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Does Public Accountability Work? An Assessment Tool

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In recent years, there has been a drive to strengthen existing public accountability arrangements and to design new ones. This prompts the question whether accountability arrangements actually work. In the existing literature, both accountability ‘deficits’ and ‘overloads’ are alleged to exist. However, owing to the lack of a cogent yardstick, the debate tends to be impressionistic and event-driven. In this article we develop an instrument for systematically assessing public accountability arrangements, drawing on three different normative perspectives. In the democratic perspective, accountability arrangements should effectively link government actions to the ‘democratic chain of delegation’. In the constitutional perspective, it is essential that accountability arrangements prevent or uncover abuses of public authority. In the learning perspective, accountability is a tool to make governments effective in delivering on their promises. We demonstrate the use of our multicriteria assessment tool in an analysis of a new accountability arrangement: the boards of oversight of agencies.
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Public Administration Vol. 86, No. 1, 2008 (225–242)
© 2008 The Authors. Journal compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ,
UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9299.2008.00716.x
DOES PUBLIC ACCOUNTABILITY WORK?
AN ASSESSMENT TOOL
MARK BOVENS , THOMAS SCHILLEMANS AND PAUL ’ T HART
In recent years, there has been a drive to strengthen existing public accountability arrangements
and to design new ones. This prompts the question whether accountability arrangements actually
work. In the existing literature, both accountability defi cits ’ and ‘ overloads ’ are alleged to exist.
However, owing to the lack of a cogent yardstick, the debate tends to be impressionistic and event-
driven. In this article we develop an instrument for systematically assessing public accountability
arrangements, drawing on three different normative perspectives. In the democratic perspective,
accountability arrangements should effectively link government actions to the democratic chain
of delegation . In the constitutional perspective, it is essential that accountability arrangements
prevent or uncover abuses of public authority. In the learning perspective, accountability is a tool
to make governments effective in delivering on their promises. We demonstrate the use of our
multicriteria assessment tool in an analysis of a new accountability arrangement: the boards of
oversight of agencies.
ACCOUNTABLE GOVERNMENT: TOO LITTLE OR TOO MUCH OF A
GOOD THING?
Accountability is one of those golden concepts that no one can be against. Everyone
intuitively agrees that public authorities should render account publicly for the way
they use their mandates and spend public money. The power of government needs to
be checked routinely if we don t want to wake up in an authoritarian regime one day.
Accountability, defi ned here as the relationship between an actor and a forum, in which
the actor has an obligation to explain and justify his or her conduct, the forum can pose
questions and pass judgment, and the actor may face consequences ( Bovens 2006 ), is
widely seen as a tool for citizens to force those vested with public power to speak the
truth. And since we know that power corrupts its holders and unchecked power corrupts
more, the more accountability there is the better or so it seems.
If accountability of and in government is what we want, it appears that we can look at
the future with some confi dence. In recent years, there has been a drive in many Western
democracies to strengthen existing accountability arrangements and to design and add
new ones. Not only has there been considerable growth in the number and scope of ac-
countability arrangements, but also a accumulation of these arrangements. The ideas and
impulses for increased control and accountability mechanisms have come partly from
outside the realm of national government. Idea brokers in the new public management
mould, such as the OECD, have been instrumental in spreading the gospel about bench-
marking, monitoring, accreditation, and planning and control cycles ( Pollitt and Bouckaert
2004 ). Some of these phenomena would not technically qualify as accountability in terms
of the defi nition cited above, but their intended impact upon public policy-makers and
bodies is highly similar. Each forces them to describe and justify what they do, and how
and why they do it, and each induces them to maintain proper standards of conduct.
Mark Bovens and Thomas Schillemans are in the Utrecht School of Governance, Utrecht University. Paul t Hart is in
the Political Science Program, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University and Utrecht School
of Governance, Utrecht University.
226 MARK BOVENS, THOMAS SCHILLEMANS AND PAUL T HART
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© 2008 The Authors. Journal compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
The growth of these accountability arrangements prompts a question: do they actually
work in the intended fashion? This is not a moot issue. The nascent accountability in-
dustry has its detractors. Some critics say that despite ongoing lip service to accountable
government , many of the mechanisms for bringing it about are either sheer window-
dressing or easily subverted by an all-powerful executive branch ( Waterford 2006 ). At the
other side of the spectrum, many public offi ce-holders throughout the Western world
routinely complain that the current accumulation of accountability arrangements has left
them with an accountability regime (that is, the sum of all accountability relationships
that they are required to manage) that defeats any reasonable purpose. To help resolve
what today is largely an argument driven by impressions and incidents, we seek to de-
velop an instrument for systematically assessing public accountability arrangements of
whatever kind. This is important if we want to judge the soundness of these competing
claims and make intelligent recommendations about the (re)design of the web of account-
ability arrangements surrounding public offi cials and institutions.
Firstly, we distinguish between a broad and a narrow concept of accountability. We
then proceed by differentiating between two ideal-typical accountability failures: defi cits
and overloads. In search of an Archimedean point by which to judge whether and when
these can be said to exist, we advance three different theoretical perspectives on public
accountability: democratic, constitutional and learning. We show how these different
logics of accountability predispose towards different assessments of alleged account-
ability defi cits and overloads. Each of the three perspectives spawns distinctive general
assessment criteria. When applied to any particular accountability arrangement, they
need to be operationalized to fi t the specifi c situation at hand, for example, who is ac-
countable to ‘ whom ’ , ‘ how ’ and for ‘ what ’ ? ( Mulgan 2003 , p. 22). We shall demonstrate
the uses and limitations of our approach by providing a brief example of assessing one
particular accountability arrangement: the practice of board oversight on executive agen-
cies operating at arm s length of the Dutch government. We conclude the paper by pro-
viding some key caveats and challenges for further work in this area.
THE MEANINGS OF ACCOUNTABILITY: A TRANSATLANTIC DIVIDE
Anyone studying accountability will soon discover that it can mean many different things
to many different people ( Behn 2001 , pp. 3 6; Mulgan 2003; Pollitt 2003 , p. 89; Dubnick
2005 ). It is an evocative concept that is all too easily used in political discourse and policy
documents because it conveys an image of transparency and trustworthiness. Moreover,
accountability often serves as a conceptual umbrella that covers various other, often
highly contested, concepts. One of the reasons for this conceptual ambiguity and multi-
plicity is the fact that accountability is an Anglo-Norman concept (Dubnick 2002), which
has no semantic equivalents on the European continent. Other languages, such as French,
Portuguese, Spanish, German, or Dutch, have no exact equivalent and do not (yet)
distinguish semantically between ‘ responsibility ’ and ‘ accountability ’ ( Harlow 2002 ,
pp. 14 15; Dubnick 2002; Mulgan 2003 ).
Secondly, within contemporary Anglo-American political and scholarly discourse, ac-
countability seems to be an ever-expanding concept ( Mulgan 2003 ). The term, to quote
the Australian philosopher Richard Mulgan (2003 , p. 8), has come to stand as a general
term for any mechanism that makes powerful institutions responsive to their particular
publics . However, there is a pattern to the expansion. In the American academic and
political discourse, accountability is used predominantly as a normative concept, as a set
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of standards for the evaluation of the behaviour of public actors. Accountability or, more
precisely, being accountable , is seen as a virtue, as a positive quality of organizations or
offi cials. Hence, accountability studies often focus on normative issues, on the assessment
of the actual and active behaviour of public agents ( Koppell 2003; Dubnick 2005 ).
Accountability in this very broad sense is basically an evaluative concept that is used
to positively qualify a state of affairs or the performance of an actor. It comes close to
responsiveness and a sense of responsibility , a willingness to act in a transparent, fair
and equitable way. Accountability in this broad sense is an essentially contested and
contestable concept, because there is no general consensus about the standards for ac-
countable behaviour; in addition, they differ from role to role, time to time, place to place,
and from speaker to speaker.
On the other side of the Atlantic, in British, Australian and continental European schol-
arly debates, accountability is often used in a much more narrow, descriptive sense. Ac-
countability is seen as a social mechanism , as an institutional relation or arrangement
in which an actor can be held to account by a forum ( Day and Klein 1987; Mulgan 2003 ).
Here the locus of accountability studies is not the behaviour of public agents, but the way
in which these institutional arrangements operate. And the focus of accountability studies
is not whether the agents have acted in an accountable way, but whether they are or can
be held accountable ex post facto by accountability forums.
Both concepts, the broad one, in which accountability is seen as a personal or organi-
zational virtue, and the narrow one, in which accountability is defi ned as a social mecha-
nism, are very useful for the study of, and the debate about, democratic governance.
However, they should be distinguished, since they address different sorts of issues and
imply very different sorts of standards and analytical dimensions. In this paper we will
focus on the narrow concept of accountability, using the Bovens 2006 defi nition: ‘ a rela-
tionship between an actor and a forum, in which the actor has an obligation to explain
and justify his or her conduct, the forum can pose questions and pass judgment, and the
actor may face consequences .
ACCOUNTABILITY: OVERLOADS AND DEFICITS
Many contemporary public administrators complain about accountability overload (see
Brennan 1999 ). They refer to the increasingly dense web of material and procedural law
specifying criteria for administrative conduct. They say it has opened the door to judicial
control practices that are minute, time-consuming and paralytic in their effects. They be-
moan the expansive role conception of courts of audit, many of which have evolved from
traditional ‘ accountants ’ to fully-fl edged ‘ evaluators ’ (see Pollitt et al. 1999 ). These are
said to superimpose their rationalistic ideas about public policy design and implementa-
tion on a world of administrative practice is complex, political, uncertainty-ridden, and
somewhat murky. Employing rationalistic criteria audit offi ces are almost bound to fi nd
many instances of ineffectiveness and ineffi ciency. Furthermore, by widely publishing
their mostly negative fi ndings auditors provide journalists and parliamentary critics with
a supply of cheap shots at ministers and bureaucrats. They also fuel public cynicism about
government in general. Let us take this line of criticism at face value for a moment, and
dissect its various components.
Firstly, from the public administrator s point of view, the sheer frequency of account-
ability routines can be seen as too high. Some commentators have quipped that they
spend half their time explaining to all sorts of accountability forums what they intend to
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be doing, and the other explaining to them why they did not get around to doing all these
things. Adding new layers to the already voluminous cakes of accountability require-
ments brings little gains to the public interest and adds ever more red tape. The university
administrators of various countries have, for example, complained bitterly about the
never-ending wave of assessment exercises, since each entails different, partly overlap-
ping, reporting requirements and generates its own circus of preparatory meetings, dia-
logues with the accountors, responses to their draft reports, publicity fallouts and
follow-up rituals. All that eats away at the time available to scholars for their primary
duties in teaching and research.
Another source of irritation is the nature of the evaluation criteria and rules of interac-
tion entailed in various accountability arrangements. Administrators deplore the uncer-
tainty and costs associated with being forced to respond to unclear, unrealistic, impractical
or ever-changing standards and rules of the game . Administrative critiques of the
modus operandi of courts of audit have already been mentioned. Likewise, the perceived
volatility and the opportunism of political accountability forums in particular are seen as
a major cost factor by both ministers and top civil servants ( t Hart and Wille 2006 ). Often
with little or no prior notice, ministers and civil servants are required to appear in parlia-
ment to talk about what they feel are matters of detail or mere incidents in individual
cases. They are obliged to answer hundreds if not thousands of written parliamentary
questions each year, and they spend sometimes up to half of a normal employee s work-
ing week debating these matters with parliament. This is especially the case for ministers
and bureaucrats responsible for media-sensitive, politically controversial policy domains
such as criminal justice, health, and social policy.
One might dismiss these complaints. So what if administrators get nervous and irri-
tated with accountability forums? This probably means they really bite . Still, more and
more, some of these criticisms have been echoed by scholars, who cannot be accused of
self-serving bias. The notion that accountability obligations have progressed well beyond
the point of diminishing returns has been put forward by various scholars. Behn (2001 ,
pp. 11 13) talks about the accountability dilemma that he feels is growing upon contem-
porary policy-makers. Halachmi (2002a, b), Jos and Tompkins (2004) , and Dubnick (2005)
remind us of the salience of the accountability paradox, which holds that more account-
ability does not necessarily produce better government. Accountability overkill discour-
ages innovative and entrepreneurial behaviour in public managers ( Anechiarico and
Jacobs 1996; Power 1997 ). Others signal an accountability trap : as administrators are
measured up more frequently and intensely, so do they get better in meeting the require-
ments posed by their accountability forums but not necessarily performing better in the
real world of policy-making and public service delivery ( Meyer and Shaugnessy 1993 ;
Van Thiel and Leeuw 2003). De Bruin (2000) demonstrates in great detail the various
means by which a host of contemporary assessment and control mechanisms becomes
subverted by strategic managerial behaviour. Others have developed entire catalogues of
aws that may prejudice the design and viability of accountability arrangements includ-
ing tunnel vision, ritualization, mutual stereotyping, defensive routines, and hostile be-
haviour that serve to both hollow out and harden what was supposed to be a refl ective
discursive encounter between accountor and accountee (for further discussion of this
terminology, see Pollitt 2003 , p. 89). Finally, a recent volume of essays on public account-
ability is framed around the theme of an accountability crisis . This is said to be a pro-
duct of the current ‘ quickening ’ and ‘ fragmentation ’ of public accountability discourse
( Dowdle 2006 , p. 10) that has spawned inconsistencies in the differing logics that underlie
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[the very different] experiences and visions of public accountability entertained by the
many actors in contemporary governance systems ( Dowdle 2006 , p. 2). Simply put: too
much disjointed accountability talk exists, something which undermines accountability
practices.
We do not seek to judge the relative merits of these various claims; in any case, they
are bound to be highly contingent upon domain-specifi c historical paths, cultural norms
and institutional power constellations. But if for analytical purposes we take them at face
value, we deduce an ideal-type of accountability overload . This state looms when public
offi ce-holders or agencies are confronted with an accountability regime that: (1) imposes
extraordinarily high demands on their limited time and energy; (2) contains a compara-
tively large number of mutually contradictory evaluation criteria; (3) contains perfor-
mance standards that extend way beyond both their own and comparable authorities
good practices; and (4) contains performance standards that seem particularly conducive
to goal displacement or subversive behaviour. The more of these four characteristics a
given accountability regime can be said to possess, the higher the likelihood that it defeats
its purposes. In short, accountability regimes are no exception to the more general behav-
ioural modifi cation rule that big sticks rebound (see Braithwaite 1997 , p. 314).
All this talk about accountability costs and overload should not blind us to the
other end of the imaginary scale: the accountability defi cit ’ . Historically, this has been
the bigger concern, particularly with regard to the executive branch of government
( Braithwaite 2006; Dowdle 2006 ). Generations of constitutional and political theorists
have fi red away at it over the centuries. It refers to a condition where those who govern
us are not suffi ciently hemmed in by requirements to explain their conduct publicly to
legal, professional, administrative, social or political forums who have some sort of
power to sanction them. According to various scholars, accountability defi cits can be
found in various pockets of the public sector. One important area of concern has been
the formidable growth in formal powers, numbers of staff and organizational complexity
of the executive in comparison to the legislative. The (administrative) state is not dead
far from it. Day and Klein (1987 , pp. 33 4) have summed it up as follows: The real dif-
culty comes when government departments become too large and too complex
for ministers to accept personal responsibility for what is done in their name by their
civil servants . The balance between the two powers is said to have changed dramatically
to the detriment of Parliament. The result has been that (in parliamentary systems) gov-
ernment is still formally accountable to parliament, but parliament s ability to effectively
gain insight in and control of the executive is seriously hampered ( Bovens 1998 , p. 78;
Behn 2001 , pp. 76; Mulgan 2003 , p. 74). Another particularly pressing area of concern is
newly emerging theatres and practices of networked governance. These include multi-
lateral and multilevel governance practices such as the European Union, where a whole
chorus of scholars has lamented existing, and growing, accountability gaps ( Curtin 2004;
Fisher 2004; Arnull and Wincott 2001; Harlow 2002; Bergman and Damgaard 2000;
Schmitter 2004 ). Likewise, various types of hybrid organizations fusing private and
public tasks and forms have been taken to task on the issue of accountability defi cits
( Martin 1997; Edeling et al. 2004 ). For example, Koppell (2003 , p. 120) argues that al-
though an appearance and infrastructure of control may exist with regard to them,
government-sponsored enterprises de facto have the resources, ability and position ef-
fectively to control their own controllers .
As stated, these two ideal-types are the end of a continuum. Presumably, in an estab-
lished democracy, most public authorities will be embedded in accountability regimes
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that avoid both these extremes most of the time. Getting the balance right is diffi cult, but
not impossible (see Mulgan 2002 ). Yet in times of internationalization, deregulation of
public service delivery, the spread of quango s, hybrid organizations and networks, the
shape of executive power is constantly changing. The big question is: does executive
accountability keep up with these developments? Some accountability arrangements
may be hollowed out by these developments. Others may expand or become redesigned.
New ones may be created from scratch. In such a context, periodic assessment of possible
unintended effects and dysfunctions of new or evolving accountability arrangements
is appropriate.
ASSESSING ACCOUNTABILITY: IN SEARCH OF CRITERIA
The problem with most claims about the proportion of benign and pathological effects
of public accountability arrangements is that few if any of the parties to the debate specify
which standards they employ. The literature is remarkably light on assessment tools and
methods. 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. However, they tend to gloss over the underlying normative
questions what is the purpose of public accountability in a constitutional democratic
state and what principles for the assessment of accountability arrangements ensue from
this? Page (2004) is an important exception, but the scope of his analysis is limited. His
evaluation model focuses only on accountability for results in the context of interagency
collaboration in public service delivery. This leaves much ground uncovered.
So why is public accountability important, and how can we determine whether it is
doing its job? In the scholarly literature and in policy documents about public account-
ability, three answers recur, albeit implicitly, time and again. One: the job of public
accountability is important to provide a democratic means to monitor and control
government conduct. Two: accountability should help prevent executive abuses. Three:
it should enhance the learning capacity and effectiveness of the executive branch and its
partners in governance ( Aucoin and Heintzman 2000 ). Each of these three answers springs
from a distinct perspective on the rationale of public accountability, and consequently
contains the roots for a distinct set of criteria for assessing accountability practices.
The democratic perspective: control by citizens elected representatives
Public accountability is extremely important from a democratic theory perspective. It
enables citizens and their representatives to make those holding public offi ce answer for
their deeds ( March and Olsen 1995 , pp. 141 81; Mulgan 2003 ) (see table 1 ). This idea harks
back to Rousseau and Weber. These days it is often conceptualized in terms of a principal-
agent model. It stipulates that a modern representative democracy can be described as a
concatenation of principal-agent relationships ( Strom 2000, 2003; Lupia 2003 ). The citi-
zens, 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. Ministers subsequently entrust policy implementa-
tion to their ministries, who proceed to delegate parts of these tasks to more or less in-
dependent bodies and institutions. Public servants at the end of this chain of delegation
end up spending billions in taxpayers money, using their discretionary powers to, among
many other things, furnish licences and subsidies, distribute benefi ts, impose fi nes, pros-
ecute people, and lock them up if need be.
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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
(dis)pleasure at the ballot box. Hence, public accountability is an essential precondition
for the democratic process to work, since it provides citizens and their representatives
with the information needed for judging the propriety and effectiveness of government
conduct ( Przeworski et al. 1999 ). From this perspective, then, the quality of accountability
arrangements hinges upon their demonstrated ability to consolidate and reaffi rm the
democratic chain of delegation.
The constitutional perspective: prevention of corruption and abuse of power
A second classic mode of thought about public accountability is found in the liberal tradi-
tion of Locke, Montesquieu and the American Federalists ( O Donnell 1999; Behn 2001 ,
pp. 42 3). The main concern underlying this perspective is that of preventing tyranny by
absolute rulers, presumptuous elected leaders, or by an expansive, decentred, perhaps
partly privatized executive power. In this perspective, good governance arises from a
dynamic equilibrium between the various powers of and increasingly beyond the
state ( Witteveen 1991; Braithwaite 1997; Fisher 2004 , pp. 506 7) (see table 2 ). The remedy
TABLE 1 Assessing accountability: a democratic perspective
Democratic perspective: accountability and popular control
Central idea
Accountability controls and legitimizes government actions by linking them effectively to the ‘ democratic
chain of delegation ’ .
Central evaluation criterion
The degree to which an accountability arrangement or regime enables democratically legitimized bodies
to monitor and evaluate executive behaviour and to induce executive actors to modify that behaviour in
accordance with their preferences.
Concrete evaluation questions
a. Are democratically legitimized principals informed about the conduct of executive actors, and about the
social consequences of that conduct?
b. Do the debates between accountability forum and actors focus on whether the behaviour of the latter
accords with the democratically legitimized principals standards and preferences?
c. Does the accountability arrangement provide suffi ciently signifi cant incentives for executive actors to
commit themselves to the agenda of their democratically legitimized principals?
TABLE 2 Assessing accountability: a constitutional perspective
Constitutional perspective: accountability and equilibrium of power
Central idea
Accountability is essential in order to withstand the ever-present tendency toward power concentration and
abuse of powers in the executive branch.
Central evaluation criterion
The extent to which an accountability arrangement curtails the abuse of executive power and privilege.
Concrete evaluation questions
a. Does the accountability forum have enough investigative powers and information-processing capacity to
credibly evaluate executive behaviour, particularly regarding conformity of executive action with laws,
regulations and norms?
b. Does the accountability forum have incentives to engage executive actors in relevant questioning and
debate and is their interaction focused on conformity of actions with laws and norms?
c. Does the accountability forum possess credible sanctions to punish and deter executive misbehaviour?
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against an overbearing or improper government is the organization of institutional coun-
tervailing powers. Other public institutions, such as an independent judicial power or a
court of audit, are to act as such, complementary to the voter, parliament, and political
watchdogs. They are to be given the power to request that account be rendered over
particular forms or aspects of executive behaviour. From the constitutional point of view,
accountability arrangements are designed to keep the bastards honest . They should
prevent or at least uncover and redress abuse of public authority and other public
resources.
The learning perspective: enhancing government effectiveness
In the third, learning, perspective, the chief purpose of accountability is entirely different
again. Accountability is seen as a tool to make and keep governments, agencies and in-
dividual offi cials effective in delivering on their promises. The purpose of public account-
ability is to induce the executive branch to learn (Van den Berg 1999 , p. 40; Aucoin and
Heintzman 2000 , pp. 52 4) (see table 3 ). Accountability is effective when public authori-
ties routinely generate and after debate with accountability forums act upon external
feedback about their own performance ( Deutsch 1963; Luhmann 1966; Behn 2001 ) in
short, to truly ‘ communicate ’ with ‘ outside actors ’ ( O ’ Loughlin 1990 ). The possibility of
sanctions from clients and other stakeholders in their environment in the event of errors
and shortcomings motivates them to search for more intelligent ways of organizing their
business. Moreover, the public nature of the accountability process teaches others in simi-
lar positions what is expected of them, what works, and what doesn t. Public performance
reviews, for example, can induce many more administrators than those under scrutiny
to rethink and adjust their policies. Accountability mechanisms induce openness and
refl exivity in political and administrative systems that might otherwise be primarily
inward-looking (In ‘ t Veld et al. 1991). In the learning approach, therefore, accountability
is an essential part of what Argyris and Schön (1978) call deutero learning : an institu-
tionalized capacity to learn. Accountability is not so much an adversarial mechanism, as
it is in the two other perspectives, but rather an exhortative one. It is not about keeping
the bastards honest but about keeping the bastards smart and sharp .
TABLE 3 Assessing accountability: a learning perspective
Learning perspective: effective governance
Central idea
Accountability provides public offi ce-holders and agencies with feedback-based inducements to increase
their effectiveness and effi ciency.
Central evaluation criterion
The degree to which an accountability arrangement stimulates public executives and bodies to focus
consistently on achieving desirable societal outcomes.
Concrete evaluation questions
a. Does the accountability arrangement yield both actors and clients and key external stakeholders an
accurate, timely and clear diagnosis of important performance dimensions?
b. Does the accountability arrangement provide a setting and a set of interaction routines which induces
ongoing, consequential dialogue among executive actors and key stakeholders about performance
feedback?
c. Is the accountability forum suffi ciently strong to make accountors anticipate, yet suffi ciently ‘ safe ’ to
minimize defensive routines so that accountors adopt the lessons learned from performance feedback and
stakeholder dialogue?
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ASSESSING ACCOUNTABILITY: DEVELOPING THE PERSPECTIVES
The three perspectives outlined above offer more systematic frameworks for assessing
the effects of accountability arrangements. For each perspective we briefl y sketch below
the central ideas, dominant evaluation principles, and a few concrete questions to be used
in an assessment exercise.
The key concern of the democratic perspective is whether the accountability arrange-
ment adds to the possibilities open to voters, parliament or other representative bodies to
control executive power. Thus viewed, the main criterion is that accountability arrange-
ments should yield relevant information about the conduct of the government. The major
test for an accountability arrangement is whether it helps to overcome deeply ingrained
agency problems, such as moral hazard ( Strom 2003 ). It should provide democratically
legitimized principals (political or otherwise) with correct, timely and relevant informa-
tion about the behaviour of their agents. This can only happen if it is designed and operated
in such a way as to offer suffi cient incentives to agents to succumb, preferably even com-
mit themselves, to the oversight exercised by democratically legitimized principal(s).
From a constitutional perspective , the key question is whether the arrangement con-
tributes to rooting out executive corruption and the abuse of powers. This requires that
public accountability forums be powerful. They must be able to withstand the inherent
tendency of those in the executive branch to evade or subvert external control. The major
issue from this perspective is whether accountability arrangements offer enough incen-
tives for offi cials and agencies to refrain from abuse of authority. Accountability forums
should have enough investigative powers to reveal corruption or mismanagement, and
their available sanctions should be strong enough to send shock waves throughout the
system and make potential transgressors think twice before acting.
The learning perspective judges accountability arrangements and related transpar-
ency mechanisms to be successful if they make public authorities more effective in achiev-
ing set goals and more responsive to the needs and preferences of their key clienteles.
They are to do so by generating clear, bottom up feedback information, and by stimulat-
ing both accountees and accountors to refl ect and to debate about the signifi cance of this
information, both separately and in dialogue with one another ( Van der Knaap 1995 ). The
crucial questions from this perspective are whether the accountability arrangements offer
high-quality feedback, but also the right incentives to offi cials and agencies to reconsider
the values and assumptions that underlie their policies, procedures and organizations. If
accountability is to produce refl ection and learning, it has to be: focused on issues that
really matter to clients and other stakeholders; non-gratuitous in its forms and possible
consequences (see O Loughlin 1990 ); at the same time relatively safe for all parties
concerned so as to minimize the chances of defensive routines taking over the process
( Argyris and Schön 1978 ). As we saw earlier, students of accountability regimes as learn-
ing cycles, such as Behn and De Bruin, tend to agree that it has proven very hard to get
this delicate balance of desirable properties right.
TOWARDS AN INTEGRATED ASSESSMENT
The existence of these various perspectives makes the assessment of accountability ar-
rangements a somewhat equivocal exercise, since they need not always point in the same
direction. What is considered benefi cial from one perspective, may very well be judged
detrimental from another perspective. For example, judicial review of laws and regula-
tions may be considered an adequate form of public accountability from a constitutional
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© 2008 The Authors. Journal compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
perspective, and at the same time as inappropriate from a democratic perspective, be-
cause it suffers from what Bickell (1985) has called the counter majoritarian diffi culty ’ :
it limits the exercise of popular sovereignty through the legislative branch. Similarly,
overly rigorous democratic control may backfi re when it generates rule-obsessed orga-
nizations [that] turn the timid into cowards and the bold into outlaws (Zegans, quoted
in Behn 2001 , p. 30). Too much emphasis on administrative integrity and corruption
control, which would be considered benefi cial from a constitutional perspective, could
lead to a proceduralism that seriously hampers the refl exivity, and hence also the effi -
ciency and effectiveness, of public organizations deemed essential by the proponents of
the learning perspective ( Anechiarico and Jacobs 1996 ). In short, like most other social
phenomena, accountability is multifaceted, and cannot really be meaningfully assessed
by means of a single criterion ( O Loughlin 1990; Romzek and Dubnick 1998 ).
Clearly, some form of multicriteria evaluation is called for, notwithstanding the inher-
ent problems of such a method, such as unconscious and manipulated bias in the selec-
tion, operationalization, and weighting of criteria ( Buckley 1988; Bovens and t Hart 1996 ).
Since some of these diffi culties are quite fundamental, the best one can do is simply to
acknowledge them and be transparent about the analytical choices made in developing
one s assessment tools, and that is what we seek to do here. We proceed as follows. First
we disaggregate accountability into its three constituent parts; we then articulate evalu-
ation criteria for each part using each of the three perspectives presented above; we then
illustrate use of these three criteria sets in assessing specifi c accountability practices by
means of an example.
For an accountability relationship between an actor and a forum to be operative, three
components are essential ( Bovens 2006 ): the actor should be obliged to inform the forum
about his conduct; there should be an opportunity for the forum to debate with the actor
about his conduct as well as an opportunity for the actor to explain and justify his conduct
in the course of this debate; and both parties to the relationship should know that the
forum or some third party is able to not only pass judgement but also to present the actor
with salient consequences (see Day and Klein 1987 , p. 5; O Loughlin 1990; Romzek and
Dubnick 1998 , p. 6; Scott 2000 , p. 40; Mulgan 2003 , pp. 7 14). In any given accountability
relationship or set of arrangements, each of these critical components are designed in and
safeguarded to a particular degree. Moreover, each of these three evaluative perspectives
on accountability implies a different set of concerns regarding each of these three com-
ponents. Each represents a legitimate set of concerns regarding accountability, each has
its own take on optimal as well as pathological (defi cits and overloads) manifestations of
public accountability. The big question is: how to utilize these perspectives in practice?
As it stands now, each component of an accountability arrangement can be assessed with
reference to three rather different, partially contradictory, criteria. There is normative
tension here, particularly between the constitutional and the learning perspective: the
former is about curtailing executive power by building countervailing powers that are as
strong as possible, the latter is about creating a safe atmosphere conducive to business-
like re-examination of existing policies and practices. Assuming that each criteria set is
pertinent to any public accountability relationship or arrangement to some degree or
other, which is to prevail in any given case?
We think the most useful answer is: none. Rather than pinning them down by defi ni-
tion against one another, we propose combining the three criteria sets into an integrated
assessment tool. To arrive at that, we will fi rst analyse our case of an accountability prac-
tice of Dutch executive agencies.
DOES PUBLIC ACCOUNTABILITY WORK? 235
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© 2008 The Authors. Journal compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
An example: assessing boards of oversight for arm s-length agencies
The rise of arm s-length governance in The Netherlands and other OECD-countries has
roused a number of questions regarding their accountability ( Van Thiel 2000; Flinders 2001;
Pollitt and Bouckaert 2004 ). The appointment of boards of oversight has been one of the
most common responses to perceived accountability defi cits that might arise from granting
much autonomy to agencies. These boards now operate in many countries, but their per-
formance has not yet been studied widely ( Cornforth 2002; Luursema et al. 2003 ).
The boards of Dutch agencies have a hybrid character. They have to be independent
in their judgement, yet at the same time they are supposed to function as advisors to
management; in addition, they are appointed by the relevant minister. Their formal posi-
tion can be assessed from all of our three perspectives. From the democratic perspective,
they may be seen as substitutes for the political principal, because they are appointed by
him and have been given delegated powers of oversight that normally reside with the
principal. From the constitutional perspective, they can be seen as safeguards against
abuse of power, because they have to see to the proper execution of formal tasks and
they have to approve all major (fi nancial) decisions. From the learning perspective, boards
can be seen as quality improvers, since they are to give advice on all major decisions and
board members usually carry a wealth of experience.
Taken together, this is a formidable task for a single body even more so when we
consider that, on average, boards meet only once every two months. Expecting boards to
simultaneously substitute for the principal, prevent power-abuse and improve perfor-
mance may be asking too much. Drawing on an in-depth fi eld study of eight such boards,
we now consider how to assess the accountability practices that they have generated.
Boards and management generally meet once every two months to discuss everything
that is important . In the information phase, they are informed on a broad basis. One
respondent puts it like this We simply discuss all major topics and decisions before they
are presented to the minister (Respondent ( R from now on) 01). Another respondent
says: in principle, the board sees to the entire fi eld of operations of our organisation
(R67). The locus of information is therefore generally as broad as can be expected of a
body with a broad mandate.
The focus of attention of boards in the debating phase however is much narrower. The
discussion between board and management is characterized by most respondents as
‘ open ’ and ‘ mutually respectful ’ . Boards focus primarily on potential (political or nan-
cial) risks and the internal governance of the agencies. Whenever an agency s manage-
ment confl icts with its principal (minister and/or ministry), its board tends to side with
management and will try to smooth things over. It thus acts as a buffer against any at-
tempts by principals to tighten hierarchical control. In addition, discussions between
boards and management tend to be future-oriented rather than focused on past perfor-
mance. Respondents from both sides value the board s consultation and advice functions
more than its scrutiny functions. As one manager puts it: It is not really that we have to
ask their permission, it is more a consultative-sort of situation. Of course they have to
approve of certain issues. And they do. But mostly they basically have their say. It is
mostly feedback for management (R22).
When it comes to consequences, boards prefer to use informal methods above the use
of formal powers. In this respect they operate as other government-regulators (see Hood
et al. 1999 , p. 53). Besides, they are generally supportive of the decisions management
proposes. As one respondent says: their advice usually strengthens what we already do
(R69).
236 MARK BOVENS, THOMAS SCHILLEMANS AND PAUL T HART
Public Administration Vol. 86, No. 1, 2008 (225–242)
© 2008 The Authors. Journal compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
This overall picture is one of boards operating close to agency management. The inter-
action between them is kept under wraps and thus creates a relatively safe environment
for management. However, most interviewees clearly perceived it as an accountability
relationship. This is largely due to the fact that however cooperative its stance may be,
the board does maintain formal and informal links to the principal. Agency managers
can thus not afford to ignore it. Moreover, they can use these links proactively. As one
manager puts it: They can be important ambassadors for us (R58).
All this suggests that the role of boards with respect to agencies most closely meets the
criteria of the learning perspective. Boards tend to focus on their advisory, refl ective roles.
In the information phase, they receive all major policy documents at a point when they
can still infl uence decisions. In the debating phase, they focus on the agenda of the agent
and try to provide counsel. They are mostly described as sparring partners who pose
diffi cult questions about intended new policies and pinpoint risks and opportunities at
hand. The agents take this counselling role seriously. For the most part they invest con-
siderable time in the management of good relations with the board and indicate that they
would never neglect it. This is due to the formal powers of the board but it is also due
to the personal reputations of its members. The boards consist of weighty people, who
naturally know everybody (R16), one member is even described as a deity in this fi eld ’
(R48). Through this mode of operation, boards have a signifi cant, yet diffi cult to pin
down, infl uence on strategic choices of the agent. Since their counsel is mostly informal,
it is diffi cult to trace (R88). But all respondents indicate that they are important sparring
partners to management who provide valuable feedback. The board-management nexus
is a deliberative one, rather than a controlling one.
Current accountability arrangements between agencies and boards do not sit well with
the other two sets of criteria. What stands out from a constitutional perspective is that
boards concentrate hardly at all on preventing or uncovering irregularities. This is per-
haps surprising, since boards are empowered by strong investigative prerogatives. They
may demand access to the administration and buildings of the agency. Some boards may
even hear employees in closed meetings. In practice, boards hardly ever use these
powers. In their interactions with management little if any attention is paid to questions
concerning (im)propriety, abuse or corruption. This was highlighted in 2004 in a highly
public row over housing expenditures of the social security agency UWV. According to
the press and later according to parliament, the costs of UWV s new main offi ce had been
what was described as outrageous. The ministry was up in arms, the minister was put
under severe pressure by parliament and the agency s director ended up having to leave.
After the crisis, not only management but also the board were criticized. Why hadn t it
prevented management s excessive spending on furbishing the main offi ce, the minister
asked them in a public letter. It turned out that the board had approved of the general
guidelines concerning the move to the new offi ce but had failed to monitor UWV man-
agement s implementation of those guidelines. Its presence had had no preventive effect,
much to the frustration of the minister. One interviewee in this case refl ected: If you had
asked me two and a half years ago, I would have said that it s a good thing to have a
board for the agency. I never really thought about it anyway. It is only when something
goes wrong that you realize that they are of no help (R59).
Neither does accountability of agencies to boards satisfy the criteria offered by the
democratic perspective. The introduction of boards grants the democratic chain of dele-
gation slightly more insight in the agent than it would have had otherwise, but does not
contribute to the ability of the principal to steer or control the agent. Boards do increase
DOES PUBLIC ACCOUNTABILITY WORK? 237
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© 2008 The Authors. Journal compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
the information position of the minister, in two ways. They can fi rst of all be informants
to the principal. Board members occasionally meet in person with the minister or high
ranking civil servants and thus provide some insight into the agency s operations. Sec-
ondly, boards often publish annual reports about their oversight and recommendations
to the agency. They also have to approve of important decisions, and account for these
choices as well. The principals use what they can see of the board s activities as a re-
alarm device : they scan for indications of problems. When boards make negative state-
ments about the agency, according to a civil servant from the parent department who was
interviewed, they would take it very seriously. Considering that the organisation would
do everything to prevent this from happening ( ) so if it does happen, we really have
to take it seriously (R35). In a way, boards thus operate on behalf of the principal. This
is perhaps not surprising, since it is the principal who formally appoints them. However,
this is not at all how the average board member interprets his own role. One stated
poignantly: I m not here to help the minister (R67). Another echoed this: in no way do
I feel myself to be an actor of the minister (R85). When advising or steering the agent,
boards do not necessarily steer management towards the principal s wishes. And when
the agent clashes with the principal, the board tends to side with the agent, not with the
principal. In one example, agent and board thought that funding levels to the agency
from the department were clearly insuffi cient. The board issued the following formal
advice to the agent: the board advises to stop operations in some areas when funding is
insuffi cient. Be a tough negotiator . In short: although boards may provide some useful
information to the principal from time to time, they do not contribute to his control of
the agent. Table 4 sums up our ndings for the case of agency-boards. It reiterates, now
in integrated fashion, the operationalized criteria of the three perspectives. For each cri-
terion, the assessment emerging from the case exercise is briefl y summarized.
The exercise shows that the tool facilitates a systematic and nuanced assessment of a
given accountability arrangement. If so desired, these assessments could be hardened
up ’ by quantifi cation. For each cell in table 4 a score could be assigned, and intersubjec-
tively validated by Delphi-type expert consultations. This would yield sum scores for
each of the table s three columns. These scores could then be compared against scores
obtained on the same dimension by other accountability arrangements.
What this approach does not yield, in and of itself, are fi nal, integrated judgements (or
scores). It all depends on the relative weight one chooses to assign to each of the three
perspectives. Judgements of this kind will always refl ect the ideology of the assessor in
deciding which values matter most and which performance criteria are most salient given
the kind of accountability arrangement under scrutiny. Our tool cannot resolve these
normative riddles. All it does is provide a coherent structure for a multicriteria assessment
that can be used for benchmarking purposes, particularly with reference to the account-
ability arrangements of highly comparable executive agencies (such as police forces,
prison services, health-care institutions and school systems) and/or highly comparable
types of accountability forums (such as boards, parliaments and audit offi ces).
CONCLUDING REFLECTIONS
Designing, justifying and evaluating different modes of organizing accountability is an
old but persistent challenge to scholars and practitioners of public administration. De-
bates about it have often stayed at the lofty heights of political, constitutional and man-
agement theory. This paper has sought to bring the matter down to earth. In our case of
238 MARK BOVENS, THOMAS SCHILLEMANS AND PAUL T HART
Public Administration Vol. 86, No. 1, 2008 (225–242)
© 2008 The Authors. Journal compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
TABLE 4 Accountability components: criteria and summary conclusions for our case
Democratic Constitutional Learning
Information
provision
Democratic chain of delegation is
informed about the conduct and
consequences of executive actors
Forum gains insight into whether agent s
behaviour is in accordance with laws,
regulations and norms
Information gathering and provision routines yield an
accurate, timely and clear diagnosis of important
performance dimensions
Slight: boards generate limited
information for the principal
Slight: boards do receive much
important information and have strong
investigative powers
Yes: information phase is relatively open and timed
halfway through decision-procedures. This prevents
closure and defensiveness of actor
Debate Interaction concentrates on conformity
of action with principal s preferences
Interaction concentrates on conformity of
actions with laws and norms
Ongoing, substantial dialogue with clients and other
stakeholders about performance feedback
No No Yes: debate characterizes as refl ection on agenda of agent
by reputable forum
Consequences Ability of democratic chain of
delegation to modify the actor s
policies and/or incentive structures
Forum should be able to exercise credible
‘ deterrence ’ vis à vis the actor
Suffi ciently strong outside actors to make accountors
anticipate, yet suffi ciently safe culture of sanctioning to
minimize defensive routines
No: forum operates independent from
principal
Hardly at all: because forums tend to
concentrate on issues of general policy
Yes: exchanges are open and respectful , yet not devoid of
political risks
Cumulative
effect
Actor acceptance of principal s right to
control its policies and performance
Actor awareness that powerful
watchdog(s) observe its integrity and
check its powers
Actor commitment to continuous improvement by
dialogue-induced focus on outcome achievement
No: forum sides with agent in case
of confl ict and may strengthen
adversarial behaviour between
principal and agent
Hardly at all: the forum is for the most
part a sparring partner to management
Yes: whereas principal is concerned with control, boards
put more weight on achieving goals and being an
innovative agency
DOES PUBLIC ACCOUNTABILITY WORK? 239
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© 2008 The Authors. Journal compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
agency-boards, we showed how an accountability relationship explicitly designed to
meet all three logics of accountability ends up scoring well on only one criteria set. The
case exemplifi es how our perspective can be used to arrive at a systematic intersubjective
evaluation of a given accountability arrangement.
Not everyone will agree with our way of modelling standards for public accountability,
and it is more than fi tting that we should conclude this conceptual mapping exercise with
a number of caveats: these can also be read as an agenda of the analytical challenges that
lie ahead. Firstly, it should be noted that these three perspectives do not completely fi ll
the normative space surrounding public accountability. From a broader regime perspec-
tive, public accountability arrangements may be judged according to their effects upon
the legitimacy of the political system at large. Such a macro perspective has become in-
creasingly salient in recent years, as mass media, interest groups and citizens in many
Western countries have become increasingly sceptical about the political class and public
institutions in general. Well-designed accountability mechanisms 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, may promote acceptance
of government authority and the citizens confi dence in the government s administration
( Aucoin and Heintzman 2000 , pp. 49 52). Ill-designed or badly managed ones, on the
contrary, may serve to reinforce the idea that the responsiveness of public offi cials and
agencies is something of a charade. Likewise, in the event of major disasters, policy fi ascos
and scandals, processes of public account giving may also have an important ritual, pu-
rifying 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 par-
liamentary inquiries, offi cial investigations, or public hearings in the case of natural dis-
asters, plane crashes, or railroad accidents. Post-dictatorial truth commissions in South
Africa and various Latin American countries, as well as various war crime tribunals, are
at least partly meant to fulfi l this function ( Barkan 2000; De Brito et al. 2001; Elster 2004 ).
Public processes of calling to account create the opportunity for penitence, reparation,
and forgiveness and can thus provide social or political closure ( Harlow 2002 , p. 9).
Secondly, the framework developed here is not impervious to the generic methodologi-
cal challenges of evaluation research. Thorny issues of operationalization (including the
eradication of possible contamination between the three criteria sets), measurement, mul-
ticriteria weighting, causal attribution, bias reduction, controlling comparison and the
like await analysts seeking to apply this framework in empirical research ( Rossi and
Freeman 1993; Bovens and t Hart 1996 ). And precisely because accountability is such a
feel-good concept and condensatory symbol in contemporary public management speak,
the diffi culties involved in treating it as all but that in rigorous research designs are bound
to be considerable. Space constraints prevent us from addressing these matters in full
here, but in our current research we aim to do just that. We can only hope that this article
persuades some others to do likewise.
Finally, and most fundamentally, the accountability logics presented here are fi rmly
grounded in monocentric, state-oriented models of governance, which presupposes that
accountor and accountee are known, coherent, straightforward entities embedded in
a single and clear-cut governance system. Contemporary theory and practice of public
policy-making and public service delivery, however, stress their increasingly pluricentric,
multilevel, networked, hybrid, and fl uid nature ( Rhodes 1997; Klijn and Koppenjan 2004 ).
240 MARK BOVENS, THOMAS SCHILLEMANS AND PAUL T HART
Public Administration Vol. 86, No. 1, 2008 (225–242)
© 2008 The Authors. Journal compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Classic accountability dilemmas such as the many hands problem take on an altogether
greater poignancy in the case of decentred governance arrangements. Moreover, when
public policy is produced in complex networks featuring multiple, overlapping coordina-
tion mechanisms, the very identifi cation and make up of accountability relationships
becomes problematic. Principal and agent roles are not always clear-cut, and may shift
among the same set of actors depending upon the project, service or relational aspect at
hand. Accountability easily gets lost in the cracks of horizontal and hybrid governance,
and it is doubtful whether accountability arrangements designed on the basis of (combi-
nations of) the three traditional perspectives outlined here are suffi ciently robust to pre-
vent this from happening. This is a major challenge for accountability scholars, one that
is beginning to be taken up in the context of European governance ( Curtin 2004; Fischer
2004; Benz 2007; Papadopoulos 2007 ) and public-private collaborative arrangements
( Gilmour and Jensen 1998; Klingner et al. 2001; Whitaker et al. 2004 ), but it does not seem
to have travelled well beyond that.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
This paper was completed while Mark Bovens was a visiting fellow at the Political Sci-
ence and Philosophy Programs of the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian
National University, whose hospitality is gratefully acknowledged. An earlier version of
this paper was presented at the International Research Colloquium Accountable Gover-
nance at Queen s University Belfast and the Political Science Seminar at the Research
School of Social Sciences, the Australian National University. The authors are grateful to
the organizers and participants of both occasions for helpful comments, particularly Rod
Rhodes, who followed up with extensive written comments. Thanks for additional com-
ments are also due to Marianne van de Steeg, Madaline Busuioc, Deirde Curtin and
Gijs-Jan Brandsma. The case of accountability to boards is based on research into the
boards of eight Dutch agencies. Interviews were conducted with around 40 persons who
are either members of a board, or work for the agency or for the parent department.
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... Specifically, this study aims to assess to which extent specific mechanisms are linked to specific types of audiences. Building on accountability studies (Bovens et al., 2008;Willems & Van Dooren, 2012) that indicate that accountability serves different purposes depending on the type of relationship in which it occurs, we argue that agencies presumably have different incentives to seek accountability depending on the audience. For this reason, we suggest that the type of audience to whom the voluntary account is rendered is a key explanatory factor as to why specific mechanisms become activated. ...
... On the one hand, learning motivations can be seen as following from the logic of appropriateness. Public institutions may feel compelled to foster learning through accountability in order to achieve desirable goals, such as improving the quality of policies or increasing client satisfaction (Bovens et al., 2008;Schillemans, 2011). On the other hand, enhanced learning through accountability also serves the interests of the account-giver. ...
... There are several cues in the literature indicating the potential relevance of audiences as a factor that could explain when a particular mechanism, or a combination thereof, prevails. First, a consistent finding is that accountability has different functions and leads to different outcomes depending on who is at the other end of the relationship (Bovens et al., 2008;Willems & Van Dooren, 2012). As agencies can choose the audience themselves when accountability is voluntary, they have control over the most likely function/outcome of the accountability they engage in. ...
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Accountability‐seeking behaviours of public agencies are said to be motivated, among others, by attempts at pre‐empting stricter mandatory provisions, logic of appropriateness motives, Machiavellian opportunism, reputational considerations and a perceived need to compensate for the inadequacy of traditional arrangements. However, we do not know when a particular rationale, or a combination thereof, prevails. This study therefore examines how public agencies seek accountability, to whom and for what reason. Relying on data from 15 interviews with top‐level managers/directors and 75 survey responses, it demonstrates that the type of audience to whom the account is rendered is a key explanatory factor as to why specific mechanisms become “activated”. This study furthermore uncovers why certain rationales are associated with specific types of audiences. Thus, rather than a “holy grail” of one set of driving motivations, our study suggests, one should look at the audience to understand why a public agency seeks accountability. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.
... Consequently, one approach to the study of accountability consists of focusing on the ethics and virtues of both civil servants and politicians. However, other authors prefer to study accountability by understanding it as a social mechanism (Bovens, Schillemans, & Hart, 2008). Looking at it through this second perspective, accountability is seen as an interactive process, where one entity explains and justifies its actions to another with the authority and legitimacy to judge its conduct and impose sanctions (Bovens, 2005(Bovens, , 2007Schillemans, 2011;Willems, 2010). ...
Chapter
Climate change requires a global commitment with the implementation of urgent measures to cut emissions of gases that are harmful to living beings. The various international conventions have encouraged the development of activities aimed at combating global warming, reducing air pollution and ensuring the preservation of biodiversity. In this context, the objective of this research is to measure the efficiency of environmental protection activities carried out by public and private entities in European Union countries. By applying data envelopment analysis and the Malmquist Index (MI), the pattern of performance during the period 2014-2017 can be determined. This in turn can help guide the implementation of sustainable policies to meet the challenges established. The first part of the analysis explains the performance of the two types of policy (private and public) in European Union countries, showing the different outcomes achieved through expenditure on public and private activities. The second part involves a comparative analysis of the different countries and their environmental protection policies in the period 2014-2017. The results show that, with the exception of Switzerland—where overall a high level of efficiency is found for the activities in both the private and public sectors—there are major differences in the efficiency levels of private companies and the public sector in European countries. For example, Ireland’s private sector activities are among the most efficient, but it registers some of the lowest values at state level, along with the United Kingdom and Spain. Moreover, the MI shows that, on average in the years under study, private environmental protection activities have not achieved increases in productivity, while public sector advances in this regard barely exceed 0.8%. Proposals for improvement place the emphasis on a symbiosis between the two policies (private and public), and their coordination through the European Union as a supranational body.
... Le terme « Accountability » est souvent utilisé à tort comme un synonyme, parmi d'autres, de la bonne gouvernance, la transparence, l'équité ou l'intégrité (Bovens, 2010). Personne ne semble contester le besoin et les bénéfices de l'accountability, cependant la manière dont celle-ci est définie et utilisée provoque de nombreux débats (Aucoin & Heintzman, 2000;Bovens, Schillemans, & Hart, 2008;Christensen & Laegreid, 2014;Sinclair, 1995). L'accountability peut être vue sous deux angles principaux : celui de la vertu ou celui du mécanisme. ...
... The reforms can change the provisions on accountability deliberately through formal changes in design or involuntarily, resulting in a new practice of accountability. Usually, accountability is an ambiguous issue in the reform initiatives, and it has been said that the reforms both produce overload of responsibility and lack of responsibility (Bovens, Schillemans, & Hart, 2008). ...
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The issue of accountability, particularly with regard to the use of public resources, represents one of the most significant and necessary aspects faced by a public administration. This work, therefore, focuses on the transparency of information with regard to the economic viability of a public administration, paying specific attention to the local and regional authorities which have been subject to major reforms in accounting systems. Harmonised accounting is the term given to the complex and multifaceted process of reforming public accounting, as provided by Italian Law No. 196, Article 2, December 31, 2009, and is aimed at unifying, comparing and aggregating the public administration financial statement, carrying out the operations with the same methods and accounting policies, and seeking to satisfy the necessity for information and accountability relating to the coordination of public finances. Several studies have analyzed the effects of accounting reforms on accountability. However, there is still a lack of studies addressing the effects of the Italian accounting reform on accountability in Italian local authorities. This article contributes to research in this area by examining the question of whether, in the first 18 months since the Italian reform’s introduction, accountability has become more or less apparent between the local politicians who use the financial reports both as a method for checking public finances and in order to help inform their own decision-making. Through two case studies, this work analyses the perceptions of local politicians with respect to the level of accountability displayed as part of the accounting reform.
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Public accountability forums can be useful mechanisms for ensuring that governments are responsive to the perspectives, preferences, and needs of citizens. This study explores how ICTs are affecting public accountability forums and how citizens interact with elected and appointed government officials. A case study of a municipal government in Ontario, Canada, describes how a virtual public accountability forum emerged and functioned based on social media data and interviews with public officials. The case demonstrates that social media can facilitate new channels of interaction between citizens and public officials. Key features of these virtual forums include anonymous participation, variable duration, and dynamic audience size. The case also demonstrates that the demand for information provision within accountability relationships is not just a singular type of ex‐post exchange. There is a new channel of information exchange that is continuous and malleable because it can evolve and change instantaneously over ICTs. Les forums de responsabilité publique sont des mécanismes permettant aux gouvernements de rester attentifs aux points de vue, aux préférences et aux besoins des citoyens. Cette étude porte sur la façon dont les TIC influencent les forums de responsabilité publique et les interactions des citoyens avec les représentants élus et nommés du gouvernement. À partir d'une étude de cas portant sur une administration municipale de l’Ontario, au Canada, l'auteur décrit la mise en place et le fonctionnement d'un forum virtuel de responsabilité publique, en se basant sur des données issues des médias sociaux et sur des entretiens réalisés auprès des fonctionnaires. L'analyze met en évidence le fait que les médias sociaux favorisent l’émergence de nouveaux canaux d'interaction entre les citoyens et les fonctionnaires. Les principales caractéristiques de ces forums virtuels sont la participation anonyme, la durée variable et la taille dynamique du public. Le résultat montre également que la demande en informations prévue dans le cadre des relations de responsabilité n'est pas seulement un type singulier d’échange a posteriori. Il existe un nouveau canal d’échange d'informations qui est continu et malléable, car il peut évoluer et changer instantanément grâce aux TIC.
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Denetim alanında yaşanan gelişmeler, yozlaşmayı engelleyebilmek için; siyasi ve idari denetim, yargı denetimi, ombudsman denetimi (kamu denetçisi), ve kamuoyunun denetimi şeklinde kontrol sistemleri uygulanmasını sağlamıştır. Güncel denetim anlayışında bu geleneksel yöntemlere ek olarak; hesap verebilirlik, performans denetimi, saydamlık, etik değerlerin ön plana çıkarılması ve etik denetimi şeklinde yöntemlere ağırlık verildiği yeni uygulamalar ve değerler öne çıkmaktadır. Bu çalışma kavramsal açıdan; etik, hesap verebilirlik ve denetim olgularını ele alarak; Türkiye’de kamu yönetiminde yaşanan denetim sorunlarının tespiti ve yapılan tespitler doğrultusunda bazı öneriler sunmayı hedeflemektedir.
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In many countries, relational field dynamics between tax administrators and corporate taxpayers have undergone significant changes in recent years. We conceive of cooperative compliance models implemented in the Netherlands and the UK between large corporate taxpayers and the respective tax administrations as dynamic strategic action fields, nested within the wider tax field and influenced by shifts in the external environment. Drawing on a series of interviews with skilled actors we identify similarities between the two countries in terms of the initial motivation for introducing cooperative compliance. We also identify differences in the subsequent trajectories. We find that within the respective strategic action fields, an imaginary of cooperation built around mutual trust contributes to the sustainability of the field. Vulnerability to developments in proximate fields on the other hand undermines field sustainability. Together these concepts help to explain the different trajectories and demonstrate the value in exploring shared understandings in strategic actions fields as imaginaries and paying more attention to the influence of proximate fields. The findings have implications for regulatory policy design in other settings.
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Among the different instruments of collaborative governance, participatory budgeting (PB) is of particular interest in Poland. PB includes the residents who co-decide about local public expenditure. PB proponents suggest that it has the potential to democratize budgeting but others point to the ease with which organized groups sometimes capture the process to serve their interests. The analysis shows that due to the weak axiological grounds that result from the infringements of all nodal public values, e.g. human dignity, sustainability, citizen involvement, openness, secrecy, compromise, integrity, and robustness, PB in Poland has little potential to enhance accountability for the protection of the common good.
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Parliamentary democracy is the most common way of organizing delegation and accountability in contemporary democracies. Yet knowledge of this type of regime has been incomplete and often unsystematic. Delegation and Accountability in Parliamentary Democracies offers new conceptual clarity on the topic. Taking principal-agent theory as its framework, the work illustrates how a variety of apparently unrelated representation issues can now be understood. This procedure allows scholarship to move well beyond what have previously been cloudy and confusing debates aimed at defining the virtues and perils of parliamentarism. This new empirical investigation includes all 17 West European parliamentary democracies. These countries are compared in a series of cross-national tables and figures, and 17 country chapters provide a wealth of information on four discrete stages in the delegation process: delegation from voters to parliamentary representatives, delegation from parliament to the prime minister and cabinet, delegation within the cabinet, and delegation from cabinet ministers to civil servants. Each chapter illustrates how political parties serve as bonding instruments, which align incentives and permit citizen control of the policy process. This is complemented by a consideration of external constraints, such as courts, central banks, corporatism, and the European Union, which can impinge on national-level democratic delegation. The concluding chapters go on to consider how well the problems of delegation and accountability are solved in these countries. Delegation and Accountability in Parliamentary Democracies provides an unprecedented guide to contemporary European parliamentary democracies. As democratic governance is transformed at the dawn of the twenty-first century, it illustrates the important challenges faced by the parliamentary democracies of Western Europe.