Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Accountability in the Netherlands: Exemplary in Its Complexity

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Accountability in the Netherlands: Exemplary in Its Complexity

Article excerpt


This article addresses the accountability practices in the Netherlands. It is argued that during the past few decades, nearly all constituting elements of classic accountability have been abandoned. The new practices involve audits, monitoring, performance measurement, evaluation, etc. It is argued that these practices have some serious side-effects, namely that accountability procedures have deteriorated in standard operations, resulting in an increase of administrative cost, insignificance, biased accounts, and ambiguous responsibility. The article concludes by a plea to reconsider the merits of modern managerial accountability.


History has shown a remarkable shift in thinking about and practicing public accountability. In ancient times accountability was in order only when grave situations i.e. disasters were visible. Accountability involved control and answerability, often related to sanctions having personal consequences and aimed at righting wrongdoings. In case of fraud, corruption or policy failure, the ones responsible were held accountable and had to face the consequences of their actions. There was a clear hierarchical relation between those whose actions were held accountable and the account holder. Subordinates were accountable to their superiors and not vice versa. Accountability was trigger-induced and situation-specific. One was accountable for a specific act or event in which apparently something went wrong and one had to answer for failing to prevent the event or for faults and errs. Either in law, customs or political standards, specific criteria were available to judge the actions beforehand, that is, the accountee knew or could know the righteousness of his acts (Day and Klein, 1987).

When this practice is compared with the accountability practiced nowadays in the Netherlands (and elsewhere) all these elements constituting classic accountability seem to have disappeared and changed the practice into--what some denote as--new or managerial accountability. This new kind of accountability emphasizes information-exchange, explaining behavior and performance, trust and horizontal relations between the account-holder and the accountee. It involves a more widespread form of accountability, because in this conception everybody is accountable to everybody and has to be able to explain their actions. This is possible and desirable because it is distinct from control and hierarchy and aimed at trustworthiness, learning, becoming aware of owns goals and how to achieve them, telling others about own performance and improving own performance and position because of this (Paul, 1992; Zapico-Goni, 1997; Behn, 2001).

At first sight, this shift is very positive, because trust is more of a hurray-word than control. Furthermore, the proponents of the modern approach can associate the classic form of accountability with proponents that are not that popular. They may quote Lenin who told us "Dawierjaj no prawierjaj" (trust is good, control is better) (quoted in Bemelmans-Videc, 2003:202) or Karl Marx saying "whenever there is money involved, there needs to be control", or even point to a crook like Al Capone, who is known for the saying "A nice smile with a gun to someone's head is so much more effective than just a nice smile". Hence, if a scholar makes an argument in favor of control over trust, he runs the risk of being associated with these despised figures.

This article takes that risk. As the title of this article suggests, something is seriously wrong in the new accountability practices. This article addresses these problems and illustrates the new accountability practice as it recently evolved in the public sector in the Netherlands. It will argue that four side-effects of the trend are visible. First, there is an increase of a costly complexity resulting from the multitude of reports written to account for what one intends to do (ex-ante accounting) and what one has done (ex-post accounting). …

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