There is, of course, a bridge between social/moral accountability and democracy, in particular the notion of democracy-as-debate. Indeed, of the five types of accountability Koppell identifies, transparency and responsiveness relate most directly to this conception and, as it turns out, are among the most popular of the initiatives we have looked at. By contrast, controllability, which is closest to the traditional conception of democracy-as-representation, does not fare so well and shows the inherent weakness of civil society organisations in this respect. Thus, if social accountability approaches could be developed into the direction of democracy-as-debate and therefore more into the direction of moral accountability, the accountability syndrome we have identified in this chapter could move from an emphasis on technocratic supervision and control to more devolved and open transnational accountability networks.
Accountability and democracy-as-debate
An increasing number of different accountability frameworks exists (as depicted in Box 7.3), especially for organisations and foundations working internationally. The accountability syndrome facing global civil society actors is a by-product of the governance problems of a globalising world. Accountability regimes are tied to a world of nation states but economy and society, and increasingly civil society and philanthropic institutions, no longer fit into this framework. Anti-terrorist legislations in the USA and Europe, laws like the Sarbanes–Oxley Act and the multiplication of watchdog groups add to the accountability complexity of transnational civil society.
Thesis 5: We should move from an NGO-centred notion of accountability to an understanding of social accountability, even moral accountability in a broader sense
- Transparency: did the organisation reveal the facts of its performance? Transparency is an important tool for assessing organisational performance and includes giving access to audit results, internal reports, and other evaluation documents to the press, the public, and other interested parties.
- Liability: did the organisation face consequences for its performance? This dimension attaches consequences for an organisation’s performance? Liability can come in the form of setbacks, such as diminished budget authority and increased monitoring or positive reinforcement, such as cash bonuses to employees and other rewards.
- Controllability: did the organisation do what the principal desired? Many analyses of accountability focus on this dynamic of controllability: how much control the stakeholder has over the organisation or principal, for example, the view that government bureaucracies, as their representatives, should carry out the will of the public.
- Responsibility: did the organisation follow the rules? This aspect of accountability includes being lawful, adhering to professional or industry standards and behavioural norms, and being morally sound.
- Responsiveness: did the organisation fulfill the substantive expectations? Responsiveness works horizontally and refers to the levels of attention that organisations give to their clients and stakeholders’ needs and demands. It implies accountability outwards rather than upward.
Thesis 3: Accountability is a multi-dimensional concept that requires unpacking before becoming a useful policy concept and management tool
The implications that this has on public expectations of accountability are profound. Though this type of media-based accountability offers certain benefits, especially because of the growing capabilities of globalising mass communication streams and technologies, relying on the media as the prime watchdog is not dependable, because media bodies themselves can have political and economic motivations, and can lack access to relevant information. Furthermore, reports from small media outlets may be ignored or overlooked, while larger, more politically embroiled mainstream media sources supply the bulk of accountability reports. The question of who should regulate the regulators comes into play here. Another complication is that while media-based accountability implies aspects of liability (because a public that is aware of corruption is more likely to act to punish the guilty party), it does not guarantee actual enforcement.
Thus, in the context of globalisation, accountability is a persistent and growing problem in search of a solution rather than a solution in response to a problem, in part because it relates to questions of legitimacy. Accountability becomes part of the global political economy: some stakeholders have more voice than others and are the preferred audience of accountability for legitimacy reasons; some jurisdictions are more ‘hands off’ and others are more controlling, even restrictive; some audits in some countries are demanding, others are easy. Accountability becomes a political issue that reflects power differentials among stakeholders, and an economic issue that reflects transaction and compliance costs.
Thesis 1: Accountability is the problem, not the solution
We need to rethink accountability and move away from a position that sees accountability as a fix, as we do at domestic levels, towards an understanding of the endemic accountability problems of many types of non-profit organisations, epitomised by independent grant-making foundations. These foundations are among the freest institutions of modern societies: free in the sense of being independent of market forces and the popular political will. This enables foundations to ignore political, disciplinary and professional boundaries if they choose, to take risks and consider approaches that others cannot. As quasi-aristocratic institutions they flourish on the privileges of a formally egalitarian society and, while they exist in a democracy, foundations are themselves not democratically constituted.
Accountability and global governance
The difference between domestic and transnational accountability arises from the complexity in attempting to promote change across borders. In the transnational arena, questions of legitimacy are raised because the funding and impetus for projects originate from a foreign source. Civil society actors working across borders typically want to change current conditions in the foreign country towards some kind of improvement or to develop better capacity to deal with problems of many kinds. Because of this, relationships among stakeholders are likely to undergo some form of transformation or tension that may or may not have been anticipated.
However, in a transnational context, the weak signal/incentive problem that applies as well to domestic accountability assumes a new quality. We also argue that in transnational contexts, accountability is increasingly becoming a problem in search of a solution, rather than a solution in response to problems that are well understood and accepted by stakeholders. What is more, it is increasingly difficult for non-profit organisations that operate cross-nationally to be or become accountable relative to growing public and political expectations. Ultimately, the accountability syndrome of transnational civil society organisations embeds accountability in legitimacy.
The year of the reports
Starting with the Brandt Commission in 1980, a phenomenon that has become an important component of global civil society is the plethora of commissions, study groups or task forces set up by governments of international institutions to bring together expert opinion on specific global issues. The reports of these international bodies can be viewed as a sort of filter between civil society groups and the institutions of global governance. They are a way of drawing attention to global issues, both for the public and for decision-makers. They can be both ‘top-down’, in the sense that they are generally commissioned by political institutions and are often regarded as mechanisms for mobilisation, and at the same time ‘bottom-up’, in so far as they take evidence from citizens and civil society groups and offer a form of access. Whether they represent democratisation or instrumentalisation, therefore, remains a question to be researched.
Making the equation of NGOs and non-profit organisations with civil society is also part of a process of instrumentalisation by national governments and international organisations that are in search of greater legitimacy, and eager to try out seemingly new ways towards overdue public sector reform. The statements and proceedings of the Sixth Global Forum on Reinventing Government, mentioned above, the UN’s High Level Panel on Civil Society (see below), the World Bank’s projects on social accountability and civic engagement, or the EU’s attempts to ‘reach out to civil society’, are examples of this instrumentalisation.
Yet despite the spread of democratic institutions, there remains a big gap between formal and substantive democracy. Many of the countries classified as democracies perform poorly on Freedom House’s freedom scores, which are made up of a combination of political rights and civil liberties. In many countries, democratic procedures that have been specified in laws and constitutions are only partially implemented. Thus newly emerging democracies may be characterised, in varying combinations, by a weak rule of law, the lack of an independent judiciary, limitations on freedom of speech and association, ethnic or religious exclusion, election fraud, and presidential domination. These procedural weaknesses are often associated with substantive weaknesses, including the tendency for political parties to extend control over different spheres of social life in ways that limit political participation, especially in former communist countries; a tendency for the government to control the electronic media and restrict registration of NGOs; a politicised and clientilistic administration; various forms of racist or xenophobic sectarianism which may provide a basis for populism; and a widespread sense of personal insecurity that undermines the ability and readiness to debate public issues owing to inadequate law enforcement and an undeveloped judiciary. Participation is also often limited, as evidenced by low voter turn-outs, low membership of political parties, and widespread apathy, disillusion and cynicism. Indeed, the introduction of democratic procedures, especially elections, may lead to conflict, state failure and/or elective dictatorship, and only a very few countries in Central and Southern Europe or South America have escaped this fate.