Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Challenges to Democratic Legitimacy, Scrutiny, Accountability in the UK National and Local State

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Challenges to Democratic Legitimacy, Scrutiny, Accountability in the UK National and Local State

Article excerpt


This article suggests that at national and local levels, the British state is seemingly incapable of solving multi-faceted and intractable social, economic and environmental problems alone. It is argued that new national and local governance arrangements, based on new ideas, different ways of working, and approaches to problem solving have brought into a sharper focus on the issues of democratic legitimacy, scrutiny and accountability. All three complex and ambiguous concepts have long been a concern in public administration. This article draws from existing conceptual frameworks to show that traditional forms of legitimacy, scrutiny and accountability are now under threat. It examines the merits of the new forms, with some recommendations for the future.


Like many other nation states, the UK state has undergone massive transformation in the last quarter of the twentieth century, and there is no evidence of a slow down. As the Blair Government continues to foster a managerialist state based largely on neoliberal assumptions and business--like policies, innovative and experimental, reconfigured and re-engineered forms of governance have replaced the traditional top--down, command hierarchies. New arrangements in which state and non-state actors work together across organisational boundaries to achieve commonly agreed objectives have exposed gaps in institutional coverage and challenged the democratic legitimacy of both state and non-state actors, but more significantly scrutiny and accountability remain key unresolved issues at the heart of modernisation of the British state. State officials are now obliged to draw in personnel, resources and information from non--state actors to share "democratic action spaces", and new relationships and responsibilities are altering the forms of democratic engagement and patterns of legitimacy.

As the context of governance continues to change, and more and more state functions are contracted out, privatised, or delivered by combinations of state and non--state actors or agencies we need to rethink our views on legitimacy, scrutiny and accountability. While states continue to divest financial and managerial responsibilities and measure performance on market driven criteria such as consumerism, competition, efficiency and value for money questions remain on issues of equity and public interest. If, as is argued here, the British state has undergone massive transformation and national and local governance arrangements are now so completely different to those we have grown used to, this is an apposite juncture to develop new forms of legitimacy, scrutiny and accountability. To examine these new forms it is important to understand some existing debates surrounding the concepts of "governance", "New Public Management", "New Public Services", and "New Public Governance".


Although the use of the concept "governance" has attained currency within the past decade, at the expense of the concept "government" (Hirst, 2000), and despite its widespread usage, it remains a concept with different dimensions and applications (Salet, Thornley, and Kreukels, 2003:9). "Governance" lacks precision and is used in a variety of disciplines and in different discourses (Southern, 2003). It is generally perceived as an alternative to government. From a North American perspective it has been variously described as "social self governance", in association with contemporary ideas on local and global civic societies; as "responsible economic governance", linked to market economies; or "political governance"; concerning public affairs. The first two are, in part, private forms of governance, facilitated by governmental frameworks, whereas the latter is concerned with the theory and practice of public affairs.

In a European context, some have argued that national governments, during the post Second World War period took a pro-active role in expansion of the Welfare State, whereas during the 1980s, and thereafter, dramatic shifts altered the balance between government and other agencies. …

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