Accountability and Democratic Administration

  • Ali Farazmand
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Central Intelligence Agency Public Choice Theory Democratic Accountability Work Class People Underdeveloped Nation 
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The quality or state of being accountable; an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions; being accountable for and responsible for one’s past or current actions and inactions; answerable to authorities, people, and stakeholders for one’s past and current behaviors and inactions; administration involving citizen participation and upholding democratic values of representation, responsiveness, and responsibility.

Section: Ethics and Accountability

Introduction: The Accountability Problem

The market-based ideological reforms in public service and administration in the last 30 years or so have caused profound transformations in public service and administration around the world. While they may have worked in some places, other parts or countries of the world have experienced severe negative impacts. Governments are different from business enterprises, their functions are different, and their missions or purposes are not the same as business corporations. Yes, all government organizations must perform with efficiency but efficiency is not their main purpose; it is only a means to an end, and one of the ends of governments is to serve justice and fairness as well as equal treatment and equity for all their citizens. Achieving end goals using legitimate means is essential to government organizations; ignoring or bypassing required processes and legitimate means presents significant problems of potential violation of laws and of accountability in assuring democratic administration. Scholars have been debating this issue extensively, particularly with reference to performance and accountability, for the last three decades or so (Behn 2001; Farazmand 2002). The question is: “In a rush to produce results with efficiency, what should be done with the potential accountability problems in public service and administration, and how to achieve accountability and democratic administration in the age of predatory globalization?”

Perspectives on democratic accountability abound with little agreements among them (Behn 2001). Just as perspectives on globalization vary, concepts and theories of accountability vary representing different ideological as well as political narratives. Classical and neoclassical economic theorists favoring corporate globalization often complain about the lack of accountability in bureaucratic administration and by unelected professional bureaucrats or administrators who by virtue of their expertise and legal appointment are involved in the public policy process of formulation, development, and implementation. To them, only elected officials are accountable to citizens in a democratic polity. To these scholars, the problem of accountability is solved by sweeping privatization, marketization, and commercialization of public services, government agencies, and their functions.

However, aside from ideological orientations, the problem of accountability is much wider and more comprehensive; it encompasses a spectrum of public life well beyond elected or unelected officials. It is not uncommon to hear or read about corruptions and accountability breaches among elected or appointed officials on all partisan lines. Here, scholars share one point in common, and that is corruption and accountability lapses in public service and administration. They differ on how to achieve accountability to citizens.

The accountability problem noted above is mostly related to the industrialized countries (also called industrialized democracies) where normal and periodic elections are held to select public officials who according to the constitution are expected to be responsible and accountable to broad-based citizens. This does not mean political officials are always accountable, but the formal institutional arrangements – separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers – require accountability to citizens. The story is much different in less industrialized and developing or underdeveloped nations, where elections are rare, authoritarianism is the rule, and corruption and lack of accountability are rampant, and the infrastructure for achieving accountability is either weak, not working properly, or lacking all together.

Perspectives on Accountability Problems

Generally, three perspectives address the accountability problem with solutions. One is the broad “ruling class” perspective represented by Marxian and neo-Marxian theories. According to this perspective, a small group of ruling class in capitalism lives, prospers, and rules on the principles of money and profits, exploitation of the majority working class, and dispensation of money as a lubricant to political system perpetuation. It uses a functionary body of middle-class “agents” in charge of administration, management, supervision, and those involved in politics, whether partisan, programmatic, bureaucratic, or policy in nature. To this perspective, capitalism corrupts and corruption is functional to system maintenance and enhancement, and citizens are powerless and irrelevant as power elites decide and rule through its public as well as private corporate institutions and organizations. Accountability, therefore, is more a flawed concept than a serious concern. Corporate globalization of the world (Farazmand 1999) and the surge of predatory globalization (Falk 1999; Galbraith 2006) tend to have reinforced this critical perspective citing consequential examples: causing accentuated problems of corruption, loss of accountability through mergers and megamergers, as well as sweeping privatization and outsourcing of public institutions and funds, the widening have and have-not gaps forcing millions of working class people in a race to the bottom, and lack of accountability among corporations and top political, administrative/bureaucratic, and military elites to anyone (Korten 1995; Morgan 2006).

The second perspective is offered by scholars less concerned with partisan or social class lines; they are concerned with the problems of accountability in all respects. To them, all officials in public life are and should be subject to public scrutiny, and their actions or inactions must be subject to accountability. Any breach of accountability must be punished by constitutional, legal, and financial sanctions, regardless of the level or position of officials in the system. Most public administration scholars, philosophers, social scientists, and processionals committed to the noble profession of public service may fall in this category (see, e.g., Jurkiewicz 2012; Thayer 1997). To these scholars, theories of virtue ethics and categorical imperatives, as well as “principled professionalism” (Farazmand 2002, forthcoming), complement and reinforce this perspective. While approaches may vary among these scholars, there are many who specifically argue that constitutionally empowered, neutrally competent, and independent professional “civil servants” should be given authority to act as “guardians” of public trust and broad public interests (Thayer 1997; Rohr 1989).

The third perspective is that of the conservative public choice theory. To this perspective and its extended ideology of NPM, the solution is privatization, marketization, and outsourcing (see, e.g., Behn 2001).

The problem of accountability is many dimensional, but it should be addressed at both micro and macro levels. At the micro level, the individual incidents of corruption, conflict of interests, wrongdoing, and unethical conducts explain cases of the problem, which demands measures of safeguard and protection. At the macro level, the broader issues of citizen trust in government and democratic administration are at stake. These problems demand solutions to the challenge of accountability in various ways.

Solutions to Accountability Problems

The solutions to the macro and micro accountability problems are also offered by three perspectives: One from the public choice theory noted above, which argues for democratic administration through overlapping jurisdictions, organizational overlaps, taking work and politics as well as services to the local levels, where people/citizens can and should directly engage local politicians and public managers, holding them accountable. Another one is the Marxian and neo-Marxian class view that offers social revolutions replacing capitalism with socialism as a way out of class exploitation, corruption, and systemic changes. The working class should take over, control, and manage public resources through democratic centralism and other means of collective decision-making and administration that would serve the democratic rights of the vast majority of working class people. The third theoretical view offering solutions to accountability problems is the theory of representative bureaucracy and democratic administration achieving bureaucratic accountability. This perspective argues that democracy is served by bureaucratic representation as an institutional mechanism.

The bureaucratic democracy model argues for (1) representative bureaucracy and (2) organizational hierarchy:
  1. 1.

    A representative bureaucracy is an institutional system that provides social and policy representations of citizens in the bureaucracy and administration, one that is both responsive and accountable to broad-based and special citizenries. According to this perspective, social representation is expected to afford reflection of social groups – racial, gender, and ethnic based – who by performing tasks in the bureaucracy serve democracy and democratic interests of citizens.

  2. 2.

    The second way the bureaucracy serves democracy and democratic accountability is through democratic administration hierarchically organized: public organizations are organized hierarchically, at the top of which the directors and chiefs are appointed by elected officials or politically appointed bosses and their political appointees or political executives (an example is the Secretary of State appointing his/her political executives, who would then appoint strategic officials who then appoint key administrators and so on all the way down to the lowest level of the system). Career officials appointed to positions by the virtue of their specialized knowledge, expertise, experience, and skills perform tasks and report upward to the bosses, who provide accountability to political officials – both appointed and elected – who are to be held accountable to citizens, hence, achieving bureaucratic accountability. According to this perspective, bureaucratic democracy assures accountability through organizational structures and processes that keep authority and accountability in balance.


The above ideological and institutional solutions to accountability problems face enough obstacles in Western industrialized countries where a degree of democracy is afforded through periodic elections by which politically elected officials can be unseated or voted out and by certain formal institutions – the court, the legislature, and procedural mechanisms embedded in the governing process. The problem becomes much worse and complicated in less industrialized, developing, and underdeveloped nations, where elections are rare and rational organizational and administrative behaviors are either lacking, or weak, or ignored and overlooked, and personal and family connections often overrule institutional rules and laws. These nations, often erroneously dubbed “third-world” countries, display significant variations. Three groups of nations appear on a continuum: On the one end, some are more industrialized than others and closely resemble much of the industrialized nations of the West, hold regular and free elections, value and respect the rule of law, and have built significant institutional, cultural, political, legal, judicial, and religious infrastructures for achieving accountability in public service and administration. Some of them are advanced and have institutional systems of governance and administration with period elections at local and national levels and have multiple checks and balance systems, including procedural and institutional measures of accountability, anticorruption laws, codes of ethics, and strict administrative systems enforcing them. At the other extreme end of the spectrum lies a group of nations governed by absolute monarchies that lack any separation of powers and any form of accountability and ethical infrastructures. In between the above two extremes are those countries that may have formal institutional mechanisms in governance and administration on paper, but they actually mean little or nothing in practice and implementation. Most of these nations also lack any form of elections, and public service and administration is often at the mercy of personal and family connections or some sort of cultural, political, and religious traditions. Accountability is often a matter of challenge than opportunity, arbitrary rule is expected as a way of life, and corruption is common practice. The variations in institutional mechanisms of accountability explain complexity of governance and traditions among the so-called third-world countries, a word of more stigma than reality. Fred Riggs (1964) in his revised perspective of “prismatic society” in which the duality of tradition and modernity acknowledged the fallacy of his original formation admitted, perhaps under the influence of Dwight Waldo, that development is an endless process, and that many developing countries manifest high level of development and industrialization, while many industrialized and developed nations display many areas of underdevelopment and developing. This notion was pronounced clearly by Dwight Waldo, who argued that both development and democracy are two terms in similar continuum processes – developing countries share a great deal of development with developed nations, while the latter share a great deal of underdevelopment or poor conditions common in underdeveloped and developing nations. Similarly, democracy is a continuum, a constant striving for improvement, participation, and determination of one’s destination in political and individual life (Waldo 1980/1992). Accountability, like development and democracy, perhaps is and should be treated as a continuum, a process that tends to achieve the ideal end of absolute accountability.

One more factor on accountability of the so-called third-world countries needs to be noted. Most developing or underdeveloped nations have suffered colonial rule in which foreign colonials powers were the absolute masters dictating all rules and norms of government and administration in the colonies, arbitrary rules were common and unquestioned, and institutional mechanisms were created to ensure efficiency in colonial administration. Most of these nations, therefore, learned nothing but a continuation of such practice even long after gaining formal/official independence. After independence, most of these nations have been under continuous neocolonial or imperialist influence and domination, their political processes if chosen democratic paths have been under foreign power’s financial and political influence, and some of them experienced popular and democratic governance systems dedicated to fighting corruption and institutionalizing mechanisms of accountability and sound governance, but had faced tragic military coups designed by foreign/colonial or neocolonial powers and carried out by local corrupt agents who served them.

Two examples of such historical experience are (1) the bloody military coup that toppled the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran Mohammad Mosaddegh in August 1953 under the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in harmony with the British imperial agents (Haliday 1979) and (2) the bloody military coup led by the CIA and the American corporation ITT against the democratically elected President of Chile, Salvatore Allende, on September 11, 1973 (Morgan 2006). In both cases, absolute dictatorship was imposed on peoples and institutions of Iran and Chile for the next 25 years. Formal bureaucratic institutions were created while legitimacy was lacking, formal accountability mechanisms were put in place but no one believed in it, and corruption ruled while talk of modernity spread in the Western capitals with little meaning or respect in Iran and Chile.

As for the solutions to the problems of accountability in the third-world countries (notwithstanding the fact that while countries like China or Singapore is considered third-world but they both display a high level of modernity and development and in the case of China with high industrialization), even higher than the advanced countries of the western “developed” nations, several mechanisms of accountability have been instituted in those nations. Anticorruption laws, organizational reporting mechanisms, and political as well as judicial investigations are but a few such mechanisms in place, yet formal institutions are one thing and real practice is another. Corruption is an infectious disease; once started it spreads like a plague and few can escape it. Ideological solutions to accountability problems are ineffective; they must be institutionalized both informally and formally.

Analysis and Conclusions

The above theories and perspectives on accountability and democratic administration offer positive features, but they also carry serious problems of their own. For example, the public choice theory and NPM solutions to accountability problem through privatization and outsourcing may actually cause more accountability problems they claim to solve, as outsourced contractors and subcontractors may be responsible to contract bosses but not to citizens, and privatized public functions are accountable to private stakeholders not public citizens. The traditional administrative models may have organizational accountability mechanisms in place, but the slow process of bureaucratic system may undermine such accountability measures in action as well. Moreover, bureaucratic/administrative elites often engage in intimate relationships with political and partisan elites acting as key actors in the policy and administrative systems; they may hinder rather than enhance public accountability in administration, especially when the interests of powerful business elutes are at stake. The concept of “iron triangles” more often hinder than help achieving high-level accountability in capitalist democracies.

Similarly, the theory of representative bureaucracy may offer a degree of democratic administration and democratic accountability, but there is no guarantee that those ethnic-, racial-, or gender-based employees in bureaucratic positions would necessarily represent and promote the interests of the groups or classes with whom they are associated with. Many people once positioned in key spots may forget where they came from and may not represent or promote the interests of the poor and working people in practice they are supposed to represent. Besides, all bureaucrats must by the virtue of their loyalty to the Constitution serve the broad-based interests of the public.

Finally, a fourth perspective on the accountability problem has recently emerged with the rise and spread of “predatory globalization” with many complications and implications worldwide – this problem too is in search of solutions. This perspective has raised the emergence of what Farazmand has called an “impossibility theorem” in achieving accountability in the age of predatory globalization (Farazmand 2012).

The logic applied is quite simple: predatory globalization is based on predatory corporate capitalism (though not all capitalist enterprises are predatory), which aims primarily at maximizing surplus values/profits at virtually any cost to others – it seeks absolute profit. When applied globally, globalization becomes predatory through its relentless push and pursuit for such absolute rates of profits and uses every possible means, including violence of war – to achieve its strategic goals. In pursuit of such goals, it seeks monopolistic and oligopolistic strategies and alliances to succeed, and if faced with local challenges or obstacles, it would seek and apply intervention – military as well as political and economic pressures – from its “state” power. As noted earlier, examples of such predatory global corporations and predatory globalization are (1) the September 11, 1973, Chilean bloody military coup staged by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), General Electric (GE), International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT), and other corporations, which was carried out by the local agent General Pinochet who, after killing the democratically elected president Salvatore Allende, denationalized and reprivatized the Chilean copper industry back into the hands of the above corporations and put the Chilean people under repression, humiliation, and corruption (Morgan 2006: 320–321) and (2) the August military coup d’etat of 1953 in Iran led by US CIA, which toppled the democratically elected Prime Minister Mosaddegh and reinstalled the dictator Shah to power, who then restored the control of Iranian oil into the hands of the British and American corporations and ruled Iranian people and the government with repression, corruption, and arbitrary manner (Haliday 1979). Predatory capitalism and globalization have also been active at home in the USA, with a clear example of predatory lending in the housing market prior to the bubble burst of 2008 (Farazmand 2012).

Under predatory capitalism and predatory globalization, achieving public accountability is an almost impossible task. Maximizing profits and production is tantamount to complying with government regulations, even if applied, on quality, standards, and control of public funds – or “accountability” requirements. The more of the latter means the less of the former, and this is not acceptable to giant corporate power structures. The financial and political abilities of powerful corporate elites to lobby and influence politicians and change or control national legislation to their benefit are now a reality hard to deny. It gives them an assurance that turns the power of the “state” to their benefit and undermines almost any major accountability measure in public service and administration to work (Farazmand 2012; Galbraith 2006). This simple logic makes it almost impossible to achieve public accountability on a mass scale, hence, an “impossibility theorem,” which calls for a stronger role of independent governments in economy, politics, and administration.

The problem of achieving accountability is further complicated. At the micro organizational level, scholars (e.g., Rosenbloom 1995) note how difficult it is for citizens to hold public administrators accountable. This is due to several reasons: (1) administrators have specialized knowledge and expertise in various areas of public policy and management the general citizens do not have and cannot understand; (2) the language of bureaucracy is complicated with details of procedures, terms, and jargons; and (3) there are many legal obstacles and reasons, including national security and fear of lawsuits and why it is difficult for public citizens to obtain information from administrative agencies. To counter these obstacles, scholars suggest citizens becoming “bureaucrats themselves.” This is another area of accountability subject that is understudied and in need of further inquiries.

Nevertheless, accountability like anything else can be learned, taught, developed, and practiced. Democratic administration demands multiple institutionalized mechanisms to achieve accountability, however imperfect they maybe. The future of public administration rests on these mechanisms if legitimacy is to be achieved. Political leaders and professional public administration need and can design and implement formal and informal institutional channels and systems to achieve democratic accountability in modern governance. Predatory globalization and predatory capitalism need to be tamed and reined in by democratic processes and institutions that engage mass people and communities. Laws need to be passed to ensue sunshine processes genuinely followed. The judicial systems in both developed or developing countries must rigorously uphold the laws and the constitutional provisions to enforce individual rights and punish corruption regardless of status and power of individuals or officials involved. Codes of ethics must be developed, and administrative systems must safeguard professional civil servants’ relative independence from partisan or political pressures to resist political abuse and corruption of all forms; they should be considered as valued “guardians of the broad based public interests” (Thayer 1997) and rewarded for doing the noble job of “principled professionalism” (Farazmand forthcoming) in democratic administration.

Finally, organizational mechanisms of accountability can and should, despite obstacles noted earlier, be designed and institutionalized supported by political and legal legitimacy. This is a prescription that can work both in developing and developed nations. The latter nations have a global responsibility to promote transparency and accountability at home while preaching abroad and must demonstrate consistency in action as well as formal statements. Global institutions of governance must respect the rights of developing and less powerful nations as well as those of the developed and powerful ones. Democratic accountability is a two-way street; those in power demanding accountability from below must also demonstrate in action accountability to the powerless and the ruled.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ali Farazmand
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Public AdministrationFlorida Atlantic UniversityBoca RatonUSA