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Accountability Deficits

Oxford Handbooks Online


Accountability Deficits  
Richard Mulgan
The Oxford Handbook of Public Accountability
Edited by Mark Bovens, Robert E. Goodin, and Thomas Schillemans

Print Publication Date: May 2014


Subject: Political Science, Comparative Politics, Public Administration
Online Publication Date: Aug 2014 DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199641253.013.0010

Abstract and Keywords

The notion of an accountability deficit is particularly associated with the absence of


political control by democratically elected political representatives (where it is linked
with a democracy deficit). The main sites for such a deficit are international relations,
decoupling of responsibility for public services, and networked governance. Analysis of
the deficit has prompted emphasis on alternative accountability mechanics as well as
alternative definitions of “accountability” itself. To be useful, the concept should be
widened beyond political control to include possible deficits in any type of accountability.
Any claim to a particular accountability deficit needs to be made against a standard or
yardstick of that type of accountability without the deficit. The normative implications of
any particular deficit should also be made explicit, given that in some circumstances,
such as accountability “overload”, a reduction in accountability can be viewed positively.

Keywords: accountability, democracy deficit, accountability deficit, accountability overload, accountability in


decoupling, international accountability, networked governance

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Accountability Deficits

Deficits as Absence of Political Control


The notion of an “accountability deficit” has played an important role in accountability
studies, stimulating both conceptual analysis and empirical investigation. The first half of
this chapter discusses the main themes in the accountability deficit literature, noting that
an accountability deficit has been most commonly linked with the absence of political
control by democratically elected political representatives. Such deficits have been
identified in two governmental areas: the international sphere which lacks any clear,
overriding political authority that can undertake the obligations of accountability; and
certain aspects of domestic government where executive leaders have decoupled
themselves from responsibility and accountability through mechanisms such as
outsourcing and the establishment of executive agencies. More broadly, a similar
accountability deficit has been found in decentered networks, understood as non-
hierarchical relationships lacking a single source of authority, which are found in both the
international and domestic arenas (as well as crossing the boundaries between the two).
Though each of these different proposed sites for an accountability deficit share a
common feature—the absence of political control—they merit separate discussion.

The second half of the chapter builds on this discussion, further clarifying the notion of
an accountability deficit in the light of a more multi-faceted understanding of
accountability. It also explores the varying normative assumptions behind alleged
accountability deficits. The general concept of a deficit usually has both empirical and
normative aspects, implying, firstly, an observable lack or deficiency of some substance or
quality and, in addition, an attitude of regret or disapproval towards such a lack or
deficiency. Even in economics, the notion of a virtuous fiscal deficit, as advocated by
Keynesians, can easily be made to sound paradoxical and morally suspect. When (p. 546)
applied to accountability, certainly, a deficit almost always carries an implication of
normative disapproval. Yet the normative values used to support claims of accountability
deficits have generally remained unexamined. On analysis, these values turn out to be
contestable, as does the notion of an accountability deficit itself. Whether the notion itself
will maintain its current prominence in the light of the necessary analytical
complications, both definitional and normative, remains open to speculation.

The Accountability Deficit in International


Politics
In the international sphere, the concept of an accountability deficit came to prominence
on the coat-tails of the more widely cited “democracy deficit” that was said to occur in
international politics generally and, more particularly, in the European Union (EU).
According to mainstream democratic theory, the key mechanism in modern democracy is

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Accountability Deficits

the periodic free election through which citizens in a territorially defined political
community choose their legislative representatives and executive leaders. Beyond the
boundaries of the nation state, however, there is no citizen body or demos, and therefore
no possibility of elections or popularly elected leaders and legislators, resulting in a major
“democracy deficit” (Lord 1998; Dahl 1999; Scharpf 1999; Held 2004).

The claim of an international democracy deficit has not gone without challenge. In part,
the question turns on the model of democracy being employed as a benchmark. If
democracy is identified not with the election of representatives but with more open-ended
features which can be conceptually separated from electoral processes, such as
deliberative dialogue or political responsiveness, these features can then be discovered in
the international sphere, thus refuting, or at least blunting, the charge of a democratic
deficit (Moravcsik 2004). In this context, the European Union is best treated as a special
case because it has some institutional elements of a democratic political community,
including an elected parliament and an authoritative court. It cannot stand as a typical
instance of international political association, or its institutions as typical international
institutions. Even in the broader field of international relations, the lack of representative
institutions is not universally deplored (Slaughter 2004). For the most part, however, the
existence of a major democratic deficit in international politics is generally conceded,
particularly if elections and political control by elected representatives are taken to be
essential elements of democracy.

From the early 1990s (Schmitter and Karl 1991), analysts of democracy increasingly
began to incorporate accountability as another essential element in democracy,
particularly when democracy was viewed through the prism of principal–agent theory in
which principals (voters) choose agents (representatives) who are then accountable to
them (Przeworski, Stokes, and Manin 1999). Accountability and democracy became an
almost insuperable twosome in political science. If international politics, through its lack
of a voting demos, (p. 547) suffered a major deficit of democracy it must also suffer a
corresponding deficit of accountability. Without a principal–agent relationship between
international actors and the people affected by their decisions, those actors were clearly
unaccountable. The “accountability deficit” thus entered the vocabulary of international
relations (Held and Koenig-Archibugi 2004; Grant and Keohane 2005), including the study
of the European Union (Harlow 2002; Benz, Harlow and Papadopoulos 2007; Bovens,
Curtin, and ‘t Hart 2010, Ch. 1).

This seductive connection, however, overlooked the fact that democracy and
accountability, though conceptually linked and even overlapping, are far from identical in
meaning, at least according to generally accepted definitions. As international relations
scholars discovered when turning to analyze the supposed accountability deficit of
international organizations such as the United Nations, accountability through elected
agents is not the only possible mechanism for exercising accountability. In the
international sphere, the absence of an electoral process for holding leaders to account
certainly removes one important means of accountability, as does lack of an effective
international authority to enforce international law. But these limitations are far from

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Accountability Deficits

excluding all possibilities of making international organizations accountable. Public


administration has long recognized that the political relationship between voters and
elected leaders is only one aspect of government accountability and is supplemented by a
wide range of additional mechanisms, legal, administrative, professional and so on
(Romzek and Dubnick 1987; Day and Klein 1987). From this sub-disciplinary perspective,
the operation of some of these accountability mechanisms internationally without the
backing of democratic political control would appear quite predictable. For instance, the
bureaucracy of the United Nations is subject to several accountability mechanisms which
can operate independently of political control, such as fiscal transparency, bureaucratic
control, and independent audit. It was the failure of these mechanisms, rather than the
absence of electoral accountability, that led, for instance, to the corrupt administration of
the Iraq Oil-for-Food scheme (Mulgan 2009).

Those analyzing world politics and international relations have naturally been attracted
to a more expansive view of accountability. In their much-cited article on accountability in
world politics, Grant and Keohane (2005) list seven mechanisms of accountability that can
occur beyond the nation state: hierarchical, supervisory, fiscal, legal, market, peer, and
public reputational. For the most part, the list is unexceptional and accords with earlier
typologies produced by public administration scholars analyzing the complexity of
accountability relationships within nation states. Closer acquaintance with this literature,
however, would have revealed that the inclusion of markets and reputational effects as
accountability mechanisms is open to question. It depends on whether one’s preferred
definition of accountability allows voluntary responsiveness without voice or without the
possibility of two-way dialogue to count as accountability. In international relations,
however, because of the absence of some core mechanisms of domestic accountability
which depend on a democratic state, it has been tempting to cast the definitional net as
widely as possible. Any institution or process that serves the general purpose of aligning
powerful institutions with popular preferences can thus be counted as an instance of
accountability.

In similar, if still more radical, vein, Goodhart (2011) seeks to circumvent the
(p. 548)

supposed accountability deficit at the international level by arguing for a wholly


alternative model of global democratic accountability. Instead of placing elections and
representation at the centre of accountability, his model is constructed in terms of
accountability for certain democratic norms, such as freedom and equality, which can
more readily be achieved in global government. However, the conceptual innovation
appears to come at the cost of abandoning any prospect of a universal understanding of
accountability which could apply to any sphere of government, domestic or international.
Again, this extreme consequence is less necessary if the analysis of accountability moves
beyond the more blinkered approach of mainstream democratic theory and embraces the
more multi-faceted approaches developed in public administration.

Two general conclusions emerge from this brief discussion of a supposed accountability
deficit in the international sphere. First, the concept of an accountability deficit needs to
be kept conceptually distinct from any supposed democracy deficit because of the

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Accountability Deficits

different connotations of the two terms. Accountability through democratic processes,


though essential to the presence or absence of democracy, is only one possible channel of
public accountability. Secondly, analysis of how accountability operates in the absence of
democratic political control may encourage more expansive conceptions of accountability
in order to compensate for the absence of such control. While such expansiveness may
accord with standard views of accountability, especially those found in public
administration, it does run the risk of extending too far into uncharted waters. If the
concept of an accountability deficit is to be meaningful it should be built on a universally
applicable concept of accountability (Koenig-Archibugi 2010).

The Accountability Deficit in Decoupled


Government
Another major site of claims about accountability gaps or deficits is located within nation
states where the control of elected leaders via a hierarchical chain of command has been
breached or weakened in some way. Such breaches have been identified, for example, in
relation to executive agencies, such as the UK Next Steps agencies. Executive agencies
are established at arm’s length from ministerial control and receive funding and
responsibility for implementing particular government policies with the intention of
making the agencies and their chief executives accountable for administrative decisions
taken in the course of such implementation.

In Westminster systems, and other similar parliamentary systems, delegation of


responsibility and accountability in this way can be seen as breaking traditional
conventions of ministerial responsibility (Barberis 1998). The normal expectation is for
ministers, as elected leaders answerable to Parliament, to be accountable for all actions
taken within their departments, including not just major policy matters but also detailed
(p. 549) administrative decisions. Ministers may not be held personally responsible for

such decisions but they are expected to answer for them in parliament and the media,
giving reasons for the decisions and, if necessary, imposing remedies. However, when
agencies become formally decoupled from their ministers, ministers can legitimately
refuse to answer for administrative decisions, instead handing accountability over to the
agency and its chief executive.

This separation is said to create a serious accountability deficit or gap because political
accountability through ministers is seen as a particularly powerful avenue of public
accountability (Rhodes 1997, 54, 101–03; Flinders 2002; Mulgan 2003, 177–8;
Schillemans 2008; 2011). In modern democracies, the 24-hour media cycle is dominated
by political conflict between ministers and their opposition counterparts. Public
questioning of ministers, particularly over controversial issues, therefore provides the
most direct and effective mechanism for holding governments to account. If ministers can

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Accountability Deficits

pass the buck, shifting blame on to public service managers, the public is deprived of the
fierce level of scrutiny driven by ministers’ political opponents and fanned by media
publicity.

A similar accountability gap can occur when governments outsource the provision of
public services to external contractors, by mechanisms such as public–private
partnerships (Mulgan 1997; Hodge and Coghill 2007; Willems and Dooren 2011). Again,
the formal separation of purchasers and providers, which limits the responsibility of
governments and ministers to providing funds and setting general objectives, leaves
accountability for detailed service provision in the hands of arm’s length providers.
Particularly when contractors are private sector companies not subject to the same
degree of transparency and scrutiny as government departments, the level of political
accountability is much less than when programs are administered by departmental public
servants under direct ministerial control.

In practice, the de facto deficit in political accountability has not always been as serious
as the critics claimed and the theory demanded, particularly in the case of executive
agencies. The line between policy and implementation is often difficult to draw, with the
result that political leaders have often not been able to distance themselves entirely from
detailed decisions where these decisions have been affected by actions taken by the
central government, such as policy priorities or levels of funding. More important, public
opinion has proved intolerant of politicians who attempt to pass the blame on to
subordinates. In Westminster jurisdictions, opportunistic opposition politicians and the
media keep alive expectations that ministers will exercise traditional conventions of
ministerial responsibility and answer for all government actions.

In the United Kingdom, after several high-profile cases of buck-passing between ministers
and agency chief executives, with each trying to pin the blame for failure on to the other,
ministers resumed their traditional role of answering publicly for all government
decisions, while still allowing agency executives to share some of the direct public
scrutiny (Gains and Stoker 2009, 448–9). Even in the case of privatized services, such as
railways, where ministers and their departments are clearly not to blame for service
failures, ministers can still feel the heat of public anger and can be under pressure to
front up to media scrutiny. Even so, in spite of the undoubted resilience of (p. 550) long-
standing expectations of political accountability and marked variation in administrative
and constitutional traditions, the institutional separation of purchasers and providers
inspired by managerialist reforms has certainly led to a significant reduction in the level
of government activity carried out by public servants under direct political control and
therefore to a reduction in political accountability through ministers (Pollitt and
Bouckaert 2011, Ch.4). Increasingly, governments rely on a range of more or less arm’s
length organizations, such as agencies, statutory authorities, administrative boards, and
private sector contractors. In each case where responsibility is formally devolved, the
heads of the organizations concerned are regularly called to answer independently for
their administration in a way that bypasses accountability of ministers or other political

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Accountability Deficits

leaders. In this sense, the existence of a de jure accountability deficit in terms of political
accountability is undeniable, though the de facto extent of such a deficit may be
contestable.

The Accountability Deficit in Networked


Governance
Decoupled government arrangements and purchaser–provider separation can be
subsumed into networked governance, which is an increasing (or, at least, increasingly
noticed) feature of democratic government. Networks are usually defined in terms of
horizontal, non-hierarchical relationships and include intra-governmental as well as inter-
governmental and multi-level government relationships, thus covering both the domestic
and international spheres. Networks make up the main elements of “governance,”
understood as a non-hierarchical style of governing commonly contrasted with
bureaucratic hierarchies and with markets. Networked governance has the advantage of
respecting equality of status (in contrast to hierarchy) and recognizing shared values (in
contrast to markets). It may also provide a more realistic model for the wide range of
government activity that involves public managers exercising initiative and responsibility
in their own right, as advocated by the supporters of “public value” (Moore 1995).
However, networks have also been criticized for causing accountability deficits because of
a lack of direct political control (Michels and Meijer 2008; Papadopoulos 2006; Rhodes
2006).

In all networks, responsibility is shared, ruling out any single point of accountability and
giving rise to intensified problems of “many hands” (Bovens 1998, 229). If no one person
or body is formally in charge, nobody can be called to account for the network’s collective
outcomes or made to impose remedies in the wake of acknowledged failure. In the face of
controversy, networks encourage buck-passing or blame-shifting and are therefore less
open to public scrutiny from political oppositions and the media. The apparent
susceptibility of governance to a serious accountability deficit has posed a major
challenge to its many champions (Stoker 2006).

As with the international sphere, the issue of an alleged accountability deficit in


(p. 551)

networked governance has been defused in two ways, first, by stressing the operation of
alternative avenues of accountability and, secondly, by extending the understanding of
accountability itself. Thus one response has been to downplay the importance of political
accountability and hierarchical control and to give particular emphasis to other
accountability mechanisms which can apply particularly to networks. For instance,
networks may be subject to horizontal mechanisms of accountability, such as media
scrutiny (Michels and Meijer 2008; Papadopoulos 2006; Schillemans 2011). Indeed, the
pluralistic nature of many networks, in which different members pursue different, if
overlapping, agendas, often allows for more open disclosure of information than is found

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Accountability Deficits

in more closed, hierarchical structures (Mulgan 2003, 211–14). Networks also provide
scope for mutual accountability between professional peers as they discuss and scrutinize
each other’s actions. Where networks involve devolution of responsibility to street-level
service providers, they can increase opportunities for bottom-up accountability directly to
local communities (Hupe and Hill 2007; Hendriks 2009).

In addition, it may be claimed that networks have less need for traditional mechanisms of
accountability, including hierarchical accountability. Networks are typically built on trust
and cooperation, sharing some of the features of the not-for-profit sector which relies
more on shared values and mutual dialogue than external scrutiny in order to keep its
members acting responsibly (Goodin 2003). The relative lack of political accountability
may therefore be less problematic than in other types of institutional structure,
particularly when not-for-profit NGOs form part of key governance networks.

Alternatively, and more radically, the concept of accountability itself can be redefined
(Weber 1999) to include, for instance, government responsiveness to the needs or
preferences of citizens and communities without any obligation to answer publicly
through the normal processes of accountability (Considine 2002). Accountability in
governance has also been identified with public justifications made in terms of public
reason and the public interest, again circumventing the need for political control (Weale
2011).

Specifying Accountability Deficits


Most recent discussions of an accountability deficit have exhibited two general features.
First, the focus of the deficit has been the extent of political accountability of government
institutions through political leaders, as understood, for example, in related notions of
democratic representation, principal–agent delegation, or ministerial responsibility.
Second, consideration of a deficit in such political accountability has paved the way for
broader analyses of the concept of accountability, widening its scope to include other
mechanisms of accountability in an attempt to mitigate the extent of the deficit and even
redefining the core meaning of accountability with the purpose of defining the deficit
(p. 552) out of existence. But if the concept of an accountability deficit is to play any

valuable role in future accountability studies, analysis needs to move beyond such
approaches.

In the first place, consideration of possible accountability deficits needs to be based on a


stable, agreed definition of accountability which will yield verifiable assessments of the
extent of accountability in particular institutional settings. If discussion of deficits always
leads into further analysis of the meaning of accountability and to the construction of new
approaches that will most suit the analyst’s chosen context, little progress will be made.
As is now generally recognized, the wide variation in preoccupations and values among
those analyzing accountability means that no single definition of accountability will be

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Accountability Deficits

universally acceptable. Any discussion of a deficit can begin to make sense only within an
agreed understanding of accountability and should not be used primarily as a means of
constructing such an understanding. Otherwise, the landscape of deficit studies will
resemble a housing development replete with new foundations but without any completed
buildings.

In this respect, the recent study of accountability and a possible accountability deficit in
the European Union, edited by Bovens, Curtin, and ‘t Hart (2010), provides a welcome
exception to the general pattern of deficit studies. The authors begin with an agreed
understanding of accountability (essentially similar to the “social mechanism” version
described by Bovens, Schillemans, and Goodin in this volume) and then use this to frame
their empirical investigation from various perspectives of the extent of accountability in
various EU institutions.

Secondly, assuming an expansive view of public accountability as constituting a complex


network or web of different accountability mechanisms, the concept of an accountability
deficit must be widened to allow for all the different possible dimensions where
accountability may be found to be lacking. The concentration on gaps in political
accountability, found in most of the deficit literature, provides a distorted view of possible
accountability deficits. Each of the commonly distinguished types of accountability such
as legal/judicial, administrative/managerial, peer professional, media, etc., can also be
subject to significant gaps or deficits. For example, judicial accountability through the
courts, while offering powerful redress for individuals who question their personal
treatment by governments, is heavily skewed in favor of those with sufficient resources to
embark on legal proceedings. This litigation bias therefore produces an accountability
deficit for less well-off citizens.

Similar gaps or deficits can be located in other types of accountability. Indeed, political
accountability through elected representatives, which has been held up as the key type of
accountability, an absence of which gives rise to an accountability deficit, is itself prone
to serious deficiencies. Ministerial responsibility, though rightly championed as a corner-
stone of accountability in parliamentary democracies, has also proved inadequate in
guaranteeing the accountability of both ministers and departmental public servants. In
Westminster systems, the great wave of accountability reform beginning in the 1960s and
1970s, which led to the introduction of ombudsmen, extended scrutiny by parliamentary
committees, performance audits by government auditors, and freedom of information
legislation, was driven by an acknowledgment that traditional (p. 553) ministerial
responsibility shielded governments, particularly public servants, from public scrutiny.

From this perspective, traditional ministerial responsibility suffered from an


accountability deficit in its failure to expose public servants to direct public investigation.
Conversely, the reforms may be said to have gone some way to remedying the deficit,
opening government departments up to more mechanisms of horizontal accountability
while still preserving the right of ministers to take vertical responsibility and impose

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Accountability Deficits

remedies. Even so, some inadequacies and gaps can still be discerned in the operation of
ministerial responsibility, as in all mechanisms of principal–agent accountability through
political representatives.

The proliferation of possible accountability deficits means that any alleged deficit must be
clearly specified and contextualized. Talk of a single, unqualified accountability deficit
assumes a single variable which is somehow in the red (as a budget deficit implies a
negative financial result in the government’s total revenue and expenditure). Public
accountability, however, is not a simple quantum in this way. It consists of countless
relationships, between different accountees and account-holders over different issues, not
reducible to a single measure or variable. For any accountability deficit, as for any
accountability relationship, we must always specify answers to the standard questions:
who, to whom, for what, and in what way.

For example, the accountability deficit commonly alleged in relation to international


organizations or arm’s length service providers needs to be specified as a deficit in
political accountability, especially the accountability of public officials to elected
politicians through representative institutions and a chain of hierarchical command under
political leadership. Once the deficit is clearly specified, as a gap in a particular avenue of
accountability, the way is open for acknowledging the operation of other accountability
mechanisms and processes which may compensate, to some extent, for the identified
deficit in political accountability.

Thirdly, if the significance of any specified accountability deficit is to be meaningfully


assessed, it should be against a realistic yardstick of how that type of accountability could
be expected to operate if the deficit in question were absent. For example, in the case of
the alleged deficit in political accountability in relation to international organizations or
government contractors, such a deficit should be assessed against a realistic view of how
political accountability actually operates in the standard case of representative
government where public officials are under the direct control of elected leaders and
accountable to elected legislatures.

Such an analysis is likely to reveal that representative government has its own obvious
defects in political accountability (Bovens, Curtin, and ‘t Hart 2010, 187). Political
accountability is very haphazard in its effectiveness and depends heavily on political
context. Where political oppositions are hot on the trail of ministerial incompetence,
urged on by a sensation-seeking media, accountability will often be swift and decisive. On
the other hand, where government activities are protected by a cozy consensus between
political parties combined with lack of media interest, political accountability is often
deficient and needs to be supplemented by other channels, such as audit and (p. 554)
regulation. A reasonable yardstick for political accountability would therefore include a
level of public debate and vertical rectification, without requiring complete performance
under these headings. From this perspective, arm’s length organizations may have a
greater deficit in political accountability than government departments under direct

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Accountability Deficits

political control because they lack the latter’s exposure to political direction in response
to high-profile public concern. But the difference is one of degree.

In legal accountability before the courts, if an accountability deficit arises because of


unequal access to professional legal advice and assistance, we should also acknowledge
that providing equal access would not remove all deficiencies in legal accountability, such
as the cumbersome and time-consuming nature of legal proceedings. A yardstick for legal
accountability would therefore require reasonable levels of access and promptness
without demanding unrealistically high standards. Accountability deficits, in other words,
are to be seen as typically relative and comparative, indicating a particular deficiency in
comparison to some other, somewhat less unaccountable institution, on the assumption
that all accountability systems are deficient in some respects.

What Makes an Accountability Deficit Wrong?


Finally, apart from being clearly specified and context-dependent, judgments of
accountability deficits need to be made against an explicit normative view of why the
deficit is regrettable and why it should, if possible, be mitigated or removed altogether.
Though the concept of an accountability deficit can be understood in an ethically neutral
sense to apply to empirically observable phenomena (the comparative absence of certain
specifiable relationships and processes), in practice the term is not usually adopted
unless with the intention of signifying some form of normative disapproval of that
absence. What values, then, are at stake in identifying an accountability absence as a
“deficit”?

Accountability studies in modern western societies usually assume a frame of democratic


values. On this view, as articulated in the principal–agent perspective on democracy, the
underlying purpose of public accountability is to encourage governments, as agents, to
act in accordance with the preferences of citizens, their principals. Any absence of an
aspect of accountability which, if present, would improve the responsiveness of
governments to their citizens would therefore appear to be regrettable and classifiable as
a deficit. Such thinking clearly supports the usual complaints of accountability deficits,
particularly when they are linked so closely with the concept of a democratic deficit and
when they focus on barriers to the exercise of political accountability by elected
representatives responsive to the views of voters.

But the normative setting of accountability systems, like the actual structure of these
systems themselves, is much more complex than envisaged in any simple (p. 555)
principal–agent model. In the first place, the purposes of accountability mechanisms are
not always to be located in any straightforward translation of citizen opinion into
government actions. Some well-established accountability mechanisms, such as judicial
review or compliance audit, historically predate the full development of representative
democracy and are more concerned with questioning the legality of government actions

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Accountability Deficits

rather than their popularity. Here, the ultimate goal is the maintenance of liberal
constitutional government and the rule of law, with checks and balances and general
constraints on government power, rather than government responsive to public opinion.
Other mechanisms of transparent government, such as freedom of information legislation
and media inquiry, can also be seen as primarily aimed at open and lawful government
rather than democratic responsiveness.

Given the chameleon-like meaning of “democracy,” the connotation of democratic values


is contestable, as is the distinction between democratic government and constitutional
government. “Democratic” often stands for all principles valued in modern societies,
including civil liberties and human rights. Thus, for example, in Keane’s (2009) influential
concept of “monitory” democracy, liberal constitutional values become subsumed under
democracy as another model. Bovens, Schillemans, and ‘t Hart (2008), on the other hand,
clearly distinguish between a “democratic perspective,” which privileges popular control
and political accountability, and a “constitutional perspective” which emphasizes the
prevention of corruption and abuses of power (Bovens, Curtin, and ‘t Hart 2010, 50–2).

Regardless of terminology, however, the substantial point is that the political goals of
accountability are multiple and, potentially, in conflict. For instance, when dealing with
unpopular minorities such as refugees, elected politicians are under popular pressure to
adopt draconian policies. Any failure to follow public opinion could be seen as an
accountability deficit in terms of democratic responsiveness. On the other hand,
governments that respond to public opinion by reducing refugees’ rights of access to the
courts could be accused of opening up another, more serious, accountability deficit in
terms of judicial review. The actual existence of an accountability gap may be empirically
determinable. But whether it is treated as a regrettable gap or deficit becomes a matter
of normative judgment.

Moreover, a gap in accountability can be viewed positively as well as negatively. In the


above example, the supporters of refugees applaud a gap in political accountability as
needed to protect refugees’ rights. Conversely, the populist democrats would welcome a
reduction in the legal accountability rights of refugees as a necessary corollary of the
majority’s rights to determine policy. Accountability is a type of process of which one can
have too much as well as too little. The topic of accountability overload is the subject of
Halachmi’s chapter in this volume. But we need to recognize the conceptual link between
the two notions, particularly when adopting a normatively neutral understanding of
accountability itself. Accountability is a process susceptible to both deficit and overload,
depending on one’s point of view.

Another area in which conflict of values has led to disputes over accountability deficits is
in the role of political control over administrative actions. As already noted, (p. 556)
complaints of accountability deficits have been common where the provision of public
services has been decoupled from detailed political direction, for instance through
executive agencies and other purchaser–provider separations. The main rationale for
such decoupling came from managerialist thinking which sought to improve efficiency

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Accountability Deficits

and effectiveness by giving public managers clear mandates or objectives and then
allowing them the autonomy to make their own decisions about how best to achieve these
objectives. Though the rationale was mainly expressed in the instrumental values of
efficiency and effectiveness it also contained an accountability agenda which can be
expressed in terms of accountability deficits (and overloads) (Mulgan 2003, 154–6).

For managerialists, traditional bureaucratic government suffered from serious


weaknesses in accountability. One was a misguided emphasis in terms of the subject
matter of accountability (for what governments were accountable): accountability was too
concerned with process but insufficiently focused on results. Public managers should be
freed from some of the more constraining procedural red tape while being made more
accountable for achieving given objectives. Secondly, public managers were too beholden
upwards to their political masters, particularly for day-to-day administrative decisions
where political interference tended to compromise good decision-making. The solution
was to decouple managers from political control (other than for the general functions of
providing resources and setting objectives) while subjecting their performance to more
transparent monitoring by regulators and auditors. This managerial perspective can also
be described as a “learning perspective” which emphasizes the role of accountability
mechanisms in providing feedback to public managers and helping them to improve their
performance (Bovens, Curtin, and ‘t Hart 2010, 52).

Where democratic champions of political control saw decoupling as leading to serious


accountability deficits, for managerialists it was a welcome reduction in what amounted
to a surfeit of political accountability and a means of reducing a more significant
accountability deficit, the failure to hold public managers properly accountable for
achieving specified results. Thus, from a managerial or “good governance” perspective,
accountability is to be valued in terms of contributing to government that is efficient and
effective in meeting agreed administrative objectives. Conversely, accountability deficits
are to be identified as deficiencies in accountability which detract from those values.

The concept of an accountability deficit is, to some extent at least, in the eye of the
beholder. It depends on the political values adopted, including the preferred model of
democracy as well the approach taken to other principles of government, such as
constitutionalism, the rule of law, and good governance. The best recent analyses of
accountability deficits, such as Bovens, Curtin, and ‘t Hart on the European Union (2010)
and Schillemans on executive agencies (2011), sensibly embrace a form of normative
pluralism. They not only carefully specify the different empirical dimensions of
accountability but also assess them for possible deficits in terms of a range of different
value perspectives.

(p. 557) Conclusion

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Accountability Deficits

The concept of an accountability deficit has clearly played an important part in the
analysis of accountability, particularly in underlining the variety of accountability
mechanisms other than political accountability through elected representatives and also
in stimulating the search for alternative understandings of accountability. As a
consequence of more finely-grained understandings, talk of an unqualified accountability
deficit appears too categorical and in need of contextual specification. Accountability can
certainly be deficient but only in terms of a specific accountability relationship (who? to
whom? for what? how?) as well as in contrast with some related accountability situation
and from some value perspective.

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