Public Accountability by Mark Bovens

Public accountability is the hallmark of modern democratic governance because it’s the way of having the authorities themselves who are being held accountable by their citizens.

The concept has become a rhetorical device or an ideograph that serves as a synonym for many loosely defined political desired behaviors or outcomes such as transparency, equity, democracy, efficiency, and integrity to convey an image of good governance but also for rallying supporters.

It also refers to institutionalized practices of public account giving but to qualify as that it has to contain 5 elements:

  1. Public accessibility of the account giving and not internal or discrete informing
  2. Explanation or justification of conduct and not just propaganda
  3. The explanation should be directed to an specific forum and not randomly
  4. The actor must feel obliged to come forward
  5. There must be a possibility for debate and judgment including the imposition of formal or informal sanctions if it’s the case.

From the sociological point of view the actors have to account for various elements of their conduct on different forums (or different of accountability relationships); there are at least 5 different sorts of forums:

  1. Organizational accountability -> Superiors (organizational and not so public)
  2. Political accountability -> elected representatives (when the public managers are summoned by the congress or senate)
  3. Legal accountability -> courts (to account their own acts or on behalf of the agency as a whole)
  4. Administrative -> Auditors, inspectors, controllers (quasi legal accountability)
  5. Professional accountability -> professional peers (more technical)

Accountability used as a scheme for blaming

In the modern public administration are important venues for delivering blame in case things go wrong, being accountable means being responsible (having to bear the blame) this raises another problem to identify who is responsible as there are many involved in the decision for political outcomes this is also called “the problem of many hands”.

There are 4 accountability strategies to overcome “the problem of many hands”

  1. Corporate accountability -> the blame is on the corporation or organization
  2. Hierarchical accountability -> one for all, it starts with the big boss
  3. Collective accountability -> all for one, any member can be personally held personally responsible
  4. Individual accountability -> each for himself, each official is held liable according to the extent in which he or she “contributed“

Democratic management and democratic governance comes always with public accountability the first and foremost function of public accountability is the democratic control because in the end it provides the people with the data for judgeing the fairness, effectiveness, and efficiency of the governance and even sanctioning their representatives without their vote, also the integrity because as the account its given publicly is a safeguard against corruption, nepotism, abuse of power etc… and in the end it functions for improving performance; These 3 functions combined provide a fourth and that is to maintain or enhance legitimacy of the democratic public governance.

And also the catharsis to the public of allowing people to get things of their chest

Not everything is good and functional in accounting if there’s also excess of accountability there might be some undesired outcomes or dysfunctions, which gives us the accountability paradox or dilemma.

Functions Dysfunctions
Democratic control Rule obsession
Integrity Proceduralism
Improvement Rigidity
Legitimacy Politics of Scandal
Catharsis Scapegoating

Horizontal accountability -> such as the ombudsmen that they don’t have formal powers to coerce in public managers into compliance or the ones that come from private or semi private providers (contracts).

Privatization and public accountability, made by the increasing use of private companies in the provision of public services and the privatization of public companies raises questions about the public accountability of private managers in which the level of scrutiny and the level of disclosure is far less required.


  • Bovens, M. (2005) ‘Public Accountability’, in: Ewan Ferlie, E., Laurence E. Lynn Jr., L. E. Jr. and Christopher Pollit, C. (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Public Management, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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