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Dissecting the Semantics of Accountability and Its Misuse

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Abstract

In this chapter, we address the many different meanings that accountability harbors and examine the effects of such complex and multifaceted interpretations in the light of governance quality. We seek to develop a ‘relational’ perspective on accountability and on the so-called ‘unaccountability.’ We focus on Mark Bovens’s use of the forum metaphor in his accountability model, arguing that his relational perspective is too narrow. We advocate instead a far broader and more fundamental engagement with the idea of relational accountability. Expanding the metaphors, we point to two other accountability spaces: ‘agora,’ a primordial accountability space and ‘bazaar,’ an emergent accountability space rooted in ground-level exchange between different actors. Assertions about ‘unaccountability,’ we argue, very often reflect a failure to appreciate the fundamentally relational nature of accountability: those who use such assertions as bases for action aimed at making situations, processes, or people ‘more accountable’ in fact seek to assert or impose a certain form of relationship—one that is hierarchical and monopolistic—and reflect therefore a drive to power and domination. This represents a violation of accountability at the cost of the overall quality of governance.

Keywords

  • Accountability
  • Governance relationships
  • Public values
  • Quality of governance

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Fig. 3.1
Fig. 3.2

Notes

  1. 1.

    CF Strydom 1999, who saw ‘responsibility’ as the emerging ‘master frame’ that would shape social and political thinking in the twenty-first century.

  2. 2.

    Two often cited expositions of the historical development of responsibility as a concept are McKeon 1957 and Ricoeur 2000 [1995]. Both rely on a historical distinction between ‘imputation’ and ‘accountability’; see Kelty 2008 for an overview of these works. Much of the scholarship on responsibility has followed that approach. For example, Goodin 1987 drew a distinction between ‘blame’ and ‘task’ responsibilities and assigned accountability to the latter. In Bovens 1998, accountability is presented as a distinctive (‘passive’) form of responsibility and contrasted with ‘active’ (virtue-related) responsibility. In his explication of environmental governance, Pellizzoni (2004) posits accountability as one among four types of responsibility (the others are care, liability, and responsiveness). More recently, Vincent 2010 provides a sixfold elaboration of responsibilities (based on the work of H.L.A. Hart) that avoids any reference to accountability while clearly implying its relevance to several of the ‘syndromes’ she highlights.

  3. 3.

    See Bambrough 1960 for an overview of Wittgenstein’s view of family resemblances.

  4. 4.

    Compare with overview in Bovens, Schillemans, & Goodin 2014.

  5. 5.

    See the work of Judith Butler (2005), R. Jay Wallace (1994).

  6. 6.

    Bovens cites H.L.A. Hart’s elaboration of various forms of responsibility in this regard, noting that he is using the term ‘accountability’ in lieu of ‘liability-responsibility,’ which he prefers ‘since it has fewer strictly legal connotations and also entails an element of moral or political responsibility’ (Bovens, 1998, p. 24, n.3).

  7. 7.

    Interestingly, the initial reference to the forum concept does not cite Bovens’s 1998 work, but rather Christopher Pollitt’s use of the concept in his 2003 The Essential Public Manager. Pollitt, however, is using the concept quite different—that is, to describe the deliberative arena in which public managers are operating. See Pollitt 2003, pp. 84-85.

  8. 8.

    See also Schillemans & Bovens 2011; Bovens 2010; Bovens, Schillemans, & ‘t Hart 2008;

    Bovens 2007.

  9. 9.

    Kaplan 1964, pp. 259–262, elaborates six different ‘cognitive styles’ through which models are applied (literary, academic, eristic (propositional), symbolic, postulational and formal), and treats metaphors separately as a problematic (pp. 265–266). During the 1970s and 1980s, however, a ‘metaphorical turn’ occurred among methodologists and those who study the history, sociology, and philosophy of science (see Marshak, 2003), and there is little doubt that Kaplan would have included ‘metaphorical style’ in an updated list.

  10. 10.

    For example, see Leary 1990.

  11. 11.

    In fact, we suggest four possible relationships elsewhere (see O’Kelly & Dubnick, 2014) though we expand on only two in this chapter. The two relationships that are missing from this chapter are the ‘cathedral,’ a space bound by hierarchies, rituals, and rules, and the ‘monastery,’ a stable space defined by ‘thick’ relationships founded on shared norms.

  12. 12.

    We employ these terms, as we say above, in order to assist some complex concepts and ideas to come to life. The first thing to note, given this, is the overlap between the Greek ‘agora’ and the Latin ‘forum’: both in reality denoted the same or similar public spaces, where people gathered for trade (drawing in parallels with the Persian (through Italian) ‘bazaar’). We draw the following distinctions (in brief): forum as juridical and historiographical, ritualistically aimed at reconstructing reasons and states of mind behind actions and then at producing some form of action in response to the perspectives that emerge; agora as the foundational space within which—fleeting and contingent perhaps—publics emerge through fundamental social interactions; and bazaar as a space through which people use exchange in order both to pursue objectives and to ‘thicken’ their social ties.

  13. 13.

    The forum, as we see it, through its procedures and rituals, seeks at its best to construct a kind of ‘historical knowledge,’ as Collingwood would call it, that requires a ‘re-enactment’ of some event (see Collingwood, 1946, p. 282). For an historian, this requires that ‘past thought [be] rethought by means of the critical scrutiny of contemporary evidence’ (Browning, 2004, p. 74) in order to bring past thought into the present (see Collingwood 1944 [1939], p. 73; and Collingwood, 1946, 302 in particular). In the forum’s case, the production of knowledge requires the soliciting of evidence from events, documents, and, most significantly, from the accountee him or herself.

  14. 14.

    Sympathetic in Adam Smith’s (2009 [1759], p. 21) sense, as in a route into an understanding of the other’s ‘sentiments.’

  15. 15.

    Although an archaic form of contract that lacks the relational elements identified in socio-legal scholarship (see MacNeil, 2001; Fried, 1982; Fried, 2012).

  16. 16.

    When we speak of practical reason, we mean the construction of reasons for action: resolving the question of ‘what one ought to do.’ See Darwall 2006; Wallace 2014.

  17. 17.

    On which, see Tom R. Tyler & Steven L. Blader 2000; Steven L Blader & Tom R Tyler 2003; also Tom R. Tyler 2010; Olkkonen & Lipponen 2006; Lind & Bos 2002; Tom R. Tyler

    & Steven L. Blader 2000.

  18. 18.

    This echoes Hegel’s conception of Sittlichkeit, described by Pinkard as ‘the system of practices and institutions that surround the moral life.’ Sittlichkeit, in other words ‘furnishes agents with a conception of what is good and best for them, and it trains them into a kind of ‘ethical virtuosity’ in discerning what is required for the type of person they are in the type of situation in which they find themselves’ (Pinkard, 1999, pp. 226, 226). In some ways, also, our outlook echoes that of Julia Annas’ discussion (2011, see also Rorty & Wong, 1993 and other essays in the same volume), from a virtue ethics perspective, of virtues as learned—as skills—and as being in many ways subject to intelligent engagement (as opposed to being simply handed down from authority).

  19. 19.

    Schmitz goes to say that no map represents the only reasonable way of seeing the terrain. We would be astounded if two cartography students independently assigned to map the same terrain came up with identical maps. It would not happen. Likewise, theorists working independently inevitably construct different theories. The terrain underdetermines choices they make about how to map it. Not noticing this, they infer from other theorists choosing differently that one of them is mistaken and that differences must be resolved (Schmidtz 2007, p. 433).

  20. 20.

    As Smith has it, when I endeavour to examine my own conduct, when I endeavour to pass sentence upon it, either to approve or condemn it, it is evident that, in all such cases, I divide myself, as it were into two persons; and that I, the examiner and judge, represent a different character from that other I, the person whose conduct is examined into and judged of. The first is the spectator, whose sentiments with regard to my own conduct I endeavour to enter into, by placing myself in his situation, and by considering how it would appear to me, when seen from that particular point of view. The second is the agent, the person who I properly call myself, and of whose conduct, under the character of a spectator, I was endeavouring to form some opinion’ (Smith, 2009 [1759], 135f).

    See also Raphael 2007, esp ch. 5, for an account of how the idea of the impartial spectator evolved across the various editions of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments.

  21. 21.

    See for instance Suchman and Edelman 1996, on such dynamics within law-making.

  22. 22.

    Let us begin by noting that we do not associate the core characteristics of the ‘bazaar’ accountability space with the dynamics that are associated with New Public Management (NPM) and subsequent movements. New Public Management’s call to utilize the price mechanism, market forces, and innovation to allow the state to steer public services rather than provide them itself (Osborne & Gaebler, 1992). It is no coincidence that this major driver in discussions of public administration has been positively correlated with the rise of accountability as government’s core focus. NPM and its heirs are, after all, articulated precisely as being a solution to accountability failures in bureaucracy and as the route to weeding out non-performance through accountability.

    What does this form of accountability actually mean, however? Accountability here is a form of exposure. NPM’s point, in a sense, was to create new, seemingly more constructive problems and vulnerabilities for bureaucrats to focus on—competition, tendering, and the like—in such a way that something called accountability would emerge (see for instance Beer, Eisenstat, and Spector 1990 on ‘change management’ and the requirement to concoct new pressures to force organizational reform).

    This accountability would come either from the disciplinary effects of failure’s transparency, or from the more explicit standards set by ‘contractual’ governance. It relies, in short, on the production of narrow principal-agent mechanisms. NPM aims to expose non-performance and from there to develop metrics that will see performance improved (although the link between this style of ‘accountability’ and administrative performance is tenuous at best, on which see Dubnick, 2005). The actually existing switch to a more business-like public administration, however, emerged not as marketized bureaucracy, but as a market for bureaucracies. The major thrust of the era has been the rise of ‘giant firms’ (as Colin Crouch, 2011, has called them) that compete for relatively long-term contracts in the provision of public services, be they in education, healthcare, administration of security or employment benefits, and so on. As with the state, each of these firms is in many ways characterised by complex lines of vertical and horizontal integration, and is subject to processes of a Weberian ‘militarised’ discipline (Weber 1978, p. 1155) that seek to define and control the landscapes of work.

  23. 23.

    This paragraph continues, famously, with Smith telling us that ‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.’

  24. 24.

    See also Berliner 1952; Berliner 1957; Padgett and Powell 2012; Holden 2011; Khestanov 2014.

  25. 25.

    It is also possible that some apparent accountability failures might best be explained as a forum style mechanism (the bonus system in large financial institutions perhaps) creating, reinforcing, and even intensifying a social milieu that runs against outsiders’ interests.

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O’Kelly, C., Dubnick, M.J. (2020). Dissecting the Semantics of Accountability and Its Misuse. In: Paanakker, H., Masters, A., Huberts, L. (eds) Quality of Governance. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-21522-4_3

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