Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Accountability and the Challenges of Information Disclosure

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Accountability and the Challenges of Information Disclosure

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Accountability in the public sector is an ambiguous, complex, elusive, fragmented and heterogeneous concept (e.g., Scott 2000; Bovens 2005; Halligan 2007; Mulgan 2008). The chameleon-like nature of accountability has also been highlighted (Sinclair 1995; Mulgan 2003, 555; Demmke, Hammerschmid and Meyer 2006, 80). Bovens (2005, 183) regards accountability as an icon of New Public Management. As New Public Management emphasizes cost control, financial transparency and the decentralization of management authority, enhancing accountability to customers or citizens is a crucial element to ensure the quality of public services (Power 2001, 43). Along with this, the political understanding of accountability has been supplemented by a managerial conception of accountability embracing the need to deliver value for money (Power 2001, 49; Halachmi 2000; Halachmi 2002). In the context of New Public Management, accountability is seen by some authors as a concept closely linked to principal-agent theory (Stem 2000; Lupia 2003; Benz 2007; Schillemans 2008). Other authors use a sociological perspective, stressing the social relationship aspect of accountability (Day and Klein 1987, 5; Pollitt 2003, 89; Bovens 2005, 184; Messner 2009, 921). A third perspective is that of psychology, which investigates effects on and of accountability (cf. Lerner & Tetlock 1999 for an overview).

Public sector accountability has many forms: Some authors distinguish between internal and external accountability (Demmke, Hammerschmid & Meyer 2006), ex ante and ex post accountability (Mulgan 2008), vertical/hierarchical (Barberis 1998; Braithwaite 1999) and horizontal accountability (Scott 2000; Mulgan 2003; Schillemans 2008), compliance and performance accountability, managerial, financial, process and program accountability (Day & Klein 1987, 26; Behn 2001, 6-10) as well as individual, organizational and ministerial accountability (Bovens 2005; Demmke, Hammerschmid & Meyer 2006, 82). The typology of Romzek and Dubnick (1987) has gained classic status: Four types of accountability are differentiated, alongside the sources of agency control and the degree of control over agency actions: bureaucratic, legal, professional and political. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) regards accountability as one of the key policy levers (OECD 2005, 11). Loosely defined, accountability is often used as a synonym for "good governance" or "virtuous behavior" (Bovens 2007, 449). A narrow understanding, to which this paper subscribes, regards accountability as "a relationship between an actor and a forum in which the actor has the obligation to explain and to justify his or her conduct, the forum can pose questions and path judgment, and the actor may face consequences" (Bovens 2007, 450). The relevant parties are also sometimes referred to as the accountability holdee and accountability holder who monitors the behavior of the accountability holdees (Iszkowski 2007, 106) or as accountor and accountee (Stewart 1984; Schillemans 2008). In this paper, we subscribe to the latter terminology and refer to individuals or groups that are in a position where they are held accountable for their behavior as accountors and individuals or groups that are receiving this information and judging the appropriateness of actions as accountees.

It would be naive to assume that accountability information is provided for free. Not only is the process of transforming huge amounts of data into usable information costly (Calista and Melitski 2007, 106; Roberts 2009, 963) but there is also room for tactical and strategic maneuvers in the process of disclosing information. The reluctance, first, to disclose relevant information and, second, deliberate or intentional information overload (i.e. the provision of too much information for the information-processing capabilities to handle, Eppler & Mengis 2004, 326), are two distinct forms of the practice of withholding relevant information. …

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