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Article

The accountability of governments to their citizens is usually framed within a relationship of principal and agent in which the government, as agent, is obliged to answer to the citizens as agents. It is also commonly located within a structure of representative democracy where political leaders are elected by, and answerable to, the voters. However, these two theoretical frames do not adequately capture the relations of government to their citizens or the parameters of government accountability. Governments increasingly operate through non-hierarchical networks that are not subject to the vertical accountability assumed in principal-agent theory. Instead, networks offer alternative, informal accountability mechanisms based on horizontal relationships. These are evident, for example, in the responsiveness of professionals to their clients and the mutual accountability of network members to one another. These mechanisms have a sufficient share in the characteristics normally associated with accountability, including the obligations to inform, discuss, and accept consequences, for them to count as mechanisms of accountability in the usual sense. Redefinition of accountability, for instance to exclude the requirement of answering to another person or body, while understandable, is not essential. Accountability mechanisms also function without the support of effective democratic elections. For instance, formal institutions of horizontal accountability, such as courts and anti-corruption agencies, can operate in non-democratic regimes and are better seen as conditions of representative democracy rather than as consequences. Partially democratic or authoritarian regimes also exhibit various forms of social accountability in which civil society organizations call governments directly to account without recourse to state-based agencies of accountability. Large authoritarian regimes can encourage limited accountability processes as a means of bringing public pressure to bear on recalcitrant cadres. To be effective, however, all such measures require at least some legally robust support from government institutions.

Article

Accountability and responsibility are related ideas that are central to political, constitutional, and institutional arrangements in Western liberal democracies. However, political elites in non-democratic systems are generally not held accountable by citizens through such arrangements, and accountability is primarily a means of securing the compliance of state functionaries to the will of these elites. In liberal democracies the terms “accountability” and “responsibility” are often used in common discourse as if they were synonyms, but they are not. The former is a concept that embodies a number of different types, with a common theme of answerability by an accountor to an accountee, usually—but not necessarily—in a hierarchical relationship designed to ensure compliance and control. Responsibility, on the other hand, speaks of the associated but different domain of individual moral choice, where often conflicting duties of obligation are experienced by those in official positions. Beginning in the 1980s, the so-called new public management movement, which brought major changes to many Western systems of public administration, sought to enhance the accountability of public bureaucrats, especially their answerability to their elected political superiors. The effects have been mixed and uncertain, often with unintended consequences, such as the reinforcement of risk aversion and blame shifting and gaming behavior. The quest for accountability is inherently a political process, in which “holding to account” may often depend much less on any forensic determination of specific culpability and much more on evidential and political disputation, where the search for the “truth” is highly—and increasingly—contestable.

Article

Sanneke Kuipers and Annika Brändström

The post-crisis accountability process is a purification ritual that serves to channel public emotions and enables re-equilibration after a severe disturbance of the sociopolitical order. Crisis accountability literature can be reviewed in terms of forums, actors, and consequences. This setup allows a systematic discussion of how crises impact: the accountability process in influencing its setting (the forum); the strategies of accountees and their opponents (actors); and the resulting outcomes in terms of reputation damage, sanctions, and restoration (consequences). There is a clear distinction between formal and informal accountability forums, with the media being almost exclusively informal, and judicial forums, accident investigators, and political inquiries having formal authority over accountability assessments. Yet, through the presence of formal authorities in media reporting, and because media frames influence the work of formal authorities, the different forums intensively interact in accountability processes. Looking at accountability strategies reveals that the number of actors involved in blame games is likely rising because of increasingly networked crisis responses, and the role of actors has become more important and personal in the crisis aftermath and accountability process. The consequences and success of individual actors in influencing the accountability outcomes is shaped by both institutional settings and individual skills and strategies. A current political power position that exceeds prior mistakes is an effective shield, and denial is the least effective though most commonly used strategy. Accountability processes remain a balancing act between rebuttal and repair. Yet after major crisis, renewal is possible, and post-crisis accountability can play a crucial role therein.

Article

Policy crises often lead to “framing contests,” in which officeholders, opponents, media, and the public at large aim to interpret the crisis in question, explain its cause, attribute responsibility, and agree on ways to address harm caused. More often than not, these contests turn into blame games for the incumbent officeholder. Formal and informal institutional factors can shape blame avoidance options of officeholders, and influence the outcomes of these crisis-induced blame games in terms of blame escalation, policy responses, and political sanctions. First, formal institutions shape officeholders’ incentives for arguing that they are not responsible for the crisis or should not be punished for its occurrence. Studies in the field of welfare state retrenchment and ministerial resignations have analyzed the blame avoidance options of governments and the survival rates of officeholders in various institutional settings. These studies have provided evidence that institutional complexity and policy-making authority help explaining pathways of blame management. In single-party governments, the accountability chain is more clear and prime ministers have a stronger electoral incentive to sack failing and unpopular ministers. However, a more restrictive interpretation of formal ministerial responsibility for administrative or implementation failures, along with the delegation of policy execution to agencies at arm’s length, can work as a protective shield in blame games for the officeholders and reinforce policy inertia. Consociational systems with multiparty coalitions often show an opposite effect. Second, institutionalized norms, also known as “the way we do things around here,” affect blame avoidance behavior available to officeholders. Studies which have taken “cultural-institutional” approaches to accountability studies have shown that informal accountability actors, fora, and norms about appropriate behavior shape blame processes. Actors in consociational systems with multiparty coalitions often consider consensus-oriented and nonconfrontational behavior, such as attempts to appease the opposition with policy reparations, as more appropriate responses to blame than those in systems with more elite polarization. In addition, officeholders are increasingly held to account by actors who solely have an informal role in blame games, such as the media and interest groups. Therefore, the extent of mediatization and increased polarization plays a major role in how different political contexts “process” blame. Third, other relevant noninstitutional factors for blame avoidance behavior are important, such as the nature and timing of the crisis and involvement of other actors in the blame game. Issue salience and proximity affect the potential for blame escalations and the options for blame management by both office holders and their opponents. Prior reputation of incumbent politicians helps them to draw on leadership capital to deflect blame. If the timing of a blame game coincides with upcoming elections, blame is more likely to escalate and lead to political sanctions. To further understanding of the role of institutional factors in crisis-induced blames games, future research should focus on blame games where institutions themselves are questioned, contested, or in-flux.

Article

Per Lægreid

New Public Management (NPM) reforms have been around in many countries for over the past 30 years. NPM is an ambiguous, multifaceted, and expanded concept. There is not a single driving force behind it, but rather a mixture of structural and polity features, national historical-institutional contexts, external pressures, and deliberate choices from political and administrative executives. NPM is not the only show in town, and contextual features matter. There is no convergence toward one common NPM model, but significant variations exist between countries, government levels, policy areas, tasks, and over time. Its effects have been found to be ambiguous, inconclusive, and contested. Generally, there is a lack of reliable data on results and implications, and there is some way to go before one can claim evidence-based policymaking in this field. There is more knowledge regarding NPM’s effects on processes and activities than on outcome, and reliable comparative data on variations over time and across countries are missing. NPM has enhanced managerial accountability and accountability to users and customers, but has this success been at the expense of political accountability? New trends in reforms, such as whole-of-government, have been added to NPM, thereby making public administration more complex and hybrid.

Article

Federico Maria Ferrara and Thomas Sattler

The relationship between politics and financial markets is central for many, if not most, political economy arguments. The existing literature focuses on the effect of domestic and international political interests, institutions, and policy decisions on returns and volatility in stock, bond, and foreign exchange markets. This research bears implications for three major debates in political science: the distributive effects of politics, globalization and state autonomy, and the political roots of economic credibility and its tensions with democratic accountability. While the study of politics and financial markets is complicated by several theoretical and empirical challenges, recent methodological innovations in political research provide a window of opportunity for the development of the field.

Article

Zoe Ang, Benjamin S. Noble, and Andrew Reeves

In times of crisis, citizens look to their leaders for aid and assistance. In the democratic context, the focal figure is likely the chief executive accountable to the whole of the nation. With a specific focus on the American president and the incidences of natural hazards, public opinion and governmental response to these crises are analyzed. While one may expect such a universal actor to aid each according to their need, new scholarship finds that voter behavior and electoral institutions incentivize the president to support only a small slice of the electorate. Empowered by federal disaster relief legislation in the 1950s, the president targets electorally valuable voters when disbursing aid or allocating resources in response to disaster damage. Voters in those areas respond myopically and tend to vote for the incumbent for reasons ranging from economic to emotional. Thus, elites anticipate voter reactions and strategically respond to disasters to mitigate blame or punishment for the event and capitalize on an opportunity for electoral gains.

Article

Jenny de Fine Licht

Auditing is frequently justified in terms of accountability. By virtue of their strong formal independence, supreme audit institutions (SAIs) are expected to scrutinize public spending and actions, thereby forcing authorities to explain themselves and take actions against malfunctions. In the end, auditing is supposed to contribute to an efficient and well-functioning public sector. The presumed link between auditing and accountability is, however, not evident. Information generated through auditing is far from pure statements of facts about the operations and results of an actor or organization. Rather, they represent an intricate combination of the presumptions, expectations, and professional boundaries of auditees and auditors alike. Further, this information is not necessarily comprehensible and actionable, and even if it is actually used to pose critical questions or deliver sanctions, improved performance cannot be taken for granted. Concerning the possibilities for the public to use audit results for demanding accountability from their representatives, the picture is even more complex. It is far from obvious that the public actually receives the audit information and, if they do, that they are willing or capable of acting on it. The last decades’ development of auditing from traditional record checking and verification of compliance to performance auditing has narrowed the boundaries between auditing and evaluation. This has made auditing more relevant for public administration performance and reform, but at the same time has made the process of accountability more complex. In some cases, it has even sparked a return to more traditional compliance-focused auditing.

Article

Survey evidence indicates that political corruption is more prevalent in Africa than in any other global region, though there is also evidence of considerable variation between countries in degrees of corruption and where it is most likely to be located. Traditional explanations for the frequency of corrupt political behavior emphasized the effects of conflicting values that were a consequence of the imposition of modern forms of bureaucratic government upon societies in which authority rested upon personalized relationships. Contemporary African corruption’s historic roots and its variation across the continent may be the effect of the disjuncture or “incongruency” between colonial and successor postcolonial states and the precolonial political settings upon which they were imposed. Modern neo-patrimonialism is a coping response by rulers and citizens to conditions fostered by economic scarcity and institutional incapacity. Since the 1990s, democratization and liberalization have supplied fresh incentives and opportunities for venal politicians and officials. And even among Africa’s more capable and resourceful states, the institutional fluidity generated by democratic transition and economic reform has opened up possibilities of systematically organized state capture. Consequences of corruption certainly further impoverish poor people, and it is likely that corruption also limits economic growth and distorts government efforts to promote development. It is arguable that in the past, corruption may have helped to facilitate political stability but this is less likely in 2018, as evidence emerges of its corrosive effects on public trust in institutions. African anti-corruption efforts are constrained by the extent to which political power is exercised through patronage but there are instances of successful action, sometimes the byproduct of factional struggles within the political elite. As of 2018, there is no clear evidence of trends in success or failure in the work of African anti-corruption agencies.

Article

Several African countries are currently engaged in the constitution-making process. In Africa, constitution-making usually takes three phases. The first phase took place at independence in the 1960s and was typically led by the colonial power. Constitution-making during this phase was part of the decolonization process. In the case of former British colonies, the independence constitution was British legislation which constituted the independent state. The second phase was from independence to 1989. During this phase, constitution amendments were made to the independence constitutions designed to concentrate power in the presidency. This was the era of authoritarian governments in Africa which culminated into one-party state systems of governance. The third phase, which runs from 1989 to the present, is associated with the worldwide wave of democratization. During this period, constitution-making has centered on rebuilding the political community as well as structures that had been distorted by political manipulation and violence during the era of authoritarian rule. This third phase is also marked by promoting the participation of citizens in the affairs of their own countries and the accountability of governments. A well-designed constitution can promote these objectives. In addition, inclusiveness and peaceful settlement of conflicts can be seen as a vehicle for national dialogue, good governance, and the consolidation of peace.

Article

Transparency is one of the keywords of contemporary governance. It is often associated with democratic accountability, but it also carries connotations of market efficiency. Though transparency is a key concept for economics and politics, its ideational roots lie in access to government information. Transparency holds promises for increased democratization and economic performance, but these may also stand in contradiction. Coinciding with the rise of transparency as a token of responsible governance, we have witnessed rapid global diffusion of information access laws. In debates on public accountability, transparency appears as an element of both deliberation and performance, which is peculiar as these are often seen as complementary types of accountability. Moreover, increased transparency is often assumed to lead to increased citizen trust in government, but the relation of trust and transparency is more complex. Transparency also implies access to public information, which can consist of various types of documents and registries. Through digitalization, public information has become a pressing topic of interest, including as raw material for a knowledge-based economy. Public administration also manages significant amounts of personal data of citizens, raising additional concerns for privacy. While transparency and privacy are not antonyms, there is a trade-off between them. Nevertheless, transparency also appears as a means for holding government accountable for its use of registry data. Finally, transparency has become a measured element of governance indicators that are themselves an instance of transparency. As a key concept of public administration, transparency is relevant for both democracy and efficiency of governance, but it is ambiguous and even paradoxical by nature.

Article

Governments operate more and more in networks and collaborative settings that require more horizontal forms of steering. This mostly is called network management and refers to all deliberative attempts to guide processes in collaborative and network settings. Empirical research has shown that network management is crucial for the performance of network and collaborative processes. But the importance of network management also means that the accountability of network managers must be organized properly.

Article

Information and communication technologies (ICT) are rapidly, profoundly, and simultaneously changing three structural properties that define contemporary communication systems. How we encode information, the means for transmitting this encoded information, and the networks that determine who can send and receive that information have changed dramatically with the advent of the Internet and mobile technology. Although the political events, outcomes, and behaviors precipitated by the political opportunities created by these ICTs are neither uniform nor automatic, this dramatic reshaping of contemporary information landscapes does have clear consequences for the quantity and range of information available to citizens across the globe. There are also evident effects on the communication costs that are integral to political organization. Additionally, there are indisputable implications for the informational relationship shared by governments and their citizens. Each of these sets of effects creates new opportunities for accountability and transparency in the electoral process and for the processes of governance more generally, in the context of developed democracies but also in developing and non-democratic countries.

Article

Ruth Dassonneville and Semih Çakır

When deciding whether to turn out to vote and what party to support, citizens are constrained by the available options within their party system. A rich literature shows that characteristics of this choice set, which capture how “meaningful” the choice is, have pervasive effects on electoral behavior and public opinion. Party system polarization in particular, which captures how ideologically dispersed the parties are, has received much attention in earlier work. More ideologically polarized party systems are associated with higher turnout rates, while both proximity voting and mechanisms of accountability appear strengthened when parties are more ideologically distinct. However, party system polarization also strengthens party attachments and entails a risk of fostering mass polarization.

Article

Anthony M. Bertelli and Nicola Palma

Formal models of bureaucracy have attracted significant attention as a systematic body of theory in the past decades. Scholars in this tradition examine institutions and organizations, uncovering incentives that can explain and help to design governance. Scholars in the rational choice tradition study the relationship between politicians and bureaucrats as an incomplete contracting problem between a political principal and a bureaucratic agent. When elected representatives delegate policymaking authority to an administrative agency, they face hidden action problems when the agency takes unobservable actions, and hidden information problems when there are things about agency policy preferences that representatives cannot easily learn. A wide variety of bureaucratic policymaking problems can be modeled as variations on these information problems. Formal theorists have considered resources and discretionary authority as variables that can be optimized to mitigate agency problems, and the models have both positive and normative implications.

Article

Bureaucracies and their processing of information have evolved along with the formation of states, from absolutist to welfare state and beyond. Digitalization has both reflected and expedited these changes, but it is important to keep in mind that digital-era governance is also conditioned by existing information resources as well as institutional practices and administrative culture. To understand the digital transformations of states, one needs to engage in contextual analysis of the actual changes that might show even paradoxical and unintended effects. Initially, the studies on the effects of information systems on bureaucracies focused on single organizations. But the focus has since shifted toward digitally enhanced interaction with the society in terms of service provision, responsiveness, participatory governance, and deliberation, as well as economic exploitation of public data. Indeed, the history of digitalization in bureaucracies also reads as an account of its opening. But there are also contradictory developments concerning the use of big data, learning systems, and digital surveillance technologies that have created new confidential or secretive domains of information processing in bureaucracies. Another pressing topic is automation of decision making, which can range from rules-based decisions to learning systems. This has created new demands for control, both in terms of citizen information rights as well as accountability systems. While one should be cautious about claims of revolutionary changes, the increasing tempo and interconnectedness characterizing digitalization of bureaucratic activities pose major challenges for public accountability. The historical roots of state information are important in understanding changes of information processing in public administration through digitalization, highlighting the transformations of states and new stakeholders and forms of collaboration, as well as the emerging questions of accountability. But instead of readily assuming structural changes, one should engage in contextualized analysis of the actual effects of digitalization to fully understand them.

Article

The increase in demand and prices of most high-value natural resources over the past five decades has resulted in massive income gains for resource-abundant countries. Paradoxically, many of these countries have suffered from slow economic growth, weak political institutions, and violent conflict. To combat corruption, increase accountability, and promote government effectiveness, the international community and advocacy groups have been promoting transparency as a remedy to the misappropriation and mismanagement of revenues. Consequently, advocates, officials, and diplomats increasingly focus on transparency as the means to better manage revenues from high-value natural resources in developing countries. The linkages between transparency, accountability, and management of revenues from high-value natural resources require careful examination. This article presents the issue of transparency and accountability in the context of natural resource revenue management, discusses how transparency is conceptualized and understood to function in this context, and assesses the existing evidence for the proposition that increased transparency leads to more accountability and improved natural resource governance. The article concludes with a discussion on the evaluation of transparency policy initiatives.

Article

Political scientists are increasingly using experiments to study African politics. Experimental methods help scholars to overcome two central research challenges: potential bias in responses to survey questions (social desirability bias), and establishing the effect of X on Y (causality). Regarding survey response bias, experimental methods have been used to study sensitive topics such as ethnic favoritism, clientelism, corruption, and vote buying. In terms of causality, experiments have helped to estimate the effects of programs aimed at enhancing the quality of democracy or public service delivery. Identifying the causes of the political behavior is critical to understanding the “nuts and bolts” of African politics. For policymakers, knowledge of what works to promote democratic accountability ensures the efficient allocation of scarce resources.

Article

Implementing public policies in federations involves clashes of concept and practice. In its design, federalism is not particularly conducive to the formulation and implementation of public policy because the acclaimed strengths of a federal form of government, including diversity, fragmentation of power and sovereignty, and responsiveness to regional and cultural interests, all serve to make the introduction of national policies complex and challenging. This is especially the case regarding the implementation phase of policies which tends to be a most difficult task given the layers and negotiating steps through which policies must pass before being delivered to clients. Success in implementing public policies in federations requires a mixture of strategies that can range from coercion to collaboration and cooperation. Achieving performance with accountability throughout this process has proven difficult in most federations. Moreover most of the literature has avoided the client perspective, in particular whether citizens really care about the vagaries of federal arrangements as they simply want to see the programs that affect their daily lives delivered efficiently, effectively, and accountably.

Article

One reason why dictatorships flourished in Africa until the 1990s was that constitutions concentrated excessive powers in presidents. The democratic revival of the 1990s led to the introduction of new or substantially revised constitutions in a number of countries that for the first time sought to promote constitutionalism, good governance, and respect for the rule of law. A key innovation was the introduction of provisions providing for separation of powers. However, in many cases the reintroduction of multipartyism did not lead to thorough constitutional reform, setting the scene for a subsequent struggle between opposition parties, civil society, and the government, over the rule of law. This reflects the complex politics of constitutionalism in Africa over the last 60 years. In this context, it is important to note that most of the constitutions introduced at independence had provided for some degree of separation of powers, but the provisions relating to this were often vaguely worded and quickly undermined. Despite this, the doctrine of separation of powers has a long history, and the abundant literature on it shows that there is no general agreement on what it means or what its contemporary relevance is. Of the three main models of separation of powers, the American one, which comes closest to a “pure” system of separation of powers, and the British, which involves an extensive fusion of powers, have influenced developments in anglophone Africa. The French model, which combines elements of the British and American models but in which the executive predominates over the other two branches, has influenced developments in all civilian jurisdictions in Africa, particularly those in francophone Africa. The common denominator among the models is the desire to prevent tyrannical and arbitrary government by separating powers but doing so in a manner that allows for limited interference through checks and balances on the principle that le pouvoir arrête le pouvoir. The combined Anglo-American (common law) and French (civil law) models received during the colonial period remain applicable today, but despite its adoption in the 1990s, the effectiveness of the doctrine of separation of powers in limiting governmental abuse has been curtailed by the excessive powers African presidents still enjoy and the control they exercise over dominant parties in legislatures. South Africa in its 1996 Constitution, followed by Kenya in 2010 and Zimbabwe in 2013, entrenched a number of hybrid institutions of accountability that have the potential not only to complement the checks and balances provided by the traditional triad but also to act where it is unable or unwilling to do so. The advent of these institutions has given the doctrine of separation of powers renewed potency and relevance in advancing Africa’s faltering constitutionalism project.