Implications

So what, if anything, can be learnt from this exercise? To what extent have regulators turned their understanding of accountability beyond that of reporting to political superiors and towards opening up regulatory services to choice and information by consumers? What are the wider implications for discussing accountability in the regulatory state?

A consumer sovereignty perspective addresses those arguments that suggest that the regulatory state has suffered a decline in accountability in contrast to previous institutional arrangements. Such claims require empirical exploration, as do those that argue that the regulatory state may have increased accountability 'redundancy' (Scott 2000). These debates will never be resolved, as the selection of measures and the interpretation of results are largely about clashing values. But, at the same time, it is essential to move the discussion of accountability mechanisms beyond elaborate classification schemes and assessments of formal legal requirements. This chapter has done so in two ways: first, it has argued the case for moving towards a 'grammar of institutions'-based perspective on accountability. Second, it has explored the implications of a consumer sovereignty-based perspective, first by developing some indicators, then by offering an explorative empirical study.

In terms of empirical patterns, no immediately apparent trends appear in terms of consumer sovereignty provision. Nevertheless, what emerges from this study is that consumer sovereignty-related activities have, to a limited extent, become part of the repertoire of some regulatory bodies (especially when comparing these patterns with the more or less non-existent interest in consumer sovereignty-related tools that were apparent in more limited earlier studies over a decade ago; see Stirton and Lodge 2001). This might be seen as an outcome of learning that liberalization does not provide for actual consumer choice. Alternatively, it might represent the growing receptiveness to so-called behavioural insights into regulatory activities (or, possibly, both). In either case, this would lead regulators to be more interested in the conditions of choice. For example, the UK energy regulator, Ofgem, undertook such a behavioural study in the early 2010s and took coercive action to force companies to harmonize their tariff classes and to unify billing information in order to allow comparison. This followed a decade during which such 'interventionism' was seen as violating the spirit of market liberalization and where, mid-decade, the emphasis shifted towards encouraging firms to self-regulate. By 2010, neither of these two perspectives was seen to have worked and consumer sovereignty-related themes appeared on the agenda.

However, consumer sovereignty has not become a dominant theme either. This limited finding might be surprising given the contemporary fascination with 'behavioural' approaches to choice (Thaler and Sunstein 2008). Regulators have not turned into instruments for providing a 'choice architecture' for key public services. Explaining such limited change may require a focus on political and industry pressures, which might be seen to prevent or hinder the emergence of a more extensive consumer-oriented agenda. The limited extent to which consumer sovereignty-related tools have been incorporated might also be explained by a reluctance of regulatory bodies to embrace such an agenda. After all, a reluctance by regulatory bodies to embrace consumer sovereignty says a lot about the political climate in which these bodies operate and about the distinct organizational self-understanding of these bodies. Economic regulators simply may not be interested in becoming the 'consumers' best friend'.

One objection to this chapter's argument is that a consumer sovereignty perspective might be interesting, but not that interesting for political science watchers of the regulatory state. After all, where is the 'politics' in a consumer sovereignty world? Where are the principals and agents? In response, the design of public services and their accountability does matter. It is important to take the supposed instrumental value at face value and to explore to what extent, if any, the regulatory regime reflects these instrumental values. If, therefore, the regulatory state, in the provision of energy and telecommunications at least, has moved towards marketization and liberalization, then accountability regimes should reflect this particular emphasis.

Another objection is that a 'web census' is a highly limited tool in that it fails to recognize national differences in terms of Internet penetration, as well as different levels of Internet use and Internet literacy among populations. Such concerns are clearly relevant: sections of society may not have access to the Internet and regulatory websites, either technically or linguistically. Measuring consumer sovereignty via a web census clearly can only be one aspect of an overall approach to studying consumer sovereignty.

A related objection might be that consumers are indifferent towards being given information and choice. This might be because they care about other things more (that is, the opportunity cost remains too high) or they do not see that the costs of engaging as sovereign consumers will offer them either 'pleasure' (such as online voting during TV song contests) or perceived 'consumer value' (such as that provided by savvy Internet shopping for consumer goods). However, the latter objection is exactly why studying consumer sovereignty is important for political science: it is about how markets are being established, it is about explaining choice of regulatory interventions, and it is about the power of dominant providers.

More broadly, this chapter has developed further the argument that accountability needs to be explored in the context of different doctrinal understandings (Lodge and Stirton 2010). If accountability is about facilitating voice and choice, then it is worth exploring what kind of actual channels exist to provide for such mechanisms and how the presence of such channels can be studied and assessed. In the world of research, too, there needs to be a transparent statement as to why some accountability mechanisms are seen as more important than others and therefore more deserving of attention than others. Thus, this chapter's wider argument is that accountability debates should expand beyond the focus on regulatory agencies themselves. Such a focus is important for understanding political processes, but when considering the role of accountability in regulation more broadly, a focus on agencies alone misses the nature of 'decentred' regimes.

Future debates need to take two steps. One is to be more open in terms of accountability 'to whom' by including different conceptions of the end user. This chapter has argued that it is important to think of the end user as a 'customer' rather than a subject of a state whose representative organs hold some other organs to account. The other is to be more explicit about the instrumental value of the regulated service itself. This means that accountability should not be seen as a value in itself, but rather as a facilitator. If watchers of regulation and public administration are interested in the changing nature of public services and the way in which political environments are, or are not, influencing the way in which users are incorporated into the accountability of public services, then these issues need to be taken seriously.

 
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