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

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

Mark Bovens

Professor of Public Administration

Utrecht School of Governance

Utrecht University

Bijlhouwerstraat 6

3511 ZC Utrecht

The Netherlands

Draft, made for CONNEX, Research Group 2: Democracy and Accountability in the EU

1. The concept of public accountability1
Accountability is one of those golden concepts that no one can be against. It is increasingly used in political discourse and policy documents because it conveys an image of transparency and trustworthiness. However, its evocative powers make it also a very elusive concept because it can mean many different things to different people, as anyone studying accountability will soon discover. This paper nevertheless tries to develop an analytical framework for the empirical study of accountability arrangements in the public domain. It starts from a narrow, relational definition of accountability and distinguishes a number of indicators that can be used to identify and classify accountability arrangements. Furthermore, it develops three perspectives to assess and evaluate accountability arrangements in the public domain.

    1. From accounting to accountability

The word ‘accountability’ is Anglo-Norman, not Anglo-Saxon, in origin. Historically and semantically, it is closely related to accounting, in its literal sense of bookkeeping. According to Dubnick (2002: 7-9), the roots of the contemporary concept can be traced to the reign of William I, in the decades after the 1066 Norman conquest of England. In 1085 William required all the property holders in his realm to render a count of what they possessed. These possessions were assessed and listed by royal agents in the so-called Domesday Books. This census was not held for taxation purposes alone; it also served as a means to establish the foundations of royal governance. The Domesday Books listed what was in the king’s realm; moreover, the landowners were all required to swear oaths of fealty to the crown. By the early twelfth century, this had evolved into a highly centralized administrative kingship that was ruled through centralized auditing and semi-annual account-giving.

In the centuries since the reign of William I of England, accountability has slowly wrestled free from its etymological bondage with accounting. In contemporary political discourse, ‘accountability’ and ‘accountable’ no longer convey a stuffy image of bookkeeping and financial administration, but they hold strong promises of fair and equitable governance. Moreover, the accounting relationship has almost completely reversed. ‘Accountability’ does not refer to sovereigns holding their subjects to account, but to the reverse, it is the authorities themselves who are being held accountable by their citizens.

Since the late twentieth century, the Anglo-Saxon world in particular has witnessed a transformation of the traditional bookkeeping function in public administration into a much broader form of public accountability (Harlow 2002: 19). This broad shift from financial accounting to public accountability ran parallel to the introduction of New Public Management by the Thatcher-government in the United Kingdom and to the Reinventing Government reforms initiated by the Clinton-Gore administration in the United States. Both reforms introduced a range of private sector management styles and instruments into the public sector (Pollitt & Bouckaert 2005), including contract management both within and outside the public sector, the use of performance indicators and benchmarks to evaluate and compare the effectiveness and efficiency of public agencies, to name but a few. Most of these instruments require extensive auditing to be effective.

This shift from financial accounting to performance auditing and public accountability can also be observed on the European continent, although the speed and scope differs. Countries with a strong tradition of administrative law and a strong Rechtsstaat, such as France, Germany and Italy, have, on average, been less vigorous in adopting these more managerially oriented styles of governance. Countries like the Netherlands, Sweden, and Finland are intermediate cases (Pollitt et al. 1999: 197; Pollitt & Bouckaert 2005: 98-99).

The emancipation of ‘accountability’ from its bookkeeping origins is therefore originally an Anglo-American phenomenon – if only because other languages, such as French, Portuguese, Spanish, German, Dutch, or Japanese, have no exact equivalent and do not (yet) distinguish semantically between ‘responsibility’ and ‘accountability’ (Mulgan 2000; Harlow 2002:14-15; Dubnick 2002).2

1.2 Accountability as an icon

In the NPM ideology, public accountability is both an instrument and a goal. What started as an instrument to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of public governance, has gradually become a goal in itself. Nowadays, accountability has become a Good Thing, of which it seems we cannot have enough (Pollit 2003: 89). As a concept, however, ‘accountability’ is rather elusive. It has become a hurrah-word, like ‘learning’, ‘responsibility’, or ‘solidarity’, to which no one can object. It is one of those evocative political words that can be used to patch up a rambling argument, to evoke an image of trustworthiness, fidelity, and justice, or to hold critics at bay.

Melvin Dubnick (2002: 2-3) gives a fine example of the evocative use of the concept. He has made a scan of the legislation that has been proposed to the US Congress. The word ‘accountability’ occurs in the title of between 50 and 70 proposed bills in each two-year term. The focus of these ‘accountability bills’ is extremely broad and ranged in 2001-2002 from the Accountability for Accountants Act, the Accountability for Presidential Gifts Act, and the Arafat Accountability Act, to the Polluter Accountability Act, the Syria Accountability Act, and the United Nations Voting Accountability Act. The use of the term ‘accountability’ is usually limited to the title of these acts. In most bills, the term is rarely mentioned again, let alone defined. It is merely used as an ideograph, as a rhetorical tool to convey an image of good governance and to rally supporters (McGee 1980). Dubnick calls this the iconical role of the word ‘accountability’. Accountability has become an icon for good governance both in the public and in the private sector.

For anyone reflecting on public accountability, it is impossible to disregard these strong evocative overtones. As an icon, the concept has become less useful for analytical purposes, and today resembles a garbage can filled with good intentions, loosely defined concepts, and vague images of good governance. Nevertheless, we should heed the summons from Dubnick (2002) to save the concept from its advocates and friends, as he so succinctly put it.

My general aim in this paper is to make the concept more amenable to empirical analysis. For example, it has been argued that the European Union suffers from serious accountability deficits (Harlow 2002, Fisher 2004, Van Gerven 2005: 63-13). But how can we establish the existence of accountability deficits? This paper tries to provide some analytical building blocks for addressing these types of value laden questions. In order to get a grip on these sort of questions, it is important to distinguish between analytical and evaluative issues.

First, the aim of this paper is to develop a parsimonious analytical framework that can help to establish more systematically whether organisations or officials, exercising public authority, are subject to public accountability at all. This is basically a mapping exercise – for example: what are the accountabilities, formal and informal, of a particular European agency? For this purpose we need to establish when a certain practice or arrangement qualifies as a form of accountability. In order to give more colour to our map, we also want to be able to distinguish several, mutually exclusive, types of accountability.

Secondly, and separately, this paper aims to develop an evaluative framework that can be used to assess these accountability maps more systematically. For this purpose we need perspectives that can help us to evaluate these arrangements: are the arrangements to hold the agency accountable adequate or not, sufficient or insufficient, effective or ineffective?

I will start with the analytical issues: which states of affaires qualify as ‘accountability’?

    1. Broad and narrow accountability

In contemporary political and scholarly discourse ‘accountability’ often serves as an conceptual umbrella that covers various other distinct concepts. It is used as a synonym for many loosely defined political desiderata, such as transparency, equity, democracy, efficiency, responsiveness, responsibility, and integrity (Mulgan 2000b: 555; Behn 2001: 3-6; Dubnick 2002). The term ‘has come to stand as a general term for any mechanism that makes powerful institutions responsive to their particular publics’ (Mulgan 2003: 8).

Particularly in American scholarly and political discourse ‘accountability’ often is used interchangeably with ‘good governance’ or virtuous behaviour, as was already illustrated by the usage in the American bills. Accountability in this broad sense is a no-opposite concept, a concept ‘without specified termination of boundaries’ (Sartori 1970: 1042). For O’Connell (2005:86), for example, accountability is present when public services have a high quality, at a low cost and are performed in a courteous manner. Considine, an Australian scholar, squares accountability with responsiveness, but in the very broad sense of ‘the appropriate exercise of a navigational competence: that is, the proper use of authority to range freely, across a multirelationship terrain in search of the most advantageous path to success’ (Considine 2002: 22). Koppell (2005) distinguishes no less than five different dimensions of accountability – transparency, liability, controllability, responsibility, responsiveness – that are each ideographs and umbrella concepts themselves. Such very broad conceptualisations of the concept make it impossible to establish empirically whether an organisation is accountable, because each of the various elements needs extensive operationalisation itself and because the various elements cannot be measured along the same scale. Some dimensions, such as transparency, are instrumental for accountability, but not constitutive of accountability, others, such as responsiveness, are more evaluative instead of analytical dimensions.

Accountability in this very broad sense is basically an evaluative, not an analytical concept. It is used to positively qualify a state of affaires 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. Elsewhere (Bovens 1998), I have called this active responsibility, or responsibility-as-virtue, because it is about the standards for proactive responsible behaviour of actors. Accountability in this broad sense is an essentially contested concept (Gallie 1962: 121), because there is no general consensus about the standards for accountable behaviour, and they differ from role to role, time to time, place to place, and from speaker to speaker.3

In this paper, I will not define the concept in such a broad, evaluative sense, but in a much more narrow, sociological sense. ‘Accountability’ is not just another political catchword; it also refers to concrete practices of account giving. I will stay close to its etymological and historical roots and define it as a specific social relation - following, among others, Day & Klein (1987:5), Romzek & Dubnick (1998:6), Lerner & Tetlock (1999:255), McCandless (2001:22), Scott (2000: 40), Pollit (2003:89), and Mulgan (2003: 7-14).

The most concise description of accountability would be: ‘the obligation to explain and justify conduct’. This implies a relationship between an actor, the accountor, and a forum, the account-holder, or accountee (Pollitt 2003: 89). Explanations and justifications are not made in a void, but vis-à-vis a significant other. This usually involves not just the provision of information about performance, but also the possibility of debate, of questions by the forum and answers by the actor, and eventually of judgment of the actor by the forum. Judgment also implies the imposition of formal or informal sanctions on the actor in case of malperformance or, for that matter, of rewards in case of adequate performance. This is what I would call narrow accountability.4 Elsewhere, I have called this passive responsibility (Bovens, 1998: 26), or responsibility-as-accountability, because actors are held to account by a forum, ex post facto, for their conduct.
1.4 Accountability as a social relation

Accountability in the narrow sense, as used in this paper, refers to a specific set of social relations that can be studied empirically. This raises taxonomical issues: when does a social relation qualify as a case of ‘accountability’? Accountability will here be defined as a relationship between an actor and a forum, in which the actor has an obligation to explain and to justify his or her conduct, the forum can pose questions and pass judgment, and the actor can be sanctioned.

This relatively simple definition contains a number of elements that need further explanation. The actor can be either an individual, in our case an official or civil servant, or an organisation. With public accountability, the actor will often be a public institution or a government agency. The significant other, the accountability forum, can be a specific person, such as a superior, a minister, or a journalist, or it can be an agency, such as parliament, a court, or the audit office, but it can also be a more virtual entity, such as, in the case of public accountability, the general public.

The relationship between the forum and the actor often will have the nature of a principal-agent relation - the forum being the principal, e.g. parliament, who has delegated authority to a minister, the agent, who is held to account himself regularly about his performance in office. This is particular the case with political forms of accountability (Strom 2000; 2003). However, as we will see, in many accountability relations, the forums are not principals of the actors, for example courts in case of legal accountability or professional associations in case of professional accountability.

The obligation that lies upon the actor can be formal or informal. Public officials often will be under a formal obligation to render account on a regular basis to specific forums, such as supervisory agencies, courts, or auditors. In the wake of administrative deviance, policy failures, or disasters, public officials can be forced to appear in administrative or penal courts or to testify before parliamentary committees. A tragic example of the latter is the arms experts David Kelly, of the British Ministry of Defence, who was forced to testify before two parliamentary committees in the summer of 2003 about his press contacts regarding the Cabinet’s claim that the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq could launch weapons of mass destruction – and who subsequently committed suicide. But the obligation can also be informal, as in the case of press conferences and informal briefings, or even self imposed, as in the case of voluntary audits.

The relationship between the actor and the forum, the actual account giving, usually consists of at least three elements or stages. First of all, it is crucial that the actor is obliged to inform the forum about his conduct, by providing various sorts of data about the performance of tasks, about outcomes, or about procedures. Often, particularly in the case of failures or incidents, this also involves the provision of explanations and justifications. Account giving is more than mere propaganda, or the provision of information or instructions to the general public. The conduct that is to be explained and justified can vary enormously, from budgetary scrutiny in case of financial accountability, to administrative fairness in case of legal accountability, or even sexual propriety when it comes to the political accountability of Anglo-American public officials.

Secondly, there needs to be a possibility for the forum to interrogate the actor and to question the adequacy of the information or the legitimacy of the conduct. Hence, the close semantic connection between ‘accountability’ and ‘answerability’.

Thirdly, the forum may pass judgement on the conduct of the actor. It may approve of an annual account, denounce a policy, or publicly condemn the behaviour of an official or an agency. In passing a negative judgement, the forum frequently imposes sanctions of some kind on the actor. It has been a point of discussion in the literature whether the possibility of sanctions is a constitutive element of accountability (Mulgan 2003: 9-11). Some would argue that a judgment by the forum, or even only the stages of reporting, justifying and debating, would be enough to qualify a relation as an accountability relation. I concur with Mulgan (2003: 9) and Strom (2003: 62) that the possibility of sanctions of some kind is a constitutive element of narrow accountability and that it should be included in the definition. The possibility of sanctions makes the difference between non-committal provision of information and being held to account.

These sanctions can be highly formalized, such as fines, disciplinary measures, civil remedies or even penal sanctions, but they can also be based on unwritten rules, as in the case of the political accountability of a minister to parliament, where the sanction can comprise calling for the minister’s resignation. Often the punishment will only be implicit or informal, such as the very fact of having to render account in front of television-cameras, or, as was the case with David Kelly, the total disintegration of public image and career as a result of the negative publicity generated by the process (March & Olsen 1995: 167). The sanctions can also consist in the use of veto powers by the forum. It can block or amend decisions made by the actor (Strom 2003: 62).

It is not necessarily the forum itself which can or will impose remedies or sanctions. Academic visitation committees at colleges and universities, that exercise heavy scrutiny in national research exercises, are very real accountability forums for academic researchers. They pass judgement on the basis of self-study reports and visits to institutions, but cannot always impose sanctions in the case of default. This is left to research directors, deans and chancellors. The same holds for the investigations of ombudsmen and of many chambers of audit. They can scrutinize agencies, expose waste or mismanagement and suggest improvements, but they cannot enforce them. That is left to parliament which has the power to put pressure on the minister, who in turn can put pressure on the heads of the agencies involved.

Box 1: Accountability as a social relation

A relationship qualifies as a case of accountability when:

  1. There is a relationship between an actor and a forum

  2. in which the actor is obliged

  3. to explain and justify

  4. his conduct,

  5. the forum can pose questions,

  6. pass judgement,

  7. and the actor can be sanctioned.

    1. What is ‘public’ about public accountability?

A great many social relationships carry an element of accountability within. However, this paper solely concerns public accountability. ‘Public’ relates in this respect to a number of different aspects. In the first place, used in this context, ‘public’ should be understood to mean ‘openness’. Account is not rendered discretely, behind closed doors, but is in principle open to the general public. The information provided about the actor’s conduct is widely accessible, hearings and debates are open to the public and the forum broadcasts its judgement to the general public.

In the second place, ‘public’ refers to the object of the account to be rendered. Public accountability mainly regards matters in the public domain, such as the spending of public funds, the exercise of public authorities, or the conduct of public institutions. It is not necessarily limited to public organisations, but can extend to private bodies that exercise public privileges or receive public funding (Scott 2000: 41). This also impacts on the accounting perspective. Public accountability implies the rendering of account for matters of public interest, i.e. an accounting that is performed with a view to the judgement to be passed by the citizens. In general, one could say that public accountability is accountability in and about the public domain.

1.6 What isn’t accountability

Box 1 identifies seven constitutive elements of what I have called narrow accountability. To qualify a social relation as a practice of public accountability for the purpose of this paper, there should be an actor who provides information about his conduct to some forum; there should also be explanation and justification of conduct – and not propaganda, or the provision of information or instructions to the general public. The explanation should be directed at a specific forum - and not be given at random. The actor must feel obliged to come forward – instead of being at liberty to provide any account whatsoever. There must be a possibility for debate and judgment by the forum, and an optional imposition of (informal) sanctions – and not a monologue without engagement. Finally, to qualify as public accountability, there should be public accessibility of the account giving – and not purely internal, discrete informing.

On this basis, an initial, rough selection can be made among the various administrative phenomena presenting themselves as forms of public accountability. For example, by no means are all of the innovations introduced under the guise of NPM able to be regarded as forms of accountability. Drafting citizen charters and protocols or implementing quality control systems and benchmarks do not constitute a form of accountability in themselves, as a relationship with a forum is lacking. Benchmarks and satisfaction surveys offer organisations the opportunity to gather information about their own conduct, but in most cases there is no formal or informal obligation to account for the results, let alone a possibility for debate and judgement by specific forums who can scrutinizes the organisation. At most these surveys can be used as inputs for external forums, such as parliament, supervisory boards, or the media, who then can hold public organisations to account. Focus groups and citizen panels, such as the People’s Panel that was set up by the Blair government in the UK, may be considered to represent a forum, yet when solely used to test or evaluate products and services the organisation will rarely feel obliged to offer them any explanation or justification about its conduct, not to mention the fact that focus groups and panels have no authority to scrutinize the organisation. The Charter Mark assessments in Britain, in which public organisations volunteer for an extensive assessment of the quality of their public service delivery by independent Charter Mark Assessment Bodies, would probably come closest to (horizontal) accountability (Bellamy & Taylor 1995; Duggett 1998).

Transparency, which is often used as a synonym for accountability, is not enough to constitute accountability as defined here. Organisational transparency and freedom of information will often be very important prerequisites for accountability, because they may provide forums with the necessary information. However, transparency as such is not enough to qualify as a genuine form of accountability (Fisher 2004: 504), because it only sees to the element of publicness in public accountability, to the disclosure of information, the accessibility of the debates to the general public or the disclosure of the judgment. Therefore, public reporting, another offspring of the NPM reforms, does not in itself qualify as public accountability. Agencies make their annual reports, their assessment, and their benchmarks publicly available or they publish separate annual reports directed at a general audience (Algemene Rekenkamer 2004). But a public debate about the reported information will arise only if caught by the watchful eye of a journalist, an interest group or a lonely Internet activist, who in turn may stimulate a forum, such as a parliamentary standing committee, to hold the agency to account (Schillemans & Bovens 2004: 28).

Accountability should also be distinguished from responsiveness and participation (Mulgan 2003:21). The European commission, in its White Paper on European Governance and some of the documents following it, sometimes tends to blur accountability with issues of representative deliberation (Harlow 2002: 185). It calls for more openness and a better involvement and more participation of a broad range of stakeholders in the EU policy process (European Commission 2003: 35-38) in order to enhance the EU’s accountability. However, accountability as defined here, is in nature retrospective. Actors are to account to a forum after the fact. Responsiveness to the needs and preferences of a broad range of stakeholders and new forms of consultation and participation may be very important to enhance the political legitimacy of the EU, but they do not constitute accountability. They provide proactive inputs into the policy process and should be classified and studied separately for what they are: forms of consultation and participation. They lack the element of justification, judgment, and sanctions.

The line between retrospective accounting and proactive policymaking can be thin in practice. It is perfectly sensible to hold actors accountable for their participation in decision making procedures: members of parliament may scrutinize ministers for their role in European councils; lobby- and interest groups may have to account to their members or constituencies for their stand in deliberative processes. Moreover, accountability is not only about control, it is also about prevention. Norms are (re)produced, internalised, and, where necessary, adjusted through accountability. The minister who is held to account by parliament for his conduct in the European Council, may feel obliged to adjust his policy, or parliament can decide to amend his mandate, if his conduct was judged to be inadequate. Thus, ex post facto accountability can be an important input for ex ante policymaking.

Similarly, there is a fine line between accountability and controllability. Some would equate accountability with controllability. Lupia (2003:35), for example, adopts a control definition of accountability: ’An agent is accountable to a principal if the principal can exercise control over the agent’. Accountability mechanisms are indeed important ways of controlling the conduct of public organisations. However, ‘control’, used in the Anglo-Saxon sense5, is broader than accountability and can include both ex ante and ex post mechanisms of directing behaviour (Scott 2000: 39). Control means ‘having power over’ and it can involve very proactive means of directing conduct, for example through straight orders, directives, financial incentives or laws and regulations. But these hierarchical, financial or legal mechanisms are not mechanisms of accountability per se, because they do not in themselves operate through procedures in which actors are to explain and justify their conduct to forums (Mulgan 2003: 19).

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