Bovens Year Examines the Current Article Review

  • Length: 10 pages
  • Sources: 10
  • Subject: Government
  • Type: Article Review
  • Paper: #49190254

Excerpt from Article Review :

In this scenario, the forum makes an attempt to recognize the specific circumstances of each case, making serious efforts to hold each member of the organization liable "in so far as, and according to the extent to which, he has personally contributed to the malperformance of the agency" (pp. 191-192).


Turning to the actual question of why public accountabilities are necessary, Bovens expands upon five crucial functions that public accountability plays in democratic governance: democratic control, the enhancement of the integrity of public governance, the improvement of performance, the enhancement of the legitimacy of public governance, and providing public catharsis.

Bovens holds that aside from "just" being the hallmark of democratic governance, it is moreover the sine qua non-for democratic governance (p. 192). If we conceive of modern democracy as a series of "principal-agent relations," we can see how public accountability is the thread that strings the sequence together: (1) citizens transfer sovereignty to political representatives, (2) political representatives, in sense, transfer sovereignty to cabinet members, (3) cabinet members delegate their powers to "the thousands of civil servants at the ministry," which (4) transfer their powers to independent agencies and public bodies. These agencies spend billions of taxpayer dollars, execute public policies, impose fines, imprison people, and grant and deny permits (p. 192).

Turning to Bovens' functions of public accountability, his first and foremost is democratic control. Public accountability strives to regulate each exercise of power transference by holding its representatives responsible. Ultimately, in this line of accountability relations, the citizens stand at the end, judging the performance of their government and elected officials, holding them accountable with voting power. The democratic process thus necessitates public accountability because "it provides political representatives and voters with the necessary inputs for judging the fairness, effectiveness, and efficiency of governance (Przeworski, Stokes, and Manin, 1999 as cited in Bovens,-YEAR, pp. 192-193).

Bovens' second function of public accountability is to enhance the integrity of public governance. In other words, public accountability acts as a watchdog, or a safeguard, against "corruption, nepotism, abuse of power, and other forms of inappropriate behavior (Rose-Ackerman, 1999 as cited in Bovens,-YEAR, p. 193). Indeed, 'watchdog groups" sole purpose are to hold organizations, public officials, and governmental bodies accountable for their actions, and when necessary 'call them out.' These groups -- and public accountability as a concept, in general -- presuppose that the existence of public account giving will deter actors who are obliged to the public from acting inappropriately and will additionally create positions and organizations, such as journalists, interest groups, members of Congress, or official controllers, "with essential information to trace administrative abuses" (p. 193).

Bovens' third function of public accountability is to improve performance. In other words, while a main aspect of public accountability is maintaining control, another significant and crucial part of holding individuals and organizations to account is to prevent future failure. Public accountability is meant to act as a vehicle for individual and institutional adaptation; norms, policies, and structures are created, modified, and terminated as the result of accountability inputs (Aucoin & Heintzman, 2000 as cited in Bovens,-YEAR). Accountability creates standards for which to secure and maintain positions of power, and this relates to outsiders as well, particularly when those outsiders may find themselves in a similar position. For example, when the media breaks a political scandal, members of the government often either gain a significant amount of power or lose a significant amount of power and are often 'forced' into an action that 'balances' their previous misdeed. Moreover, those politicians closely connected to the politicians involved in the supposed scandal may be compelled to adjust their policies and procedures as well.

Bovens' fourth function of public accountability, maintaining or enhancing the legitimacy of public governance, is provided by his first three functions of public accountability. As media holds the political and corporate world to more and more scrutiny, the public in turn become increasingly critical of these systems. In this sense, holding officials, corporations, and other agencies accountable for transparency, responsiveness, and answerability, creates public confidence in the government and "bridges the gap between citizens and representatives and between governed and government" (as well as between corporations and their stakeholders) (Aucoin & Heintzman, 2000 as cited in Bovens',-YEAR).

The last function of public accountability that Bovens' explains is, "in the case of tragedies, fiascos, and failures," holding officials to account represents a significant, "purifying function;" it helps to provide public catharsis (p. 193). In this sense, a tragic phase can be brought to an end by public account giving; people can justify their behavior, excuse their conduct, get things off their chests, and voice their concerns. Governmental committees and parliamentary inquiries often serve this function when they investigate such events as natural disasters, plane crashes, railroad accidents, and other relatively large-scale situations. Moreover, "processes of calling to account create the opportunity for penitence, reparation, and forgiveness and can thus provide social or political closure" (Harlow, 2002 as cited in Bovens,-YEAR, pp. 193-194).


After his thorough discussion of the benefits, functions, and requirements of public accountability, Bovens explains that, while public accountability is most certainly a good thing, too much of it can be a bad thing. Bovens calls this the accountability dilemma or the accountability paradox; if public accountability is paid too much attention to, each of the aforementioned functions of public accountability can turn into dysfunctions.

Bovens first describes it as such: "Too rigorous democratic control will squeeze the entrepreneurship out of public managers and will turn agencies into rule-obsessed bureaucracies" (p. 194). In a situation where there is excessive weight added to integrity and corruption control, the progress, efficiency, and effectiveness of public organization can be seriously stymied as the result of the subsequent cause of proceduralism (Anechiarico & Jacobs, 1996 as cited in Bovens,-YEAR). Moreover, an overemphasis on accountability and transparency "can lead to suboptimal and inefficient decisions instead of improve performance" (Adelberg & Batson, 1978; McLaughlin & Riesman, 1986; Jackall, 1988 as cited in Bovens,-YEAR, p. 194).

In resource scarcity situations, Bovens describes that too much accountability results in a situation where the resources are distributed inefficiently. This idea has been empirically tested by Adelberg & Batson (1978), who created an experiment in which participants had to distribute scholarships to students. However, the amount of money, in total, that could be dedicated to the scholarships was limited and not enough to guarantee a reasonable grant to all of the applicants that satisfied the formal requirements. The experimenters found that the participants who knew they would be held accountable for their choices about to whom they gave scholarships -- and for how much -- made much less efficient use of the money provided for the scholarships than the participants who did not know they would be held accountable.

In effect, the participants who knew they would be held accountable attempted to preemptively quell any criticism of the unfairness of their behavior by distributing the money equally to each applicant. Unfortunately, by doing so, each student that received money got so little money that they could hardly do anything with it. In contrast, the participants that did not know that their behavior would be later scrutinized gave applicants who were most in need of support the most amount of money, while the rest got nothing. This has been interpreted as a more efficient use of resources.

These findings have been replicated by many social psychological experiments. Bovens cites Lerner and Tetlock (1999) whom, in an extensive overview of the research literature, offered this: "Self-critical and effortful thinking is most likely to be activated when decision makers learn prior to forming any opinions that they will be accountable to an audience (a) whose views are unknown, (b) who is interested in accuracy, (c) who is interested in process rather than specific outcomes, (d) who is reasonably well informed, and (e) who has a legitimate reason for inquiring into the reasons behind participants' judgments" (259, as cited in Bovens,-YEAR, p.195). Moreover, if too much public accountability is required, officials may be conditioned to avoid risk taking and shield themselves against potential mistakes and criticism rather than act with innovation and ingenuity.

There is a similar relationship between transparency and legitimacy. When transparency is intensely focused on, minor transgressions of rules and regulations can be "ruthlessly exposed as a sign of irrationality or deviance" therefore turning public accountability into "a politics of scandal and decreasing the legitimacy of governance" (p. 195).


Adelberg, S. & Batson, C.D. (1978). "Accountability and Helping: When Needs Exceed

Resources," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 343-50.

Anechiarico, F. & Jacobs, J.B. (1996). The Pursuit of Absolute Integrity: How Corruption

Control Makes Government Ineffective. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Aucoin, P. & Heintzman, R. (2000). "The Dialectics of Accountability for Performance in Public

Management Reform." International Review of Administrative Sciences, 66, 44-55.

Bovens, Mark. (YEAR). Public Accountability. CITY, STATE: PRESS.

Harlow, C. (2002). Accountability in the European Union. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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