‘“Accountability overload”: Too much of a good thing?’

By Andreas Eriksen

The study of the accountability of administrative agencies should enable us to assess whether agency decisions are appropriately scrutinized. In order for this to be possible, we need sense of what makes something into a genuine accountability practice—as opposed to merely a set of administrative hurdles that create an illusory sense of public oversight. What does it mean for a mechanism or procedure to enable accountability? This blog post aims to clarify why acquiescing in an overly permissive or inclusive conception of what counts as accountability leads both normative and empirical analysis astray. Agency accountability is about fidelity to mandate, not satisfying expectations or securing reputational standing.

Conflating accountability with responding to demands

Many of those critical of the cumbersome and extensive auditing regime that governs EU agencies speak of an “accountability overload.” This is framed as the danger that “an agency that is “too accountable”may spend so much time responding to legislative demands/oversight, and public inquiries that it is hamstrung.” The problem with this kind of claim is that it implicitly endorses the idea that all paperwork procedures and expectation-management practices should be seen as genuine accountability practices. However, is it true that agencies subjected to an excess of control mechanisms are “too accountable”?

Madalina Busuioc—the author usually credited with setting the diagnosis of “accountability overload”on EU agencies—at one point argued that although the explosion of auditing practices is triggered in the name of accountability it is in reality detracting from it. This point is important, but it raises a question that requires more attention in the literature: from what concept of accountability are current control mechanisms detracting?

The common-sense answer is that the excess of auditing is detracting agencies from being answerable for their real mission. That is, agencies reorient themselves away from their primary tasks in order to manage reporting requirements. On this common-sense view, genuine accountability is about being answerable to the goals enshrined in the mandate.

However, this common-sense view may seem overly naïve in its assumption that there is such a thing as “the mandate” for which to answer. Many public administration theorists have highlighted the range of different kinds of concerns agencies are expected to be responsive to; they are supposed to be efficient, dedicated to public values and interests, follow proceduralrequirements and exercise skillful professional judgment. According to some analysts, these distinct standards of the mandate necessarily conflictand it is therefore inevitable that agencies must make choices between them.

Governed by reputation or publicly interest?

Naturally, this raises the question of how agencies are supposed to make such choices. Saying that their decisions should express fidelity to the mandate seems to lead nowhere, given that the mandate is constituted by conflicting standards. According to the “reputation perspective,” an agency will invest in the kinds of concerns that secure the esteem of the most strategically important audiences. Reputational theory frames this as the zero-sum game of investing in a reputation based on one form of excellence to the detriment of other dimensions of the mandate

Perhaps this reputation perspective is helpful in explaining the mechanisms of actual agency behavior, but we should be careful not conclude from this that accountability is simply about “managing expectations.”Reputational considerations may help the agency decide how it should respond to conflicting expectations, but conceptualizing this as part of what it means to be accountable confounds matters in a way that hampers nuanced analysis.

Being accountable is in part to be able and willing toaccount for decisions: this means providing explanations or justifications that convey how the agency has reasoned and acted. To the extent that an agency’s reasoning is geared primarily to secure reputational standing, its intentions in decision-making become severed from the public justificatory strategy. The justificatory strategies that refer to publicly declared principles and entrusted goals are in danger of becoming mere tools for self-presentation. The reputation-oriented mindset steers the agency towards excellence in the dimensions of the mandate that are strategically important for creating the right image with the right audiences. This does not necessarily lead the attention to the tasks that most deserve agency action in light of the values entrusted to the agency. The reputation-oriented behavior therefore detracts from genuine accountability.

A multidirectional mandate?

This conceptual gap—between genuine accountability practices and the art of managing expectations to secure reputational standing—should lead us to consider ways to save the common-sense view, according to which accountability is about being answerable to the mandate. Maybe accountability regimes can hold agencies answerable to something like a true mission. In order for this view to work, we need a more sophisticated idea of agency mandates. Perhaps mandates are not simply heaps of disconnected and conflicting standards, contrary to the assumption that drives reputation theory.

In a forthcoming paper for the TARN Working Paper series, I seek to develop a framework for seeing accountability as a matter of making agencies answerable to a “multidirectional mandate.” The idea is that the different kinds of standards in the mandate can potentially make up a coherent space for agency reasoning to orient itself. As I see it, theoretical interpretations of the normative situation of agencies should be more hesitant to see conflicts as internal to the mandates. More attention should be paid to the idea that mandates constitute a distinct sphere of reasoning. Fidelity to mandate is about interpreting standards in a way that warrants public trust.

The main message is that control mechanisms that do not track this kind of fidelity to mandate are not about accountability. Using an array of blunt auditing instruments without sensitivity to the agency mission does not lead to an accountability overload. Instead, it obscures a potential accountability deficitprecisely by masquerading as something that tracks the mandate.


Andreas Eriksen is a postdoctoral research fellow at ARENA Centre for European Studies, University of Oslo




Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *