Accountability: concepts and approaches

AuthorBrito Bastos, Filipe; Zeitlin, Jonathan
IPOL | Economic Gove rnance Support Unit
12 PE 645.747
2.1. Accountability: a conte sted con cept
Accountability is a notoriously contested concept (Bovens et al. 2014). One widely us ed definition is
that it constitutes “a relationship between an actor and a forum, in which the actor has an obligation
to explain and to justify his or her conduct, the forum can pose qu estions and pass judgment, and the
actor ma y face cons equences” (Bovens 2007: 450). The ques tion of whether public institutions act
accountably can also be broken down into several essential sub-qu estio ns relating to various
dimensions of accountability: “who” is accountable, “to whom”, “for what”, “by which standards”, and
“with wha t effect” ( Mashaw 2006: 115-116, 118).
The govern ance of the Ba nking Union is characterised by a multilevel structure, where EU and Member
State authorities cooperate intens ely in a v ariety of ways (Božina Beroš 2018: 47ff). Networked
admin istra tion of this k ind brings man y challenges, s ome of which a re already fa miliar from other EU
policy areas, such as pharmaceutical regulation, competition law enforcement, or management of the
structural funds, just to name a few. One recurring challenge is that the dispersion of tasks in
admin istr ative n etwor ks dilutes politica l res ponsibilit y, while th ose n etwor ks’ weak visib ility “in sulates
them from public s crutin y” (Mastenbroek an d Martinsen 2017: 429) . Moreo ver, there is the “pr oblem of
many hands, many levels, and many eyes” in the accountability of European multilevel administration,
inso far as t he mult itude of act ors involv ed in making and implemen ting policies is placed un der the
oversigh t of a variety of s upervisors, in a way which may n ot always be entirely coherent or without
gaps (Wille 2015: 477-478).
Crucially, h owever, it sho uld be noted tha t the commo n definition of account ability developed by
Bovens a nd othe rs relies, wh ether explicitly or im plicitly, on a principa l-agent model (Bovens et al. 2014:
12, 13-14). Such a definition is thus not well-suited to capture the accountability issues concerning
independent institut ions such as the ECB, where other po litical au thorities (such a s the Co uncil and the
European Parliament) have v ery limited powers to sanction their actions. 2 It shou ld likewis e be n oted
that this model of accountability is explicitly “r etrospective” or backward-looking (Bo ve ns et al. 2 014:
6), an d is t hus o f limite d valu e in as sessin g the effect ivene ss of s upervisory po licies an d pra ctices under
conditions of high uncertainty and rapidly evolving conditions, such as those characteristic of financial
market s.
2.2. Principal-agent v s. dynami c accountability
In this section, we distinguish between two contrasting models of accountability, one based on
princip al-agent relations, which is backward-looking, and the other a dynamic and forward-lo oking
model, which we argue is m ore appro priate to independent institutions operating under high levels of
Principa l-agent (P-A) accountability asks whether an agent has used their discretion in ways aut horised
and intended by the principal. Typical questions and asses sment criteria include the following. H as the
agent followed established legal and adm in istrative regulat ions and procedures? Have th ey acted
within their nar rowly defined manda te? Have they met the performance targets s et by or ag reed with
2 In his origina l formu lation, Bov ens a cknowled ges th at political accoun tability typ ically takes the form of a princip al-agent relation between
the foru m a nd th e actor, b ut arg ues that it can als o be exte nded to other accountability relations where the forums are not principals of the
actors, such as legal and profession al accountability. He also argues that “ the possibility of sanctions” is “a constitu tive element” of
accoun tability on th is d efin ition. See Boven s (2007: 451) .

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