Accountability Institutions and Accountability Ecosystems: From Evidence to Practice

In Western democracies, government accountability has often been conceptualized along two dimensions: vertically through periodic elections of government representatives, and horizontally through the division of powers and checks and balances between branches of government.  However, citizens in stable democratic countries often feel that governments are increasingly unaccountable and that democracy is being hollowed out.  In countries where democracy is more recent, and often shallower, questions of accountability are even more acute.

Against this backdrop, new state accountability institutions have emerged that are neither vertical nor horizontal, but are instead ‘in between’ these two axes.  These ‘in between’ institutions include ombudsman’s offices, supreme auditors, anti-corruption agencies, and others.  The Chr. Michelsen Institute organized a recent workshop to explore research on these institutions and explore how they contribute to greater government accountability.

Participants presented research on institutions across the globe, in more and less consolidated democratic contexts.  The evidence highlights that ‘in between’ institutions have proliferated, but that numerous factors (design, capacity, leadership, political context, history, cultural influences) influence the extent to which they can effectively promote accountability.  Paradoxically, the ‘importation’ of institutional forms and standards (as well as engagement with international networks of peers) has both improved the functioning and professionalism of these institutions while also ensuring that they are not adapted to the political realities of their contexts.

Participants agreed that it is important to look at the broader context of government accountability in order to understand the possibility for ‘in between’ institutions to play an important role.  An ‘Accountability Ecosystem’ perspective highlights the formal institutional framework (e.g. vertical and horizontal accountability mechanisms) as well the informal political dynamics and power relationships that influence whether and how accountability has ‘teeth’.  Understanding the political bargaining involved in establishing ‘in between’ institutions, and how they fit vis-à-vis other elements of the ecosystem, sheds light on both what we can expect from the ‘in betweens’ and how they might be best leveraged to contribute to government accountability.

Even in cases where democracy is fragile, accountability is limited, and state accountability institutions are weak, the existence of mechanisms such as ombudsman and audit commissions can provide some leverage to citizens that did not previously exist.  For example, even in contexts with an unfavorable enabling environment, ‘in between’ institutions can provide channels for citizens to access government or play some mediating role between citizens and state actors.  Where civil society has more actively engaged with ‘in between’ institutions, these possibilities have often expanded.

Thus, it’s important to have realistic expectations of accountability institutions, particularly in challenging contexts.  Even where the institutions themselves are seemingly capable and functioning, their impact is often limited by weaknesses or gaps in other parts of the accountability ecosystem, either in weak formal institutions (e.g. lack of judicial independence, corrupt government prosecutor’s office) or through informal power relationships that limit what these ‘in between’ mechanisms can achieve.  As one workshop participant pointed out, often state accountability institutions do not function effectively, but they still play a role in the political context  that needs to be understood, even if that is to investigate/prosecute political enemies of the government.

Unsurprisingly, context matters for the effectiveness and impact of state accountability institutions.  External actors seeking to support pro-accountability efforts in such environments need to map and analyze the accountability ecosystem, both formal and informal aspects, to understand where support can be most strategically employed.  Strengthening accountability ecosystems implies supporting actors and efforts that are pursuing strategic, long-term, and politically savvy strategies, rather than isolated, tool-based efforts.

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11 thoughts on “Accountability Institutions and Accountability Ecosystems: From Evidence to Practice

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  10. Read the page and found that building Eco system might lead to more participation by citizen in the fight against corruption

    • Hi Banshidhar, thanks for you comment. I think the ecosystems perspective also suggests many more entry points for citizens and civil society to strengthen accountability, more than simply voting or undertaking a citizen scorecard on services. These are much more complex and dynamic systems, so there are ways to influence them through media coverage, monitoring state audit institutions, engaging with the legislature, or even mobilizing in the streets, if necessary.

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