The challenges of studying the politics of regulatory accountability

The book offers new insights into the complex and multifaceted concept of accountability by exploring three key and interrelated aspects in the area of regulatory governance in democratic settings: the range of accountability mechanisms employed - their measurement and variation - how accountability shapes the policy process and, finally, the impact of regulatory governance on democratic practices. In this sense, it is worth mentioning that in regulatory policies, the predominant type of accountability is not about how resources are used, or how programs are handled. Rather, accountability types focus on explaining and justifying why particular regulations were established and what their consequences are.

Measurement of accountability and explaining variation

Taken as a relation between power holders and those affected by their actions (Schedler 1999), accountability consists of two crucial elements, namely the power holders' obligation to explain and justify their decisions and actions - 'answerability' - and the forum participants' right to punish poor or criminal performance or abuse of power - 'enforceability'. Furthermore, this relation encompasses different dimensions and mechanisms.

Accountability mechanisms, aimed at increasing answerability and enforceability, are conceived as operating along three dimensions: upward, horizontal and downward. The main difference is that upward accountability refers to the means by which citizens can directly claim accountability from the government and its representatives or elected politicians in relation to bureaucrats. Downward accountability, of increasing relevance in decentralization and deregulation, relates to the ways in which public agencies - including regulatory ones - answer for their actions to consumers or interest groups. Finally, horizontal accountability involves the means and the rules by which different public authorities with some functional delegation scrutinize the activities of other public institutions.

Even with this clearer definition of accountability and the various dimensions attached to it, we still had to deal with a second significant challenge: how to measure accountability. The opening chapters explored and shed light on this issue.

Building on the definition provided in Chapter 1, these studies have further deepened the debate on accountability by looking into relevant interrelated aspects. One of the main insights is the wide variation observed across the accountability mechanisms effectively implemented in regulatory agencies both cross-sector and cross-country. This is a common finding of the studies by Koop and Fernandez-i-Marin et al.

Mapping and assessing mandatory accountability is the focus of Koop's analysis. After exploring the formal statutes of regulatory agencies in the area of competition and financial markets in 21 established democracies, she finds huge variation in the mandatory mechanisms established in the agencies, which can be upwards, horizontal or downwards in nature. Hence, agencies are held to account in very diverse manners, whereas some agencies are also exempted from such mandatory accountability provisions. Two main elements are worth mentioning in this respect. First, though the agencies' voluntary commitment to additional accountability practices may compensate for this deficit in formal mandatory accountability, it remains unclear to what extent and how this is effectively so. Furthermore, it is worth asking whether this entails a full solution - rather than a partial one - to the accountability problem, to determine to what extent this contributes to democratic control. Is it a question of substituting one mechanism for another? In fact, the literature has tended to argue that in most cases, downward accountability mechanisms are insufficient to replace upward accountability in the area of regulatory governance (Mulgan 2002). Moreover, the observed variations across agencies certainly raise questions about what the determinants of such variation are and make a rapid generalization of findings impossible.

Fernandez-i-Marin et al. also address both elements in their chapter. Their objective was to map formal accountability mechanisms, and in so doing they attempted to reveal whether policy sector regimes or national administrative traditions account for the observed variations. While administrative traditions do not fully account for these differences, findings reveal that regulatory agencies rely on a relatively large number of formal accountability mechanisms, including a relevant variation in terms of downward accountability. Whereas upward mechanisms are consistently found across regulatory agencies operating in various policy sectors and institutional settings, downward mechanisms tend to be more strongly focused on the implementation of transparency instruments intended to provide information, without necessarily leading to greater public debate and deliberation. In other words, rather than looking for new legitimating sources, regulatory agencies' accountability often remains limited to more traditional forms of upward accountability towards the executive, also involving - though to a lesser extent - the parliament (except in the European and Anglo-American cases). Therefore, their findings show that accountability in regulatory governance remains strongly focused on democratic assessment criteria based on upward accountability mechanisms aimed at holding the agencies accountable by explaining to and debating with their principals, thus further reinforcing the 'democratic chain of delegation' as detailed in Chapter 1 of this volume.

The links between accountability, on the one hand, and the independence of regulatory agencies, on the other, are also analysed in different chapters of this volume. Verhoest et al. use an innovative approach by delving into the perceptions of the senior management of regulatory agencies to analyse to what extent and under what conditions the implementation of upward and downward accountability mechanisms leads to high levels of societal accountability. First, their study finds further support for the idea that formal and de facto independence and autonomy should be studied as separate analytical and empirical constructs. Second, they show that the formal independence of the agencies and their de facto managerial autonomy affect the implementation of upward and downward accountability mechanisms, though they may present specific arrangements. In a similar vein, Guidi attempts to reveal the links and relations between independence and accountability by looking into the constraints and incentives faced by politicians, only to find that in fact, there is a trade-off between these two elements.

These four chapters together illustrate the great diversity among regulatory agencies in terms of their actual accountability mechanisms, while also showing some patterns of variation among them regarding the levels of formal agency independence established. A more general question requiring more focused research is to what extent different types of policy arenas within regulatory governance, as those identified in Table 1.1, may play a role in these variations. The existing levels of regulatory costs and benefits for actors in each policy arena could entail, in turn, particular constraints for the development of accountability mechanisms, through policy processes that should be identified.

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