accountabilitybloke (old blog)

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Choosing accountability….

I have been so focused on various papers recently that blogging is something I have not even considered a third level priority. But the most challenging of my recent efforts is now over — and I am pretty comfortable with the next two or three projects. So I will at least give some thought to blogging intermittently.

The recent paper started as one thing and ended up another. The task was to explore the use of accountability mechanisms in response to global financial problems (of which there are plenty); but the task quickly turned into a paper on why accountability tends to emerge as the reform-of-choice in almost every policy choice situation. Having become convinced that the concept of accountability is today more a rhetorical (rather than functional) policy artifact — more an icon designed to generate acquiescence than to bring about some useful ends — I started to wonder why it is the first (almost knee-jerk) option mentioned whenever someone discusses a governance problem to be solved. It just makes no sense — at least if you assume we are rational animals (which, of course, I do not).

So why do we turn to accountability-based solutions without hesitation? Is it merely a matter of “fashion”? That is one possible explanation, for despite the general observation that there are various “streams” of policy solutions floating “out there” (in response to various streams of policy problems — per the work of Kingdon, among others), we are prone to following grand fashion. Witness, for example, the obsession with “planning” that dominated policy thought from at least the 1920s into the 1970s. [I think the two great contributions to understanding planning are Dahl and Lindblom’s classic (but undervalued) 1953 work and Wildavsky’s 1973 critique holding that if planning is everything, perhaps it is nothing….]. Accountability seems to have filled the vacuum left by the withdrawal of planning as the “fashionable” policy stream of choice.

Another path I have been pursuing is the idea that accountability is “promiscuous” by nature — that is, it is associated with so many purposes and takes so many forms (or, in the jargon, accountability is multifunctional and polymorphic), that it is capable of offering itself up to just about any problem that happens to come along….

But of course these speculations won’t do for those who require a more structured (positive) logic for explaining the bias toward accountability solutions. In the mainstream literature, the explanation of choice for why policymakers opt for accountability solutions is tied to the obsessive commitment of scholars to rational choice theory models (RCTs). But these models don’t really do the trick — while they provide a reasonable logic for why certain policy preferences might emerge (either through aggregation or gaming), they fall short in terms of realistic narratives of choice and (more important) they have nothing to say about how the aggregate-able or game-able preferences are formed.

Now, by coincidence, I happen to be reading Stephen Darwall’s work on second-person standpoint (see earlier post) and he brings in the work of Adam Smith just as I am reading about Smith’s obvious contribution to thinking about the problems of financial markets. The result: a paper that offers up a possible alternative explanation (rooted in Smith-via-Darwall) for accountability-based policy preferences.

The initial draft of the paper was completed the day before I presented it (last Sunday) and the response was encouraging — but I am now taking a break from the effort and will return to see if I really generated something worth pursuing in the future.

More latter….

July 24th, 2008 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments