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What is the most important democratic virtue? In this new study Pasquino and Pelizzo argue that it is accountability. They consider accountability to be the most important process at work in political systems, but they argue that it has often been wrongly conceived. They emphasise the complexity of the process of accountability in any actual democracy, arguing that it consists of three different if related processes: taking into account, keeping into account and giving account. Much of the emphasis in writing on democracy has been on the third of these: how those in government give an account of their actions, explaining their conduct to voters. The other two are relatively neglected. Taking into account means those in government paying attention to the demands and preferences of voters, while keeping into account means ensuring that voter preferences do help shape government actions.
Accountability has been tackled by political theorists in two main ways. The idea of the separation of powers developed by Montesquieu was designed to limit the power of the king by creating a system of institutional checks and balances, preventing the concentration of power in one place. The US Constitution saw the realisation of that idea, with power divided between the presidency, Congress and the Supreme Court. If power was dispersed in this way, it was argued, the presidency could be held to account by the other two institutions, and so forced to give an account of its actions. The presidency was not at first directly elected, so this inter-institutional form of accountability was very important in keeping government honest and serving the interests of the people.
A second theory of accountability placed the emphasis on representation. This was developed notably by Edmund Burke in his speech to the electors of Bristol in 1774 when he set out what the relationship should be between Members of Parliament and their voters, rejecting the idea that MPs were simply delegates elected to implement the will of the people. They also had to be trustees of the public interest, using their judgement to decide how to act, but then being accountable for those decisions to their electors. Understanding accountability in terms of political representation made sense in parliamentary democracies where there was no formal separation of powers, and there was a fusion between the executive and the legislature. Accountability is defined as the willingness of political representatives to accept full responsibility for their actions and to give an account of them. In trying to get elected, representatives are often tempted to over-promise and to outbid their opponents. The media play a crucial role here in reminding voters what representatives initially promised and what they have delivered.
Pasquino and Pelizzo do not dispute the importance of elections in ensuring accountability. They make the point repeatedly throughout the book that the possibility of genuine accountability depends on regular, open and fair elections. But, they also think that elections are not enough by themselves to ensure accountability. Electoral accountability has to be combined with inter-institutional accountability. The role of the courts and parliaments in scrutinising on a daily basis the actions of governments is essential in ensuring accountability. Elections are intermittent and voters often poorly informed. There need to be formal and informal institutions to ensure that politicians are obliged to give an account of their actions.
This becomes still more important because of the growth of the state and the multiplication of different authorities and agencies. The complexity of modern government means that politicians often seek to dodge responsibility by delegating power to agencies. Pasquino and Pelizzo describe this as buck-passing. If everyone is responsible, no one is responsible, and that can lead to political apathy or resentment among voters. The problem for democracies is that the accountability of many institutions central to the working of the state, including the military, the judiciary and the state bureaucracy, cannot be ensured through elections. This is why inter-institutional accountability is needed. As an example of good practice for inter-institutional accountability, Pasquino and Pelizzo cite the democratic governance norms established by the European Union. To make inter-institutional accountability successful, a culture has to be developed which embeds scrutiny, transparency, honesty and serving the public as basic values.
Pasquino and Pelizzo make a strong case for seeing accountability as a complex process rather than as reducible to a single factor like political representation. Particularly valuable is their insistence that a successful democracy has to have different institutions to make accountability effective. In an era of populism, they show the importance of non-elected bodies for making government accountable. From the populist standpoint, the only accountability that matters is the direct expression of the will of the people. Even political representation is suspect. What is needed is plebiscitary rule. Such a politics rapidly becomes authoritarian, because since all intermediate institutions and agencies are distrusted, the only source of authority becomes the leader. There has been much analysis in recent decades of democratic deficits and resentment against the global liberal elite and supranational institutions such as the EU. The vote for Brexit has been in part interpreted in that way, as the expression of a yearning for a simple direct accountability between people and politicians, getting rid of the complexity of legal and bureaucratic institutions. Depiction of these institutions as dominated by the global liberal elite, the new elite, or simply ‘the blob’, and therefore ‘enemies of the people’, are all familiar populist tropes.
What Pasquino and Pelizzo demonstrate is that fostering a culture of accountability which delivers good governance requires finding ways to make inter-institutional accountability operate effectively. This is always work in progress, involving constant experimentation and adjustment to determine the right balance between parliament, the executive and the judiciary. At times it becomes clear that the relationship has become unbalanced and needs correction. That is where a culture of accountability diffused through the permanent institutions of the state becomes so important in maintaining a pluralist democracy and the rule of law.
The Culture of Accountability: A Democratic Virtue, by Gianfranco Pasquino and Riccardo Pelizzo. Routledge. 169 pp. £130 (eBook: £27.29)