Bovens (YEAR) examines the current and past meanings of the term "public accountability." Today, generally, Bovens asserts that, while public accountability is the "essential requirement of modern democratic governance," it means nothing if those in power are not held publicly accountable for their policy decisions (p. 183). Unfortunately, the term "public accountability" can be ambiguous and thus interpreted to mean different things, often to the benefit of the powerful (and the subsequent detriment of the public). Moreover, Bovens claims, the term frequently lends itself as a sort of Band-Aid within political rhetoric -- piecing together not-quite-complete arguments, validating proposed policies, invoking fidelity and justice, or quelling the cries of concerned critics.
The concept of "public accountability" has its roots in the decades after the 1066 Norman conquest of England, and, interestingly enough, "is closely related to accounting" (p. 183). After the conquest, William I dictated that every individual who owned property in his realm provide "a count" of their possessions (p. 183). The sum of these counts provided a record -- known as the Domesday Books -- by which the possessions were valuated. The Books were thus used for not only taxing purposes, but also provided an account of the value of 'things' within William I's realm. By the early 12th century, this system had grown into a consolidated administrative kingship that employed auditing and semi-annual account giving.
"Accountability" has since moved past William I's system to become a symbol for good governance in the public and private sector. The major difference is the fact that now, instead of the people being accountable to those in power -- as in William I's realm -- those in power are accountable to the people.
From here, Bovens moves on to explain that "public" (in "public accountability") relates to both openness and the public sector. Specifically, the giving of accounts is open or available to citizens.
Accountability perceived in terms of social relations is next examined. Bovens states that, in this regard, "accountability can be defined as a social relationship in which an actor feels an obligation to explain and justify his or her conduct to some significant other" (p. 184). In this case, the 'actor' is an individual or agency, while the 'significant other' can be an individual or agency as well, but can also include more abstract audiences such as the general public, the media, etc.
To be perceived in terms of social relations, accountability must consist of three stages: (1) the actor must feel obliged to inform the significant other (or 'forum') of his proceedings; the obligation perceived by the actor can be informal or formal. For example, public administrators are often under formal obligations to their superiors to provide progress reports and the like. In contrast, events such as press conferences, informal briefings, or public confessions represent informal feelings of obligation. (2) the information provided by the actor can prompt questioning of the adequacy or legitimacy of the information and conduct by the forum. Bovens calls this the "debating phase" (p. 185). (3) the forum judges the conduct of the actor. This judgment can be highly formalized (read: fines), or relatively informal (read: having to 'confess' the information on camera).
Moving on, Bovens lists five more elements required for a social relation to qualify as a practice of accountability: (1) the account must be publicly accessible; (2) the actor must provide an explanation and justification of his conduct, (3) the explanation should be given to a specific forum, and not simply released 'into the wild' or "given at random;" (4) the actor must feel an obligation to come forward and (5) debate and judgment about the actor's behavior must be possible, as well as the option to sanction the actor for her behavior (p. 185).
Bovens lists five more qualifications, this time related to the type of forum to which the actor is accountable. There are five types of forums: (1) Superiors: as "the most important accountability relation for public managers," this type of forum is organizational (p. 187). For example, the superiors of public managers regularly ask them to account for their conduct. (2) Public accountability: public managers are also accountable to politicians and political parties. For example, the CEOs of multinational corporations often are held directly accountable to Congress, appearing before their committees for questioning. (3) Legal Accountability: managers in the public sector can be taken to court, either for something they did themselves, or for the agency that they represent. This kind of accountability is typically "based on specific responsibilities formally or legally conferred to authorities" (p. 188). As this is the case, legal accountability is "the most unambiguous type of accountability, as the legal scrutiny will be based on detailed legal standards, prescribed by civil, penal, or administrative statutes, or precedent" (p. 188). (4) Administrative: public managers, agencies and organizations are also subject to the scrutiny of financial oversight and control (read: financial auditing). Oversight can range from the international to local level. Control by these administrative oversight authorities is often based on specific statuses and prescribed norms. Specifically, this forum is composed of auditors, inspectors, and controllers. (5) Professional accountability: professionals are often part of professional organizations which enact and necessitate certain standards to gain and maintain membership. Examples of such organizations include engineers, doctors, veterinarians, teachers, or police officers. These organizations enforce their standards on the basis of peer review. This type of accountability is most relevant to managers in the public sector who work in professional organizations.
Bovens goes on to consider accountability as, basically, a method for deciding if an organization has acted inappropriately and who, within that organization, has been responsible for what (in regards to the inappropriate behavior). Indeed, Bovens asserts that public managers are even conscious of this fact, and thus can sometimes exert large amounts of effort on strategies to minimize blame in the case of failures and to maximize possible credits in the case of success.
Within this conception of accountability, accountability forums can often face the "problem of many hands," a situation where, when confronted with multiple potential accountors, deciding who is responsible for inappropriate conduct, in what way, who should account for the inappropriate conduct, and to what degree, can become almost impossible to navigate (p. 189). For example, public policies go through a slew of reviews, rewrites and modifications by a number of different actors before they're finally enforced. Newly initiated members of organizations are compelled to form to what they believe are its traditions and existing practices. Public decisions pass through a number of administrative levels, at a number of different stages, before they're actually enacted.
To address what can be a veritable labyrinth of structure, hierarchy, personnel, stages in decision-making, and the like, Bovens presents four accountability strategies for forums to deal with "the problem of many hands."
Bovens' first accountability strategy is called corporate accountability: the organization as accountor. Within this accountability method, entire organizations are held accountable as single actors. This kind of accountability is afforded by the fact that many public organizations have independent legal status, and translates to reality in the form of legal and administrative forums. The benefits of this strategy are these: the difficult tasks of identification and verification of individual actors is bypassed, as well as how much blame should rest on any one person and the differential 'divvying out' of punishments; and forums do not have to "worry too much about which official has met what criteria for accountability" (p. 190). The cons of this strategy usually originate around situations where "sanctions...may come too late, hit the innocent...will be paid for by the public treasury, or cannot be made effective because of the actual or threatened liquidation of the public organization" (p. 190).
Bovens calls his second accountability strategy hierarchical accountability: one for all. Particularly dominant in organizational and political accountability situations, this system of accountability begins to account at the top of the hierarchical pyramid and makes its way down. In reality, this accountability strategy most often looks like the situation where a CEO or commander in chief assumes complete responsibility for the actions of her organization and takes all the blame. The benefits of hierarchical accountability lie in its simplicity and clarity; it is immediately known who is to blame, and it is unnecessary to conduct further, time-consuming investigations. The limitations of this strategy are that many organizations have formal or informal discretionary powers, completely skewing the concept of the hierarchy, even when there exists a strong one.
Bovens' third accountability strategy is collective accountability: all for one. This strategy occurs when a forum picks any one member of an organization and holds it personally accountable for the actions of the organization. While this "makes quick work of the practical sides of many hands," the "major difficulty" with this strategy is that the strategy is rarely "sophisticated enough to do justice" to the organizational and power layout of organizations (p. 191).
Individual accountability: each for himself is Bovens'…