Does Public Accountability Work as an Assessment Tool?

Public Accountability Work? An Assessment Tool," Bovens, Schillemans & Hart (2008) discuss, among other related concepts, the negative effect that too much accountability can have on administrative practice. In fact, many public administrators often voice concerns and complaints regarding the standards of accountability to which they are held. They contend that accountability criteria have become increasingly dense and labyrinthine, and as a result, have "opened the door to judicial control practices that are minute, time-consuming and paralytic in their effects" (p. 227). Auditing courts' expanded roles have, increasingly, transformed them from 'accountants' to 'evaluators,' and thus are said to have begun to overlay "rationalistic ideas" on a sector that is often full of uncertainties, cases of trial and error, politics, and complexities (Pollitt et al. 1999 as cited in Bovens et al. 2008, p. 227). Superimposing rationalistic criteria to a world such as this will almost invariably lead to the discovery of inefficiencies, and when these agencies publish their (mostly negative) findings, they encourage public cynicism and give "journalists and parliamentary critics...a supply of cheap shots at ministers and bureaucrats" (p. 227). Bovens et al. take these considerations seriously, and begin an exploration of the individual claims of the argument.

The first gripe that Bovens et al. examine is the often asserted idea that there are simply too many accountability routines. When accountability requirements are added to an already-dense set of criteria, the authors say, public interest rarely becomes better realized; only more red tape is added. In response to too-high frequencies of accountability procedures, some have retorted that they spend half their time accounting for what they have done, and the other half explaining why things they said they were going to do did not get done. Likewise, many university administrators have explained how their assessments seem to have no end, and that the assessments themselves generate a number of time-consuming subsequent activities (meetings, draft reports, publicity fallouts and follow up rituals, etc.) which, ultimately, take away their time for teaching and research.

The second consideration related to 'accountability overloads' that Bovens et al. take into account is the "the nature of the evaluation criteria and rules of interaction entailed in various accountability arrangements" (p. 228). Often, accountability arrangements -- administrators complain -- are ill-worded, impractical, and are ever-changing, and cause a fair amount of costs and uncertainty to those who are subjected to these rules. Moreover, because administrators, politicians, and civil servants are often required to appear in front of Congress or Parliament 'on a whim,' -- whenever a forum to whom the actor is held accountable wishes -- "the perceived volatility and the opportunism of political forums in particular are seen as a major cost factor" (Hart & Wille, 2006 as cited in Bovens et al., 2008, p. 228). This is especially because these administrators feel they are often explaining surface-level, insignificant incidents that have no real bearing on the public good, and moreover are forced to answer thousands of written parliamentary questions per year. In the case that the bureaucrat under question is "responsible for media sensitive, politically controversial policy domains such as criminal justice, health, and social policy," this can be a big problem (p. 228).

It seems easy to dismiss administrators' claims that they're being held too accountable -- the claim almost seems offensive; the logic, at first, might seem counterintuitive. However, their complaints become more difficult to dismiss when we understand that those in the academic world -- who, supposedly, do not have a self-serving bias (at least, not one similar to the nature that politicians are said to have) -- confirm that there can exist (and exists currently, in select 'places'), too much accountability. Behn speaks of the 'accountability dilemma' which he feels is currently growing (2001, as cited in Bovens et al., 2008). Other scholars maintain that more accountability does not necessarily lead to better government (Halachmi, 2002a, b; Jos & Thompkins, 2004; Dubnick, 2005 as cited in Bovens et al., 2008) and still others have argued that too much accountability "discourages innovative and entrepreneurial behaviour in public managers" (Anechiarico & Jacobs, 1996; Power, 1997 as cited in Bovens et al., 2008, p. 228). The 'accountability trap,' which Meyer & Shaugnessy (1993) and Thiel & Leeuw (2003) mention, is defined as the situation where, as the intensity and frequency of accountability exercises rises, the subjected administrators indeed get better at responding to the exercises, but do not necessarily get better at performing their official position in public service delivery (as cited in Bovens et al., 2008).

There are also wide arrays of ways in which assessment systems can be undermined by "strategic managerial behavior" (De Bruin, 2000, as cited in Bovens et al., 2008, p. 228). Arguments put forth by Pollitt (2003) explicate the problems that accountability arrangements can often have -- "tunnel vision, ritualization, mutual stereotyping, defensive routines, and hostile behavior" (as cited in Bovens et al., p. 228). Lastly, many scholars warn of an 'accountability crisis,' in which too many accountability practices, with their logical foundations quite different from one another, are occurring, and are thus subverting accountability practices as a whole.

After qualifying that they do not wish to explore the legitimacy of these arguments, Bovens et al. offers a theoretical framework for what exactly an 'accountability overload' would look like. The authors define four criterion for accountability regimes that are enforcing a detrimental amount of accountability on its subjects: (1) the regime imposes "extraordinarily high demands," (2) the accountability standards contain a relatively high number of "mutually contradictory evaluation criteria," (3) the regime imposes standards that are beyond their subjects and comparable subjects' good practices, and (4) the regime imposes standards that are conducive to "goal displacement or subversive behaviour" (p. 229). The more of these criterion that an accountability regime possesses, the more likely they are to defeat their own purposes.

Bovens et al. moves on to ensure that, simply because accountability overkills can exist, there are plenty of instances where lack of accountability is the problem (and in fact, perhaps more instances where lack of accountability is the main concern, especially in politics). Lack of accountability -- or accountability deficits -- refer to situations in which administrators are not monitored closely enough and do not have a power 'from above' that can sanction them in the case of inappropriate behavior. Indeed, accountability deficits exist in many different parts of the public sector, especially as it relates to the growth in complexity and size of the executive sector. This can result in a situation where control of executive branches of government is seriously impeded (Bovens, 1998; Behn, 2001, and Mulgan, 2003 as cited in Bovens et al., 2008).

Bovens et al. also cite a problem of "newly emerging theatres and practices of networked governance," for example, "multilateral and multilevel governance practices such as the European Union" where there have been a slew of gaps in accountability (Curtin, 2004; Fisher, 2004; Arnull & Wincott, 2001; Harlow, 2002; Bergman & Damgaard, 2000; Schmitter, 2004, as cited in Bovens et al., 2008, p. 229). There are similarly, now, organizations that provide both private and public tasks, which have created a new set of accountability deficits (Martin, 1997; Edeling et al., 2004 as cited in Bovens et al., 2008).

While accountability overkills and accountability deficits represent two ends of a continuum, Bovens et al. argues that what is necessary is that executive accountability holds pace with "internationalization, deregulation of public service delivery, the spread of quango's, [and] 'hybrid organizations and networks,'" to strike the proper accountability balance (p. 230).

Bovens et al. claim that much research fails to address the question of the purpose of accountability in modern democracy, and, from the purpose of accountability in democracy, which accountability standards will derive. The authors list the three purposes of public accountability, as they see it: (1) "to monitor and control government conduct," (2) to "prevent executive abuses," and (3), to "enhance the learning capacity and effectiveness of the executive branch and its partners in governance" (Aucoin & Heintzman, 2000 as cited in Bovens et al., 2008, p. 230).

If the first purpose of accountability is to monitor and control the government, we should understand first that citizens, in a democracy, have transferred their sovereignty to popular representatives, who have themselves transferred the enforcement of policy to the government. When this is the case, we can see that accountability is a necessary precondition for democracy; it "provides citizens and their representatives with the information needed for judging the effectiveness of government conduct" (Przeworski et al., 1999 as cited in Bovens et al., 2008, p. 231). Thus, the quality of an accountability arrangement, from this angle, can be judged by how well it "consolidates and reaffirms the democratic chain of delegation" (p. 231).

If the second purpose of accountability is to prevent executive abuses, we should understand that the main concern here is to prevent tyranny. Thus, from this perspective, we can judge the quality of the accountability arrangement on…