Democratic accountability and the changing European political order

Date01 January 2018
Published date01 January 2018
Democratic accountability and the changing
European political order
Johan P. Olsen*
This article is about democratic accountability and a Europe struggling to find viable answers to the questions
of who and what shall constitute Europeand how to develop legitimate political institutions for governing it.
The article is, nevertheless, first and foremost about political order and change, rules for living together, the
role of democratic politics in society and the relations between political organization and civilized coexistence,
and the study of the political. Modern democracies live with unresolved conflict, and accountability regimes are
part of an institutional arrangement for preserving order and continuity and also for creating dynamics and
change. Accountability processes take place within settled and unsettled orders, and they affect and are
affected by existing orders. Without denying the importance of contending interests, power struggles, strategic
behaviour, noncooperative games, and (re)distributional battles, attention is directed towards the search for
unity, political cohesion and solidarity based upon the informed voluntary consent of the people through
reflection and reasoned deliberation among individuals with different values, interests, understandings and
Observing children play, one cannot avoid noticing how much time they spend discussing what the game is all about.
Who is, and should be, allowed to play? What are the rules and what should they be? What is fair play and what
counts as rule breaking? What are and should be the consequences of breaking rules and who can sanction rulebrea-
kers? Who is and should be allowed to create, interpret and change rules? How and why?
For more than 2000 years, European students of politics have struggled with similar issues. They have explored
why humans constitute political communities and what forms of collective life are desirable and achievable: Who
qualifies as a member of a community and how do they organize and govern themselves? What is worthy of public
protection, according to what normativeethical evaluative standards? They have examined the extent to which the
quality of life depends on legitimate order and change and asked how political organization contributes to civilized
coexistence among individuals with different values, interests, understandings, and resources, and whether political
orders can be designed to achieve substantive goals, by whom and how? Moreover, Solon observed that hostility
Arena Centre for European Studies, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway. Email: j.p.olsen@aren This article is an edited version
of my Plenary Lecture at the European Consortium for Political Research's General Conference in Oslo, 7 September 2017. I thank
Morten Egeberg, Fernando Filgueiras, Robert E. Goodin, Per Lægreid, James G. March, Agustín José Menéndez, Margo Meyer, Ludvig
Norman, Helene Olsen, Yannis Papadopoulos, Víctor PérezDíaz and Olof Petersson for their help. Needless to say, none of these
good people carries any responsibility for the end product.
DOI: 10.1111/eulj.12261
Eur Law J. 2018;24:7798. © 2018 John Wiley & Sons 77
can be reduced by giving people power to elect officers of government and demand an account from them at the end
of their tenure.
Today's students of politics also talk about the rules of the gameand playing by the rules, and in societies com-
mitted to democratic rule, representation and accountability are crucial for securing legitimacy. A part of the credo is
that the will of the peopleshall ultimately prevail. The people are the constituent power, and a legitimate order shall
reflect how citizens want to organize and govern their life in common. The distribution, exercise and change of power
must be explained and justified through reasoned argument and public contestation, and informed, voluntary consent
to foundational rules is fundamental. The ruled must not be subjected to rulers beyond their control. Actors are
accountable for what they do and what they could have done. No one is accountable for things they do not control.
Most contemporary thinking about democratic governance emphasizes accountability as a normative principle
and a mechanism for securing citizens' influence.
Accountability processes are supposed to detect, assess and sanc-
tion deviances from authorized mandates. They are also firstorder political processes offering an opportunity to con-
test the truth, moral, and power bases of the existing order and develop a new one.
Citizens' perceptions of
accountability regimes depend on substantive performance, procedural fairness and institutional arrangements for
explaining, justifying, assessing and sanctioning behaviour.
An effective democratic accountability regime depends
on three types of processes: (a) the institutionalized routines of partly autonomous watchdog institutions with a legal,
financial, managerial or expert mandate; (b) accountability politics within a constituted political order; and (c) account-
ability politics as part of (re)constituting an order.
The focus here is on orderchallenging accountability politics in the European context and in particular related to
Europeanlevel institutions. In settled democracies in normal times, it is common to take the existing order for granted
rather than relentlessly considering alternative orders. Demands for explanations and justifications are more likely in
unsettled polities and at critical junctures. Crises trigger rethinking of the political order, its ordering effects, and
dynamics of change. People question what kind of community they want to live in, and accountability processes
become part of contestations over the proper role of institutions and actors. Why, then, the recent upsurge in
accountability demands,
and what can it tell us about European developments, accountability, the role of democratic
politics in society, and how to study the political?
Aristotle, The Politics (Penguin, 1962), at 124.
M. Bovens, Two Concepts of Accountability: Accountability as a Virtue and as a Mechanism' (2010) 33 West European Politics, 946.
A political order is an institutional arrangement prescribing who can legitimately make decisions applicable to the whole community
and who is responsible and can be held to account. An institution is a relatively enduring collection of rules and organized practices,
embedded in structures of meaning and resources. Institutions create order and orderly change. They define legitimate ways to orga-
nize government and appropriate action for different roles in various contexts, what kind of behaviour can be expected from different
office holders. Institutions change routinely, but they do not automatically adapt to intentional reforms or environmental changes.
They are relatively unvarying in the face of turnover of individuals and relatively resilient to the idiosyncratic preferences and expec-
tations of individuals and changing external circumstances. J.G. March and J.P. Olsen, Organizing Political Life: What Administrative
Reorganization Tells Us About Government(1 983) 77 The American Political Science Review, 281; J.G. March and J.P. Olsen,
Rediscovering Institutions. The Organizational Basis of Politics (Free Press, 1989); J.G. March and J.P. Olsen, Elaborating the New Insti-
tutionalism”’, in R.A.W. Rhodes, S.A. Binder and B.A. Rockman (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Political Institutions (Oxford University
Press, 2006), at 3.
I. Pérez Durán, Accountability from the Perspective of the Forum: CitizensAttitudes Toward Accou ntability in Europe' (2016) 39
West European Politics, 815.
P.C.Schmitter, The Ambiguous Virtues of Democracy(2004) 15 Journal of Democracy, 47; S. Gustavsson, C. Karlsson and T. Persson
(eds.), The Illusion of Accountability in the European Union (Routledge, 2009); C.T. Borowiak, Accountability & Democracy: The Pitf alls and
Promises of Popular Control (Oxford University Press, 2011); C. Pollitt and P. Hupe, Talking about Government: The Role of Magic Con-
cepts(2011) 13 Public Management Review, 641; T. Schillemans, The Public Accountability Review: A MetaAnalysis of Public
Accountability Research in Six Academic Disciplines(Utrecht University School of Governance Working Paper, 2013); M. Bovens, R.E.
Goodin and T. Schillemans (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Public Accountability (Oxford University Press, 2014); T. Wright, The Politics
of Accountability,in M. Elliot and D. Feldman(eds.), The Cambridge Companion to PublicLaw (Cambridge University Press, 2015 ), at 96;
J.P.Olsen, Democratic Accountability,Politic al Order, andChange: ExploringAccountability Processesin anEra ofEuropean Transformation
(Oxford University Press, 2017).

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