The Problem of Many Hands

Conventional notions of accountability do not fit when authority for service delivery is dispersed among several agencies. Bovens (1998: 46) identifies the ‘problem of many hands’ where responsibility for policy in complex organizations is shared and it is correspondingly difficult to find out who is responsible (see also van Gunsteren 1976: 3). For example, Hogwood, Judge, and McVicar (2000) show that agencies and special purpose bodies have multiple constituencies, each of which seeks to hold them to account. There is no system, just disparate, overlapping demands. In a network, the constituent organizations may hold the relevant officials and politicians to account but to whom is the set of organizations accountable? As Mulgan (2003: 211-14) argues, buck-passing is much more likely in networks because responsibility is divided and the reach of political leaders is much reduced. However, all is not doom and gloom. Following Braithwaite (2003: 312) policy networks can be seen as an example of ‘many unclear separation of powers’ in that the several interests in a network can act as checks and balances on one another. However, it is more common for networks to be closed to public scrutiny, a species of private government. The brute fact is that multiple accountabilities weaken central control (Mulgan 2003: 225).[1]

  • [1] On the need to rethink accountability in the nation-state see Behn 2001; on accountabilityin a globalizing world see Keohane 2002: 219-44 and 2003.
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