Accountability and Institutional Design: Some Thoughts on the Grammar of Governance
PUBLIC ACCOUNTABILITY: DESIGNS, DILEMMAS AND EXPERIENCES, Michael Dowdle, ed., Cambridge University Press, Chapter 5, pp. 115-156, 2006
47 Pages Posted: 1 Nov 2006
Accountability is a protean concept, a placeholder for multiple contemporary anxieties. Public concern about the unaccountability of bureaucrats, corporations, supranational institutions and privatized governmental services - to name but a few targets - is ubiquitous. Accountability is surely a problem. But exactly what sort of problem? And what accountability structures would suffice to assure the public that the behavior of a multitude of powerful actors is subject to effective oversight and control.
This essay begins by unpacking accountability to demonstrate that accountability talk is at base talk about the answer to six linked questions whose answers form the basic building blocks of what I will refer to as accountability regimes. These questions take on multiple meanings in diverse contexts, but my claim is that they are a set of questions that must be addressed to make sense of any claim about the efficacy of accountability.
I then present a partial taxonomy of accountability regimes. This taxonomic exercise provides a basic map of the choices available to institutional designers (or institutional critics) when addressing accountability questions. It also begins to illustrate why institutional design issues are at base a set of choices among competing, overlapping and inevitably unsatisfactory, accountability regimes.
Part III, illustrates the way this conceptual framework of accountability, a sort of grammar of governance for addressing accountability issues, can be deployed in a contemporary arena of increasing importance and widespread dispute: contracted out governance. This section looks at the accountability concerns that contracting out generates and sets those anxieties within a framework of long-standing debates about the relative roles of government, the market, and civil society in pursuing collective projects. This sets the stage for an exercise in auditing the accountability books - a demonstration of how accountability issues might be analyzed systematically within the context of a specific, contracted out governmental system. This audit illustrates how the taxonomy helps reveal the complex of accountability issues that can arise in a highly contracted out system, along with some of the difficulties and unanticipated accountability consequences of particular design choices.
Finally, the Conclusion addresses an issue that lurks beneath the surface of the whole discussion: How should we assess the acceptability of particular accountability arrangements? The point here is not to suggest that, if we get the normative stance, right we can always solve our accountability problems through clever institutional design. It illustrates instead that once we get the analytics or grammar of accountability reasonably straight, and understand the basic purposes of different forms of accountability, we can then see more clearly what many accountability disputes really entail. For, at base, much of the dispute about accountability is a dispute about what particular institutions are meant to do, not how accountable they are in the doing of it.
Keywords: Accountability, Institutional Design
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