Seeking social accountability: Transparency in action

The attempt to measure accountability in practice depends on the empirical definition of the concept (Biela and Papadopoulos 2010). Our definition of social accountability is that of 'a system of relationships between regulatory constituency and the IRA as an accountability forum based on public participatory and cooperative structures, in order to provide mutual learning through the policy process' and to improve overall institutional capacity.

We assume that IRAs are accountable to their regulated subjects and are core actors in striving to achieve legitimate autonomy in their policy constituencies.

Bovens places emphasis on the fact that 'many accountability arrangements are not focused on finding faults with actors but rather are more focused on judging positively and even rewarding them' (2006: p. 11). We would add that many accountability arrangements rely on coregulatory mechanisms and tools in order to create mutual adjustments and compliance obligations in a collaborative space.

We can argue that, when policy actors and IRAs collaborate, two types of mechanism mainly characterize accountability between them: information and justification allocated throughout the regulatory process in order to guarantee participatory structure and mutual adjustment procedures. We can distinguish empirically different accountability practices and relationships in the rule-making process, and we may say that accountability as an information and justification mechanism shapes specific institutional arrangements and predicts the success of regulation in terms of 'capacity to formulate policy options', and 'alternative courses of action, or alternative intervention strategies in order to solve or mitigate a policy problem' (Bardach 2009: p. 15). Our research goal is to understand how institutional arrangements can differ in relation to the degree of publicity and to the mechanisms and tools adopted to play the transparency game (Peterson 1995). The game refers to transparency intended not as mere disclosure practices, but as a strategic action in the regulatory process oriented to a public exchange of information and cooperation between regulators, regulatees and stakeholders in order to achieve shared regulatory options, to improve their implementation and to augment the visibility of participant responsibility.

In this light we can imagine that different kinds of accountability mechanisms in different stages of the rule-making process correspond to different types of tools regulating the degree of transparency: there are input-oriented tools, which means instruments adopted to prepare regulatory options, decisions; and there are output-oriented tools, which are instruments adopted at the implementation stage (Table 7.1).

Transparency tools are policy instruments, sometimes formal and sometimes informal, that expose the regulatory activities at work and seek to render IRAs more visible and accountable both to the major fora (parliament and executive) and to their policy constituencies. Institutionalized accountability mechanisms tend to give the regulatory edge to astute players - multiple stakeholders involved in the regulatory process - to facilitate policy learning and to avoid conflicts and controversies in the implementation process (Bovens et al. 2006).

As we are interested in exploring accountability as related to transparency, we focus on the willingness of regulators to be open and to involve stakeholders and providers in decision-making processes, in order to obtain compliance (Domorenok and Righettini 2011). Namely, we focus on those techniques and tools that seek to provide transparency in terms of access to information, representation, deliberation and evaluation of the regulatory policymaking processes. The empirical concept of transparency signifies both intelligibility and access to rule-making and to data by final users, operators and stakeholders.

We investigate transparency tools in collaborative spaces, such as consultations, benchmarking practices, research and assessments, that

Table 7.1 Social accountability toolbox

Accountability

mechanism/

rule-making

Information

Justification

Input-oriented

Output-/outcome-oriented

Consultation

Benchmarking

Deliberation

Evaluation

seek to consolidate relationships and facilitate communication, learning, persuasion, standardization of knowledge and agreements used by IRAs in regulating the telecommunications sector. We can argue that the more independent IRAs are, the more they develop institutional arrangements for increasing social accountability. IRA willingness and capacity to develop the area could depend on low political pressure and interference and on the ability to act with autonomy.

 
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