues. On the other hand, in parliamentary democracies such as the UK, where few constitutional limits are placed on legislative power, opportunities for challenging policies through the courts are much more limited.
Most legal cases involving the government are brought by individual citizens and deal with particular decisions affecting them that have been made by government agencies. It is open to the court to rule whether a decision was taken within the powers legally conferred on the government agency; whether the citizen received natural justice, in terms of fair procedure and due process; and whether the decision itself was reasonable. Whether courts can decide on the actual substance and merits of a decision varies according to the provisions of the individual legal system. Some systems make use of quasi-judicial tribunals, which operate like courts though with a generally more relaxed approach to procedure and which, being technically part of the executive branch, are empowered to amend executive decisions.
Legal accountability, like litigation generally, suffers from being slow and expensive and is beyond the reach of most people for most issues. However, its availability as a last resort is crucial to the public’s capacity to hold governments to account. Like the rule of law itself, of which it is a key element, accountability through an independent and honest judiciary is the foundation of all public accountability.
Auditors and Other Monitoring Agencies
Governments are overseen and investigated by a range of special-purpose accountability agencies. Of these agencies, the most long-standing are the offices of government auditors (variously described as “auditors general” and/or “comptrollers general”). Their traditional function has been the monitoring of government finances on behalf of the legislature to see whether public revenue and expenditure have been managed according to legislative authorization and according to standards of public probity and propriety. The historic function of “regularity auditing” for financial compliance has more recently been supplemented by “performance” (“value for money,” “efficiency,” “comprehensive”) auditing that extends to assessing the efficiency and effectiveness of government programs. Performance audits usually take a program’s objectives as given and then examine whether these objectives have been achieved and at what cost. In performance auditing, as distinct from regularity auditing, auditors typically lack any powers of sanction or rectification and can simply recommend changes and improvement.
In general, government auditors have proved essential in maintaining financial integrity in governments. Conversely, the absence of effective audit is a key indicator of weak and corrupt government systems. They have also been very successful in exposing bureaucratic waste and inefficiency. Even though they cannot mandate any remedies, the authority of their recommendations and the adverse publicity attached to the exposure of serious waste and inefficiency are often sufficient to prompt governments to follow their recommendations voluntarily.
Besides auditors, other investigating bodies include government inspectors and ombudsmen. Inspectors are officials established within particular government departments and agencies with the function of improving efficiency and effectiveness. Inspectors have been employed to monitor school and prison systems as well as government departments in areas such as taxation, defense, and security where bureaucratic performance is a matter of particular concern. The position of ombudsman, first introduced in Scandinavia, has been adopted worldwide as an avenue of complaint for individual citizens seeking redress in connection with particular decisions. Ombudsmen usually have the power to investigate and recommend but not to impose remedies. In spite of this limitation, however, they have proved an effective accountability mechanism midway between individual complaint and full legal proceedings.
Recent decades have witnessed an “audit explosion” as governments and government agencies become subject to increasing supervision by regulatory agencies. With the transfer of responsibility for providing public goods and services away from government departments under political direction to various forms of arm’s-length providers, regulation has tended to replace political and bureaucratic direction as the means of making public service providers publicly accountable. A plethora of regulatory agencies now monitor different areas of public service provision, such as health and education, or different aspects of government activity, such as occupational health and safety or human rights. While most regulatory bodies are public bodies, some are privately established but have been granted legal powers—for instance, some consumers’ associations and animal protection societies. Other private monitoring bodies have no legal mandate but operate more informally as observers and critics of government activities. These include a number of private international watchdogs, such as Greenpeace and Amnesty International and the financial ratings agencies, Standard and Poor’s and Moody’s, which have a great impact on economic policy because of the impact of their ratings decisions.
Freedom of Information and the Media
The public availability of information held by governments may be only the initial stage of a full accountability process and needs to be followed up by discussion and then, if necessary, by rectification. However, once such information is released into the public realm it can readily be used to spark a political reaction and force governments into remedies. Public access to government information is therefore an essential component of government accountability and is provided by a number of channels.
One such channel is the right of the general citizen to seek access to information, both personal information held about them as individual citizens and general information about government policy. Rights of freedom of information are found in most established democracies, with the United States having led the way and the UK being a reluctant latecomer. Certain exemptions usually apply, on grounds such as national security, cabinet confidentiality, commercial confidentiality, and protection of legal proceedings. Financial charges can also be imposed, especially on matters of general interest, with the result that information is generally sought by well-resourced journalists or by organized groups with political interests rather than by individual citizens.
The various media outlets, both print and electronic, also help spread information and stimulate debate. In part, their function is strictly intermediary, relaying to a wider public news items and arguments supplied by others. However, they also play an independent role in instigating inquiries and conducting investigations. Though, for the most part, privately owned and not formally part of the machinery of government, the media are essential to effective accountability in large-scale modern states. Indeed, a free press, along with elections and an independent judiciary, has been acknowledged as one of the key institutions in securing an accountable government.
In addition to being externally accountable, government agencies, like all organizations, also exhibit internal structures of accountability whereby different members or sections are accountable to others within the organization. Indeed, from the perspective of individual officials, organizational accountability upward through the chain of bureaucratic command is often the most immediate and salient form of accountability in their daily activities. To assist in reinforcing upward accountability, organizations often impose their own in-house versions of independent scrutiny, such as internal audit or inspection, which mirrors and anticipates the financial monitoring of external auditors and inspectors.
Accountability of individual officials to their superiors is an essential element in the overall democratic accountability of executive government. If elected leaders are to be accountable for the actions of bureaucrats, then they must be able to rely on their bureaucrats’ willingness to take direction and answer for their actions. Accountability upward is thus a corollary of control downward. Conversely, any slippage in control from above is typically reflected in lack of accountability upward.
Weakness in upward accountability may be symptomatic of the well-known propensity of bureaucrats to pursue their own policy agendas and apply their own judgment against the wishes of their superiors. It may also come from contrary accountability pressures. “Bottom-up” views of administration legitimate the direct accountability of street-level bureaucrats to their clients among the public and undermine the authority of organizational superiors. From this perspective, accountability through the “top-down” chain of bureaucratic command becomes an unwelcome constraint to be managed rather than a mandate to be respected. Bottom-up versions of accountability can claim their own democratic legitimacy through answerability directly to the members of the public rather than indirectly through the public’s elected representatives.
Systems of Democratic Accountability
Democratic accountability can be viewed from various perspectives, from that of the citizen wishing to hold his or her government to account, from that of the elected politicians responding to the voters, or from that of the government official answering to political masters and to the public. Depending on one’s position and interests, different accountability mechanisms claim the most attention. Politicians are focused primarily on elections and the media, whereas public servants are more concerned with accountability to superiors in the hierarchy. Citizens in strife with government agencies will be looking to grievance procedures and ombudsmen. In all cases, the structure of available accountability mechanisms appears complex and untidy, incapable of being reduced to tidy diagrams or flowcharts without oversimplification. Structures of accountability are inherently pluralistic and are better described as “webs,” or possibly “systems,” to indicate their complexity and fluidity.
The various accountability agencies and processes in webs of democratic accountability exhibit widely different functions. Some accountability processes, such as elections, focus on overall performance of government, while others, such as financial audit, concentrate on details of administration. Politicians and the media home in on politically controversial and sensational issues. Auditors and inspectors, by contrast, tend to deliberately steer clear of political controversy and instead concentrate on more humdrum areas of administration, which may appear dull but are often the site of major inefficiencies.
Some agencies, such as courts, exercise the full range of accountability functions, including information, discussion, and rectification, while others, such as the media, are limited to the transparency functions of information and discussion. It is for this reason that democratic accountability cannot be accurately represented by a chain of principal-agent relationships, given such relationships always imply the principal’s right to impose sanctions. Standard structures of democratic accountability certainly involve account holders with the power to impose remedies and sanctions. This power may be located with a number of different actors. The basic right of rectification lies with citizens as voters who have the capacity to remove their elected representatives. But other public officers and institutions can also compel compliance on those accountable to them. Elected political leaders can direct their departments and agency heads in relation to their subordinates. Courts and tribunals can issue binding decisions.
However, not all agencies of accountability possess the power of rectification. Indeed, many of the most effective accountability agencies, including legislative committees, auditors, ombudsmen, and the media, can only investigate and recommend. Their effectiveness depends on their capacity to exert pressure on account holders with rectificatory powers, particularly executive leaders, to impose remedies in response to adverse publicity, backed by the ultimate electoral sanction. Democratic accountability can thus operate as an interlocking system with some institutions specializing in information and investigation while others are relied on for rectification. While there may be grounds for identifying elections as the defining accountability mechanism in representative democracies, they are far from being the only such mechanism.
A key factor in any web of accountability is whether each accountability agency charged with holding the government to account is itself publicly accountable for performing its accountability functions. Legislators, judges, auditors, ombudsmen, regulators, and so on need to be subjected to scrutiny themselves to prevent them from becoming lax or corrupt. Most officials in such scrutinizing positions are granted a degree of statutory autonomy to help them maintain an independent stance against the executive power that they must call to account. At the same time, however, this independence is itself open to abuse. Transparency, media scrutiny, and the ultimate power of arraignment and dismissal are essential buttresses of professional integrity. The guardians must be guarded.
Accountability in International Relations
Most analysis of government accountability has taken place within the context of nation-states, where the defining element of legal and political sovereignty provides a framework of effective sanctions to support other accountability mechanisms and where elections provide the people with the ultimate sanction. In the international sphere, however, the absence of effective sovereign power and elections raises the specter of an accountability vacuum. How can international organizations such as the United Nations (UN) or the World Bank be held accountable for serving the interests of the international community if that community is not capable of enforcing sanctions on them?
In practice, accountability in the international sphere, though weaker than in many nation-states, is far from nonexistent. In some areas such as trade policy and criminal behavior, international law can offer effective remedies backed up by the coercive power of nation-states. International organizations are subject to accountability mechanisms, such as audit, review, and media scrutiny, as well as being answerable to the national governments that underwrite them. The UN bureaucracy, though often incompetent and corrupt, can be exposed to detailed investigation, as over its handling of the Oil-for-Food Programme, and can be pressured to institute reforms. Rectification tends to be ineffective, because of the apathy and disunity among leading members of the Security Council, the body to which the bureaucracy is accountable. But, with more determination from member states, the accountability deficit could be significantly reduced. As it stands, the accountability deficit in the UN bureaucracy is probably no greater than that found in the national bureaucracies of most of the member states themselves.
The inherent contrast between accountability in nation-states and in the international arena should therefore not be overstated. Both are pluralistic in structure and involve a range of accountability mechanisms, many of which, such as the media and NGO (nongovernmental organization) watchdogs, operate at both levels. The significant lack of effective legal and political sanctions at the international level must be conceded. But so too must the potential for improved international accountability short of a united system of world government.
Single Versus Multiple Accountability
Should the duties of public accountability, whether for government as a whole or for particular government agencies, be concentrated in a single person or dispersed among a number of different people? The main argument for concentration lies in the value of having a designated person, usually the leader or agency head, who is obliged to take collective responsibility and to answer to the public, particularly in times of crisis or government failure. Where responsibility and accountability are dispersed between members of a group or between different agencies, officials and politicians can easily shift the blame to others, with the result that no one accepts an obligation to answer to the public. A single point of accountability, by contrast, makes buck passing much more difficult.
On the other hand, multiple avenue of accountability can provide the public with greater opportunities for extracting information from government and for holding government officials up to scrutiny. A leader exercising sole powers of accountability, while less open to buck passing, is better able to resist embarrassing inquiry into the actions of subordinates and to cover up mistakes. In practice, most collective actions involve the responsibility of many individuals (“the problem of many hands”), and the attempt to hold only one person responsible and accountable obscures the reality of how bureaucracies operate.
In general, multiple avenues of accountability appear superior for the initial stages of accountability, for revealing information, and for encouraging the scrutiny of government. Single points of accountability, however, are more effective for taking charge and imposing remedies. The differing U.S. and UK constitutions illustrate the contrast. The United States, with its separation of powers and multiple points of authority, provides a very open and transparent system of government but one where solutions are hard to impose. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, concentrates power in the prime minister and cabinet under tight conventions of ministerial responsibility, which have preserved executive secrecy but allowed effective rectification when problems come to light. A similar contrast can be found in the accountability of federal systems compared with that of unitary systems. Federations provide more avenues for inquiry but lack a single point of responsibility and are prone to blame shifting.
These dilemmas remain intractable. The best solution is to try to combine multiple avenues for scrutiny with a single authority for rectification, thus drawing on the virtues of each approach. Indeed, pluralistic democratic systems of accountability can be viewed in this light. Ideally, they combine many different, complementary mechanisms of scrutiny with a few clear points of unambiguous control and direction.
Accountability in Networks
“Networks” are an increasingly important feature of modern government posing particular problems of accountability. Networks may be understood as structures of collective action and decision making in which formally independent groups or individuals cooperate for shared purposes. They are commonly contrasted both with hierarchies, where the members are linked by formal control structures and in superior-subordinate relationships, and with markets, where self-interested parties are linked through formal agreements and contracts. Network members share the formal independence of market players while cooperating in shared values and objectives over a substantial period of time.
The concept of network has come to prominence in the analysis of modern systems of governance (to use a closely associated term) for various reasons. First, it signifies in part the long-standing aspects of all political systems, particularly the more informal cross-institutional relationships, which tended to be overlooked in more traditional institutional analysis and which now appear worthy of much more careful study. For instance, relationships between different levels of government, central and local, federal and state, have always relied heavily on informal partnerships and negotiation. Second, government systems are making more use of arms-length institutions, such as executive agencies and private organizations, for the delivery of public services. Relations between the purchasing government and the provider organizations are neither hierarchical nor market based but instead depend more on network characteristics of partnerships, trust, and agreed values.
Networks cause accountability problems because responsibility for collective action is shared between a number of different parties, giving rise to the classic buck passing associated with multiple accountability. Within the network itself, admittedly, relationships of trust and common interest may lead to mutual accountability and responsiveness. But for outsiders wishing to hold the network to account for its actions, the blurring of responsibility is problematic. Particularly when mistakes are made, interested members of the public are often unable to gain satisfactory answers because the various members of the network can shift the blame to each other.
Outsourcing of public services to stand-alone agencies has been bedeviled by accountability difficulties as politicians blame providers for performance failures and providers respond that the government has given them insufficient resources. The accountability deficit often increases if the providers are in the private sector and not accustomed to the level of public scrutiny applied to the public sector. Commercial contractors plead commercial confidentiality as a reason for concealing their internal operations and are often exempt from investigation by legislative committees or ombudsmen. Nonprofit organizations rely heavily on the conscientiousness of their staff, many of whom are volunteers, and are particularly reluctant to face demands for information and rectification.
Accountability and the New Public Management
The international public sector reform movement of the 1980s and 1990s, known as “the new public management,” though primarily aimed at improving public sector efficiency and effectiveness, also included an accountability agenda. The movement’s main assumption was that the public sector was less efficient than the commercial private sector and needed to move closer to private sector management methods. With respect to accountability, the most serious deficiency of the public sector compared with the commercial private sector is perceived to be its lack of clear objectives. Private companies have a clear and quantifiable “bottom line,” the maximizing of shareholder value, which provides a clear focus for the performance and accountability of managers. Government agencies, by contrast, often have little sense of their objectives and lack clear criteria for judging the performance of officials and their agencies and for holding them to account.
Another deficiency noted in public sector accountability is bureaucrats’ comparative lack of concern for serving the members of the public with whom they have direct dealings. In contrast to those offering goods and services for sale in a competitive market—who must focus on their customers’ preferences—bureaucrats can exploit their monopoly position and remain largely unaccountable to the members of the public they are supposed to serve.
In other respects, however, the public sector is seen as laboring under excessive accountability burdens. For instance, lack of accountability for results is typically balanced by much more accountability for following set procedures than is found in the private sector. This accountability for process encourages red tape and discourages managerial initiative. At the same time, the managerial efficiency of public sector managers is also stifled by the constant threat of interference in their decisions by their political masters who are themselves responding to the accountability demands of the general public. Because political leaders can be held publicly accountable for any action taken by their departmental officials, the first imperative on all loyal bureaucrats is to save their masters from political embarrassment, even if organizational efficiency is compromised thereby.
The managerial accountability agenda of the NPM reformers therefore includes a number of interlocking strategies. First, objectives are to be clarified, and managers are to be held accountable in terms of achieving measurable outputs. Second, political accountability through elected political leaders is to be confined to the setting of broad objectives and outcomes, leaving responsibility and accountability for outputs with arms-length managers who are quarantined from day-to-day political interference and are accountable to independent regulators rather than to politicians. Third, service providers are to be made more directly accountable to individual citizens, viewed as clients or customers.
The reform agenda has had considerable impact on systems of bureaucratic accountability.
Most government agencies now report performance in terms of objectives, including outcomes and outputs, and much effort has been directed toward designing performance measures, particularly in service agencies and in public health and education. The widespread decoupling of service provision from direct political control, through executive agencies and outsourcing, has raised the accountability profile of many agency heads and nongovernment service providers, while removing some internal organizational matters from, public scrutiny. The “audit explosion,” signified by the creation of new monitoring and regulatory bodies, reflects the move away from political accountability to independent regulation. Moves toward greater client focus, including the service charter initiatives, pioneered in the UK, have done much to reorient frontline bureaucrats toward a more user-friendly service culture.
At the same time, however, traditional public sector accountability practices have proved much more resistant to change than the reformers had hoped, largely because of entrenched public expectations about accountability. The managerialist injunction to restrict the politicians’ accountability for general objectives and to delegate accountability for implementation to agency heads and managers has proved politically unworkable. Members of the public and the media will not readily accept what they see as unjustifiable blame shifting from leaders to subordinates or contractors. Leaders become inevitably drawn into discussion of administrative details: making bureaucrats, correspondingly, remain highly sensitive to political direction. Private contractors become similarly adept at anticipating political pressures if they want their contracts renewed. Hopes that public servants would be less process driven have not been fulfilled. In particular, the continuing role of courts and quasi-judicial tribunals in reviewing administrative decisions has maintained a strong demand for due process. The public sector continues to be held to higher procedural standards through the principles of natural justice, which are jealously protected by the courts.
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