Accountability remains a key tenet of the good governance agenda. It
is usually defined as a government's obligation to respect the interests
of those affected by its decisions, programmes and interventions through
mechanisms of answerability and enforceability. It can be vertical (downwards
accountability to citizens, clients etc.) or horizontal (sideways checks
and balances within government). In practice these distinctions increasingly
break down, and lines of accountability have become more blurred. This
has important implications for traditional notions of responsiveness,
obligation and communication. Mark Consodine notes that the 'standard
of line authority is now contradicted everywhere by the demands of entrepreneurship
and out-put based performance'. However, those pushing for greater public
accountability still press ministers and public servants to take responsibility
for public programmes, even if those programmes are delivered by contractors.
In assessing these shifting patterns of accountability, the author draws
on over a thousand interviews with officials in employment service institutions
in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands. The implications
of the findings are clearly more widespread, however. Each of these countries
is engaged in significant structural reform, which allows the author to
assess the impact on accountability of variables such as the extent of
privatisation or contracting out and the extent of competition between
public and private agencies. These four countries are also considered
to be pioneers in the field of public sector reform, providing a way of
comparing the ways in which a common commitment to governance reforms
may result in different accountability strategies. Key findings include:
Many public agencies have no clearly defined place in a hierarchy
and are often not directly accountable to the electorate.
New forms of devolution and performance management, which give greater
power to officials, often do not increase the institutional means
to keep them accountable.
In respect of horizontal accountability, when private actors perform
public services, contracts become more important than commands, and
performance is measured as output rather than process. The existence
of fuzzy boundaries and overlapping mandates between public and private
agencies creates the potential for conflict. However used positively,
these arrangements can create the potential for 'joined-up' government,
provided that questions of mandate and responsibility are kept on
the public agenda.
While the new preoccupation with output-based performance has solved
some problems of efficiency, it has created new accountability gaps
and policy failures as private and semi-public agencies spend public
funds on activities that are all but immune from public review.
Different academic traditions suggest different solutions to these
accountability challenges, from emphasis on how parliaments serve
'shareholders' or how bureaucrats serve their 'customers' to a focus
on getting the material incentives right as a means of tackling corruption.
The problem is that many of these approaches fail to acknowledge the
existence of competing lines of accountability.
Creating public programmes that are responsive to the people they
serve now requires multidimensional methods to measure how different
institutional arrangements advantage different forms of responsiveness.
These need to be tailored to the requirements of the sector in question.
Multidimensionality means multiple measures and new mandates.
Traditional measures of accountability that rely on line or top-down
measures do not necessarily provide a good guide to the accountability
culture as a whole. Vertical accountability can be improved through
enhanced roles for parliamentary committees and ombudsmen. Tools for
greater horizontal accountability need to be adapted to the features
of each system in question, including for example the degree of competitiveness
in service provision.
Creating accountability in a context of shifting mandates and changing
modes of service delivery between the public and private sector requires
us to rethink our understanding of accountability at a conceptual level
and in practice. Where lines of accountability are blurred, emphasis on
cultures of responsibility is more likely to capture the new reality.
Measures of accountability and proposals for enhancing both vertical and
horizontal accountability need to take account of the specific nature
of each sector and of the institutional context in which change is sought.
Source: Considine, M. 2002. 'The end of the line? Accountable
governance in the age of networks, partnerships and joined-up services',
Governance, Volume 15, Number 1, January.
Governance is published quarterly by Blackwell
Keywords: accountability, public sector performance, public sector
Commentator: Peter Newell, IDS,