Governance and Accountability
Topic 1: Governance and government
Pressures for change
It is important to sketch out the context in which contemporary ideas about new modes of governance and accountability have emerged.
Beginning in the mid-1970s a number of concurrent, interrelated developments in the international economy began to erode the faith placed in Keynesian economic management and the associated strong role of the state with regard to the economy and indeed many other areas of activity. In broad terms these developments included,
1. increasing liberalisation of world trade—national governments gradually exposed their economies to the competitive pressures of international market forces, a process that gradually undermined their capacity to manage their national economies along Keynesian lines
2. globalisation, particularly with regard to production—the power and strategic potential of transnational corporations and global capital more generally raised a serious challenge to the capacity of national governments to control their own economic destinies and increased calls for new modes of governance
3. changing values and societal expectations—new social movements and the explosion in interest group activity around the world have seen growing pressures on national governments to embrace both new and previously neglected issues, and in the process confront the realities of an evermore complex and contested political agenda.
Observers began to speak in terms of the ‘crisis’ of democracy (Crozier et al. 1975), including problems of governmental ‘overload’, and the ‘special interest state’ with its ‘incipient corruption of the democratic policy process’ (Emy & Hughes 1988, 50). While strong state interventionism may have represented the Keynesian solution to the perceived problems and policy goals of the pre-war era, the same factors were increasingly viewed as major causes of problems that became more prevalent from the mid-1970s onwards..
For neo-Marxist scholars, such as O’Connor, the ‘crisis of the welfare state’ was the result of the inherent contradiction between the dual imperatives of governments under capitalism: creating an environment conducive to capital investment and growth—the ‘accumulation function’—and maintaining its basis of political support by increasing expenditures on social welfare programs—the ‘legitimacy function’. The central problem for governments, according to O’Connor (1973), is that satisfying one imperative inevitably undermines the other. This vicious circle leads eventually to what O’Connor has labelled the ‘fiscal crisis’ of the welfare state. Although he remained sceptical of government efforts to reduce its commitment to social welfare spending, believing that such actions would seriously compromise the legitimacy of the capitalist state, many governments throughout the world escaped the fiscal crisis of the state by doing just that. This is not to suggest that government efforts to reduce its role in the economy has not had its critics; instead, it serves only to demonstrate that perhaps O’Connor underestimated the capacity of governments to ‘justify’ their social welfare cuts.
The justification of cuts in governmental services was based, in part, on the contributions of several conservative scholars who attempted to explain the nature of the 1970s crisis of the state. From their perspective, the emergence of the highly interventionist welfare state throughout the Western democracies in the post-war era contributed to an unprecedented increase in public expectations about what the state both could and should provide. When governments failed to meet the ever-expanding expectations of their constituents there was a marked decline in public confidence in government and the institutions of the state. King (1975, 288) neatly summarised the changing nature of public perceptions in the following aphorism:
Once upon a time man looked to God to order the world. Then he looked to the market. Now he looks to government. When problems emerge people no longer attribute fault to ‘Him’ or ‘it’ but ‘them’.
By catering to the demands of a diverse range of interests in society, suggested Crozier et al. (1975), governments had lost sight of their priorities; they had taken on too many societal demands and faced a resultant crisis of spiralling expectations. Such arguments owed an intellectual debt to the writings of Joseph Schumpeter, whose highly influential study Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942, 291) warned that the ‘effective range of political decision should not be extended too far’. It was critical, he argued, for the people to exercise what he called ‘democratic self-control’, that they refrain from making excessive demands on governments by placing pressure on their political representatives between elections to pursue particular initiatives. For Schumpeter and his followers, democracy functioned most efficiently when left to political elites, since they possessed the requisite expertise to govern for the common good. The perceived solution to the problems of the 1970s, argued proponents of this position, was a return to the minimalist state of the early 20th century. Governments should significantly roll back their commitments to a host of social welfare programs and allow the market to provide such services in a more efficient manner.
Such neo-liberal aspirations were lent more ‘scientific’ credence through the development of public choice theory. Public choice explanations of political behaviour incorporate a number of analytical assumptions familiar to economists. From this perspective, individuals constitute the basic unit of analysis and presumably act on the basis of utility¬maximising calculations of their perceived self-interests. Politics, then, embodies competition among rational individuals who seek access to power or scarce resources. In his succinct summary of public choice theory, Peter Self (1985, 51) demonstrates the utility of the market metaphor for grasping the basic tenets of the approach, noting that, voters can be likened to consumers; pressure groups can be seen as political consumer associations or sometimes as co-operatives; political parties become entrepreneurs who offer competing packages of services and taxes in exchange for votes; political propaganda equates with commercial advertising; and government agencies are public firms dependent upon receiving or drumming up adequate political support to cover their costs.
Every public sector agency, from this perspective, has an interest in increasing their status through larger and larger annual budgets. As each branch of the public service selfishly pursues this common objective, the size of the state reaches unsustainable proportions. This level was arguably reached by the mid-1970s throughout most Western democracies.
In the wake of problems faced by the state, the ideas and policy prescriptions of neo-liberal economists such as Frederick Hayek and Milton Friedman gained increasing appeal. Within the Australian context, argues Pusey (1991), a cohort of public servants, all sharing the same economic training, entered the public service at roughly the same with a firm agenda in mind: to reduce significantly the scope of governmental activities. Although Pusey prefers the term ‘economic rationalism’ to describe the ideological foundations of the changes in government policy that began in the 1980s, it represents simply another manifestation of neo-liberal policies. As Sherman (1998, 37) suggests,
Economic rationalism prefers market solutions to economic and social problems. It is forcing national governments throughout the world to reduce deficits and spending. More relevant, in the current context, is that it envisages a more limited role for the state with the consequence that many functions traditionally performed by the public sector are being transferred to the private sector.
Topic 1: Governance and government
From government to governance
The notion of governance is certainly in vogue, although it has a long history. It is also open to many interpretations, but it is not the intention in this unit to get absorbed in an examination of these. We can, after Keating (2000, 3), follow the World Bank usage which defines governance as ‘the exercise of political power to manage a nation’s affairs’. Rather, the crucial thing is to appreciate that it is a broader concept than government, encapsulating a concern with linkages or inter-relationships between different parts of the wider political system (indeed systems). It recognises that important policy decisions are likely to involve or be shared by diverse state and non-state actors, and are increasingly being made across different administrative tiers domestically and internationally (Svedin et al. 2001). The utility of the notion of governance is well captured by Keating (2000, 4):
It accepts that the management of the nation’s affairs might need more than government to ensure effectiveness; it therefore sees parties, courts and interest groups not as problems that governments must overcome but as part of the broader process … It understands the need for consultation and legitimacy, as well as the exercise of state power, when changes are required, and when expectations have to be met … As the boundaries between public and private become more blurred, so it is useful to ask how we are governed, rather than expecting that realised capacity follows formal authority as a matter of course.
While, then, the state has been regarded as the central governing actor, the notion of governance encapsulates a shift in the focus to wider state-society relations and indeed interactions (Kooiman 2003, 5). This, moreover, is in the context of the diversity, complexity and fluidity of modern societies which present opportunities, but also problems and threats.
Many commentators emphasise the seeming erosion or ‘hollowing out’ of the state’s capacities and responsibilities under the pressures of globalisation and neo-liberalism (see for example Rhodes 1997, 1997a; Svedin et al. 2001). That there have been and continue to be significant changes in systems of governance in Australia, as elsewhere, is beyond doubt. But these changes are driven by diverse and at times conflicting influences and pressures. Moreover, as Keating (2001, 34–5) observes,
the state is not a completely passive actor at the mercy of these forces. It retains significant discretion, for example, in fashioning and responding to the ideas and values that are structuring the political debate … The state is still very powerful … Furthermore, there is no real pressure for the state to shed responsibilities?rather the reverse … To the extent that there has been a change in the role of the state it principally represents a change in means rather than objectives or responsibilities. This is reflected in the greater reliance on market-based instruments, with less reliance on command and control type of regulation … In effect the state is still looking for a more effective way of achieving its ongoing objectives, and this does not of itself imply a change to its traditional responsibilities.
Nonetheless, the changes examined above powerfully affect governance in various ways. Keating (2001, 36) identifies three aspects of governance in this regard. The first involves policy challenges, which have been made more difficult by changing and at times contradictory attitudes to the role of the state. Policy making has become more complex, at times involving seeming intractable problems that are marked by uncertainty and contestability, and may well be trans-boundary in nature (see Giddens, 2000). The second aspect of governance concerns the capacity of established institutions to meet these demands and challenges, along with debates over institutional reforms (see Keating, Wanna & Weller 2000), and new forms of collaboration or association from the local through to global level. For Keating (2000, 37),
the institutions of the state have been frozen for the past century around particular assumptions, such as the concept of representative democracy and the principal division of society into capital and labour. Parliamentary government and cabinet rules reflect the first, the party system the second. Both can now be seen as under challenge making the task of integrating and communicating policy more difficult.
These developments can be seen in a global perspective if we look at the ideas of scholars such as Anthony Giddens (1998) and Ulrich Beck (1999) who draw attention to the spread of what they term ‘subpolitics’. As Beck (1999, 39) formulates it, subpolitics entails more direct forms of political activity which lie ‘outside and beyond the representative institutions of the political systems of nation-states’. Subpolitics then, works to change ‘the rules and boundaries of the political so that it becomes more open and susceptible to new linkages—as well as capable of being negotiated and reshaped’ (Beck 1999, 40). These developments are occurring at levels from the domestic through to the global, but the established political institutions of the nation-state are often poorly equipped—some may say reluctant—to adapt to these challenges.
Finally, the changing relationship between citizens and government powerfully affects governance, with as indicated above new links and relationships being established. The decline of trust in government and mainstream political parties in particular have been accompanied by demands from citizens for more direct participation in government decisions that affect them and greater governmental accountability.
Some of the consequences have been a growth in administrative review and changes to the delivery of services to make them more responsive to individual needs and to offer a greater range of choices. The implications for our future governance include issues of accountability and how a more responsive and participative approach to decision-making can be reconciled with the requirements of overall policy coherence.
In sum, most citizens do not want less government so much as better government, and solutions to their particular problems. The challenge confronting government is therefore not so much a loss of power as a difficulty of using it productively.
(Keating 2000, 38)
Topic 2: Traditional models of accountability and their dilemmas
The Presidential model
The defining feature of presidential systems of government is the clear separation of powers along both functional and federal lines. In order to ensure that public officials remain accountable for their actions, argued Madison, it was necessary to design the ‘interior structure of government, [so] that its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper places’ (Federalist Papers, No. 51). For such a system of checks and balances to be effective, however, each functional branch of government—executive, legislative, and judicial—must possess a ‘will of its own’. This end may be achieved, he reasoned, if two conditions are met. First, each functional branch must have ‘as little agency as possible in the appointment of the members of the others’ to ensure that no single branch is beholden to another1. Thus, within the United States and other political systems anchored in the Madisonian tradition, the chief executive (or president) is elected independently from the legislature and cannot be dismissed from office—barring the extraordinary case of impeachment—except through electoral defeat.
Second, each functional branch of government must have the capacity to limit the exercise and potential abuse of political power by each of the other two branches. In the words of Madison, “usurpations are guarded against by a division of the government into distinct and separate departments” (Federalist Papers, No. 51). Within the American system of government, an elaborate system of overlapping powers which blurs the functional domain of each branch has been created to achieve this end.
Beyond the functional division of powers, Madison also highlighted the need for establishing a federal division of powers to protect the interests of smaller states from a potentially unrepresentative central government. Federalism thus manifests itself in two important respects. First, by granting the sub-national units of government decision making authority in specified policy areas; and second, by giving each of the sub-national units equal representation in the upper chamber of the national legislature. This vertical division of powers provides yet another check on the potential abuse of governmental authority and manifests itself at the national level in form of a strong bicameral legislature.
The obvious strength of presidential systems rests with the elaborate system of checks and balances that exist between the functional and federal divisions of government. Such an intricate web of political power also provides multiple points of access for private individuals, groups, and organisations to influence the political process, arguably rendering it a comparatively democratic system of governance. Under these arrangements public accountability is ostensibly secured through preventing any single branch of government from pursuing its objectives in an authoritarian manner.
Unfortunately, while the presidential model may preclude the unilateral abuse of political power, it also fosters accountability problems of an entirely different nature. As Weaver and Rockman (1993, 16) explain, ‘because power and responsibility are so diffuse, it is often difficult for voters and interest groups to know whom to hold accountable for specific decisions—a process that…has been referred to as the ‘institutionalisation of buck passing’. Presidents, for example, commonly blame congressional resistance for the apparent lack of progress on certain issues, while state governments frequently attribute their perceived failures to shortfalls in national funding upon which they are dependent
for financing many of their programs. Such problems, as the next section reveals, are less prevalent under the traditional model of responsible government, since parliamentary sovereignty provides scant opportunities to engage in the kind of finger-pointing that occurs in the United States.
Topic 2: Traditional models of accountability and their dilemmas
The Parliamentary model
Contemporary discussions about governmental accountability in parliamentary systems inevitably commence with references to what Mulgan (1997, 25) has described as,
the monolithic, hierarchical ‘Westminster’ model of accountability, in which formal public accountability is concentrated in ministers responsible to parliament and in which public servants are accountable only to their immediate supervisors in the chain of accountability without any ‘short-cuts’ to parliament or to the public at large.
But as Mulgan points out in a later work (Mulgan 2006, 5–6), this concentration of responsibility in the Minister has never meant, in theory or in practice, that s/he should resign for failures for which s/he was not personally responsible: ‘This supposed principle of vicarious responsibility, that Ministers should resign for matters beyond their immediate control or knowledge, has never been part of the conventions of Ministerial responsibility, either here or in any other jurisdiction’. Nonetheless, the traditional model retains certain advantages as a starting point, the most significant of which is the establishment of a base against which relatively recent reforms may be compared.
A more accurate way of construing the convention of Ministerial responsibility, according to Mulgan, would be as a requirement ‘that Ministers must front up’ (2006, 5). This is to say that Ministers are the ones who must answer to the parliament and to the public for the matters for which they are responsible. Moreover, this convention should be seen as imposing on Ministers responsibility of ‘rectification’: ‘to use their power to set [faults] right’ (Mulgan 2006, 5).
In the broadest sense, the traditional model of responsible government has at least four defining features:
1. the executive government is drawn from parliament, which holds the executive accountable through parliamentary debates, questioning by opposition parties, and the threat of a vote of no confidence
2. ministers are individually responsible to parliament for the failings of their departments and collectively responsible to parliament and the electorate for the overall conduct of government policy
3. the executive government is advised by a politically neutral public service, which enjoys security of tenure and anonymity so that it may serve ‘without fear or favour’; and perhaps most significantly
4. the lines of political responsibility flow upwards in a hierarchical fashion through a ‘chain of accountability’ which links the public service to a minister, individual ministers to cabinet, ministers and cabinet to parliament, and cabinet and parliament to the people (Emy & Hughes 1991, 338–9).
We can now see some clear contrasts between the two models of accountability. Whereas the accountability of public officials under the presidential model is achieved through the establishment of warring branches and levels of government, the responsible government model entrusts the parliament to act, in practical terms, as the primary oversight mechanism2. As long as parliament retains the commitment and, indeed, the capacity to serve this role, the Westminster system of responsible government avoids the problems of ‘buck passing’ and ‘blame avoidance’ that are endemic to the presidential model. Unfortunately, as we shall see below, serious doubts exist over whether parliament continues to meet its scrutinising obligations, if in fact it ever did.
Our treatment of accountability according to the traditional models would, however, be incomplete without attention to the role of public service in the Westminster system’s ‘chain of accountability’.
Read Mulgan, ‘Westminster accountabilities’, pp. 4–5.
How, according to Mulgan, does the position of Ministers differ from that of CEOs of private companies in so far as accountability is concerned?
If Mulgan is correct here, it is quite legitimate that a Minister might blame a public servant in his or her department for a serious error, as long as the Minister is the one who fronts the public about the error. Do you agree with Mulgan?
The public service
While responsible government within Australia owes much to its Westminster origins, the traditional model of the bureaucracy cannot be divorced from the ideas of German sociologist Max Weber. Writing during the early 20th century, Weber’s reforms represented a revolutionary break from the way in which the public service was organised in the past. Formerly, the public sector was based on a system of patronage, with administrative appointments often determined by familial connections (nepotism) or wealth, particularly since some positions were sold, with purchasers gaining a return on their investments through charges on the services provided by their offices. Although the pre-Weberian model had the advantages of making public officials highly sensitive to the wishes of the existing government and created a small, privileged circle of administrative elites, it was often characterised by incompetence, inequity, and discontinuity, particularly as most senior officials changed with every new government (Singleton et al. 2000, 177–8).
As Hughes (1998b, 27) notes, Weber’s principles of the modern bureaucracy have become ‘so ingrained in society that [such] points seem obvious, but they did represent a substantial advance on early administration’. Indeed, many of the organisational principles developed by Weber have been extended to private corporations, the military and other large organisations.
Weber defended his conception of the modern bureaucracy, arguing that it represented a significant advance over past forms where arbitrary decisions shaped by political influence were the norm:
The decisive reason for the advance of bureaucratic organisation has always been its purely technical superiority over any other form of organisation. The fully developed bureaucratic mechanism compares with other organisations exactly as does the machine within non-mechanical modes of production. Precision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction and personal costs—these are raised to the optimum point in the strictly bureaucratic organisation.
(Weber 1991, 214)
Central to the functioning of Weber’s traditional bureaucracy was the clear separation of the political from the administrative, which was deemed critical to the preservation of impartiality and continuity of decisions.
Elections and party discipline
The first means of securing governmental accountability discussed by Mulgan (2003) is elections. You should read his section on this topic (p. 41ff.). Clearly, elections are the primary means by which citizens of democracies can hold their governments to account for their performances. But equally clearly, more frequent accountings are necessary to ensure good governance than reckonings separated by several years. Mulgan next underlines the importance of ‘legislative scrutiny’ to secure the latter end (2003, 45ff.). There are, however, significant impediments to legislative scrutiny in both traditional models of accountability.
The more recent threats, some argue, are posed by the shift to New Public Management (NPM). However, the historical threats to the traditional model of responsible government with its ‘chain of accountability’ include:
Federal division of powers
One of the primary aims of this topic, then, is to familiarise you with the main dilemmas confronting the traditional model.
Under Westminster forms of responsible government, parliament has traditionally served as the primary accountability mechanism through its capacity to scrutinise the actions of ministers and their departments. But a number of scholars have questioned the capacity of parliament to fulfil this historic obligation, arguing that the advent of strict party discipline has inverted the traditional chain of accountability, thereby enabling the executive to dominate parliamentary proceedings.
Evans (1993b), for example, argues that the two major political parties which dominate Australia’s political landscape have distorted the responsibility mechanism of government in a manner comparable to the way in which oligopolies distort the price mechanism of markets:
The modern party is designed to ensure that that responsibility mechanism does not operate and that a government formed by the party is never overthrown or seriously threatened by parliament. By binding all members of the party to support it in parliament, and by ensuring that all members of the party always vote together on every question, the modern party removes the responsibility mechanism. We no longer have parliamentary government but party government, whereby the electorate chooses between oligopolistic parties at election time, and the majority party controls the whole machinery of the state until the next election. Parliament no longer controls the government, the government controls parliament, or at least the lower houses, an inversion of the system.
(Evans 1993b, 17)
It should be noted that not all parliamentary systems have suffered so intensely as Australia from problems associated with the advent of disciplined party politics, the UK being a case in point. Nonetheless, Evans perceives a direct link between strict party discipline and political corruption and malfeasance within Australia, suggesting that it is ‘no accident that the country with the most rigid party system also has the most conspicuous monuments to failures of integrity in the shape of endless royal commissions and other non-parliamentary inquiries into political malfeasance’ (Evans 1993b, 18). For Evans (1993a, 16–17), then, the solution to the endemic problem of political corruption within Australia is rooted in the weakening of disciplined party politics.
It is important to note that the impact of disciplined party politics on governmental accountability is not necessarily always negative. In fact, some observers have posited the opposite correlation to that advanced by Evans, suggesting that the absence of strict party discipline—rather than its presence—is what makes the legislative arm of government more susceptible to corrupting influences. As Preston (2001, 57) explains,
it can be argued that the Australian two-party system, with its binding control of MPs, provides a protection from corruption, unlike the United States of America where the loose party allegiance of legislators leaves them isolated and vulnerable to unsavoury pressures.
Moreover, while the emergence of disciplined party politics within Australia and elsewhere has certainly weakened traditional avenues and mechanisms of accountability, it has not necessarily left a void in its wake. On the contrary, as Hughes (1998, 317) reasons, ‘ministers do remain accountable. They are accountable to the party, and they are accountable to the electorate through their part in creating an impression of the competence of the government as a whole’.
Contradictory evidence thus blurs the relationship between disciplined party politics and governmental malpractice. What such an observation suggests, however, is that political institutional arrangements alone are inadequate explanations for the presence or absence of high levels of political corruption and malfeasance. Nonetheless, there is widespread agreement that the reform of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary institutions holds out the prospect of making governments more accountable for their actions.
Topic 2: Traditional models of accountability and their dilemmas
Ministerial responsibility and overload
Another means of securing government accountability under the Westminster model discussed by Mulgan (2003, 48ff.) is ‘ministerial responsibility’. A reading of these pages will tell you how this convention is supposed to achieve this end. Here we need to note, however, that a major consequence of disciplined party politics has been erosion of individual ministerial responsibility. As Mulgan argues, the Westminster notion that individual ministers be held fully accountable for the actions of their departments is largely a myth within the Australian context; moreover, it has historically provided a convenient barrier between public servants and mechanisms of public scrutiny.
In their study of ministerial resignations within Australia, Thompson and Tillotsen conclude that only in cases where ministers cannot publicly support a cabinet decision are resignations still likely to occur. Although they acknowledge that private indiscretions may also lead to resignations, the circumstances surrounding the indiscretion play a vital mitigating role:
Much depends on whether the individual minister is a ‘mate’ of the leader and on the extent to which the issue has ‘legs’ politically. Factors that influence the political vitality of an issue include whether there is enthusiastic, consistent media coverage. If there is enough pressure and if there is enough evidence that toughing-it-out is damaging the leadership or the government, then the minister will be asked to resign as a damage limitation strategy.
(Thompson & Tillotsen 1999, 57)
Political blunders, on the other hand, are much more likely to result in ministerial reshuffles rather than calls for resignations. ‘While such reshuffles may ensure better government’, observe Thompson and Tillotsen (1999, 56), ‘they are a long way from public accountability through parliament, and a longer way from public resignation for a specific action’.
Given the dramatic growth in the size of the public sector throughout the post-war era, a common defence for not holding ministers accountable for the actions of their departments is that they simply lack the knowledge of their department’s activities. According to some scholars, the failure of the Westminster model of responsible government to serve as an effective accountability measure may be attributed (in conjunction with the advent of disciplined party politics) to the,
burgeoning size of the ‘executive State’ itself. If ever it were the case…that the principle of ministerial responsibility was viewed as an efficacious means for bringing the administrative system under parliamentary control, it has long since been recognised that it no longer can have this asked of it.
(Finn 1991, 55)
In a similar vein, Thompson and Tillotsen (1999, 57) conclude:
If individual ministerial responsibility ever meant that ministers were expected to resign for major policy blunders or for serious errors of maladministration by a government department, it is dead.
In his rejoinder to Thompson and Tillotsen, Blick challenges the belief that the concept of individual ministerial responsibility has been rendered meaningless in recent decades. Instead, he suggests that because the workloads of ministers have grown so significantly over time, we must rethink what we mean by the concept for it to have continued relevance. Ministers may find it difficult, if not impossible, to keep abreast of the intricate workings of their departments, but there are other areas where they remain accountable:
A much neglected and undervalued aspect of ministerial responsibility is ministers’ performance of routine but extremely important duties such as answering correspondence, making speeches, attending meetings to present the government’s point of view, responding to media inquiries, appearing before parliamentary committees…and answering parliamentary questions…Not surprisingly, the ministers who do these things well are those who are less likely to get into trouble in other areas of their responsibilities.
(Blick 1999, 58–9)
Governments are generally more committed to retaining ministers who meet these other, more realistic, expectations of ministerial responsibility even in instances where departmental blunders would traditionally necessitate their resignations.
Topic 3: Government accountability I: Parliamentary institutions
Conventional wisdom now suggests that most lower houses of parliament, particularly those outside the United Kingdom, have lost their capacity to hold either individual ministers or entire governments accountable for their actions. Most key policy decisions are no longer made and openly debated (at least in any serious manner) on the floors of the lower chamber; such activities are instead conducted under a veil of secrecy in Cabinet meetings. During the limited time available for discussion and scrutiny of government initiatives, most members seem more concerned with ‘political point scoring than cogent argument’ (Lovell 1994, xiii), believing that whatever they say is unlikely to change the minds of their parliamentary counterparts or alter the pre-determined vote on proposed legislation. Given this state of affairs, it is not surprising that so little faith is placed in the capacity of lower houses to hold governments accountable.
The fundamental problem with conventional wisdom, argues Mulgan, is that it assumes that to be an effective accountability mechanism parliament must possess the capacity to defeat a proposed bill, force a ministerial resignation, or bring down an entire government on its own. History tells us that as long as strict party discipline is maintained, this remains an extraordinarily improbable event. Despite the well-documented inability—or perhaps unwillingness—of parliament to achieve such ends, however, it would be erroneous to characterise it as impotent. For Mulgan, the issue is not so much whether parliament and its officers possess the powers necessary to enforce their recommendations, but whether their scrutinising and auditing activities instigate an appropriate response. On this point, he reasons, ministers generally react positively and promptly to public criticism initiated by their parliamentary colleagues:
to the extent that ministers and officials can be relied on to impose remedies in response to public criticism, the inability of parliament itself to enforce such a reaction is irrelevant. From the perspective of overall public accountability, it may be the discovery of evidence and the marshalling of critical judgments which is parliament’s most essential and potentially most important power.
(Mulgan 1997, 34)
Beyond that, Mulgan warns that we should also be cautious in accepting claims that the concept of ministerial responsibility has failed as a mechanism for promoting public accountability. Too often, the literature tends to present an unrealistic version of ministerial responsibility which simply cannot be satisfied in contemporary society. The failure to reach an idealised set of expectations, however, should not lead us to dismiss the role of individual ministers as effective agents of accountability. As we saw in the previous Topic, Mulgan (2006, 5) insists that ‘principle of vicarious responsibility’ of ministers ‘has never been part of the conventions of Ministerial responsibility’. He explains,
The expectation of vicarious personal responsibility survives only as popular mythology. It is kept alive by opportunistic politicians and ignorant commentators. These people regularly, and fruitlessly, call on Ministers to resign and then complain about the death of Ministerial responsibility. These rhetorical rituals of adversarial politics, though well understood as such by the players themselves, have a damaging effect when taken literally. They can blind us to the genuine benefits of Ministerial responsibility as it is actually practised, as distinct from how it might be practised in some fanciful world.
(Mulgan 2006, 5)
Thus, if we accept that traditional expectations associated with parliamentary oversight and ministerial responsibility are unrealistic, then parliament arguably remains a key institution for promoting the accountability of government, albeit via different (and more indirect) pathways than the ‘chain of accountability’ would suggest. This perception is reinforced by the discussion of upper chambers as ‘houses of review’ which is reviewed in the following section.
Topic 3: Government accountability I: Parliamentary institutions
Mulgan’s argument about the irrelevance of the lower house’s poor capacity to ‘enforce a reaction’ from government on its own does not enjoy widespread support. Indeed, for most observers the perceived weakness of the lower house necessitates the establishment and strengthening of other accountability mechanisms. For some scholars (see Evans, 1993b; Finn, 1993), strengthening the powers of scrutiny of the upper house of parliament—a chamber which has historically served a largely ceremonial role under the Westminster tradition—represents the key to reinvigorating parliament as an effective institution of accountability. Following the recommendations of the W.A. Inc Report, Finn (1993, 56) proposes that,
[The] Upper House be designed explicitly as a House of Review of the operations of government; that its electoral franchise be based on a generous proportional representation system allowing for the widest practical representation in it of the divergent interests and aspirations of the people – the antidote to the party-based electoral system of the Lower House; and that its own procedures, particularly through standing committees, be designed to bring the entire operation of the public sector under review.
Evans promotes the same ‘cure’. He suggests that a strong upper house based on proportional representation and an enhanced committee system represents the key to overcoming the ‘disease’ of party government in the lower house. This disease condemns ‘parties out of power to complete impotence… [and] encourages the minority to ranting and tantrums in order to protest and to gain the attention of the electorate’ (Evans 1993b, 19).
Because proportional representation typically precludes the government of the day from enjoying a controlling majority in the upper house, it confers substantial influence on opposition and minority party members who may hold the balance of power. In Mulgan’s words,
Ideally … accountability is best secured by an adversarial party system operating within an independently powerful legislature. … In parliamentary systems, similar guarantees [to those provided by the US presidential system] of strong legislative scrutiny can be provided by minority governments where the governing party or parties depend on the votes of other members of Parliament outside the government who are in a position to enforce accountability on the government. In Australia, the proportionally elected Senate provides a virtual guarantee that every government faces a potentially hostile majority in the upper house, thus turning the Senate into a powerful house of review.
(Mulgan 2003, 60–1)
Unfortunately, not all political systems have upper chambers of the legislature. On a national level, the New Zealand parliament recently overcame this difficulty by introducing new forms of representation in its single chamber. As Mulgan (2003, 61) comments: ‘In New Zealand, the new proportional representation system introduced in 1996 has made the major governing parties dependent on the support of minor parties and strengthened the accountability role of the House of Representatives’. At the state level within Australia, however, the Queensland parliament has no upper house. A number of commentators have suggested that upper houses are redundant, inefficient, and simply replicate the activities of the lower house. For governments that enjoy a controlling majority in both houses, upper houses may represent little more than just that. A common criticism levelled against upper houses is that they frequently represent little more than ‘rubber stamps’ for government legislation.
In other countries, such as the United Kingdom and Canada, upper houses have historically served a largely ceremonial role. Comprised of non-elected officials, these chambers rarely challenge bills passed by the lower house and have relatively limited relevance to the day-to-day practice of government. In Australia, however, upper houses are elected, though not in the same way as lower houses. And in those instances where the government lacks a controlling majority in the upper house the chamber can serve as an effective institution of accountability.
Topic 3: Government accountability I: Parliamentary institutions
With the increasing scepticism surrounding the capacity of parliament to hold government accountable in the lower house, the establishment and enhancement of parliamentary committee systems have been perceived as the ‘holy grail of parliamentary reformers over the past 30 years’ (Evans 1993a, 16). The primary reason for expanding parliamentary committee activity is that it enables legislatures to more efficiently manage their activities. Legislative research which is divided among specialised committees, each comprised of members armed with an expertise in their respective policy areas, is completed much more expeditiously than if every hearing and deliberation of evidence is presented to the house as a whole. Thus, parliamentary committees play a key role in facilitating the actual legislative function of parliament.
For the purposes of our discussion, however, the secondary reason for establishing parliamentary committees—to investigate and scrutinise the activities of government—is of greater concern. According to Jaensch (1997), committees provide the institutional framework through which Parliament may fulfil its traditional role of overseeing the actions of the government.
[A] meeting of the full House of Representatives does not lend itself to an investigative and scrutiny role…. But the incorporation of a committee system in the Senate has restored it as a legislative chamber, and given it real potential as a house of investigation and review. Today, the Senate is able to better engage itself in scrutiny: in keeping a government on its toes; in probing it, ministers and public servants; and in providing that information for general consumption, better, in fact, than can the House of Representatives.
(Jaensch 1997, 113)
Within Australia as well as overseas, parliamentary committees arguably enhance the accountability function of the legislative branch of government in at least three important respects. These include:alleviating the detrimental impact of disciplined party politics, particularly on
1. committees drawn from the upper house or both houses of parliament (joint committees) in which the government does not enjoy a majority
2. engaging in more extensive and intensive scrutiny and analysis of government than parliament is either capable or willing to achieve
3. increasing the level of public participation in the development of new policy initiatives, by encouraging individuals and groups to make written and oral submissions during the committee hearing process (Evans 1993a).
Some committees, such as the two joint parliamentary committees for Public Works and Public Accounts in Australia, exercise direct scrutiny of government expenditures, ensuring that public monies are spent in an appropriate and efficient manner. Both committees possess a significant degree of power, enjoying the authority to compel witnesses to attend, testify and produce documents at committee hearings. But whether they represent effective mechanisms of accountability remains the subject of debate.
Critics suggest that parliamentary committees rarely achieve their full potential. Mulgan (2003, 61), for example, is of the opinion that they ‘continue to disappoint as mechanisms for monitoring the performance of government agencies’. Critics advance a variety of reasons for the shortcomings of parliamentary committees. The most significant of these are:
1. The limited amount of time available to report and debate the findings of committees on the floor of Parliament which has imposed a severe constraint on their activities.
2. Members of Parliament have displayed a reluctance to chair specific committees, because their effectiveness often depends on their willingness to challenge the decisions of the government, of which the chair may be a party member.
3. There are simply too many committee positions to be filled by a comparatively limited number of parliamentarians, making it difficult for individual members to devote their full attention to the aims of the committee and develop an appropriate expertise in the issues being investigated (Singleton et al. 1999, 129).
Evans (1993a, 17) further warns that the committee system risks becoming simply another ‘vehicle of central executive control of the governmental processes’ as a result of such noted concerns. In the Australian Commonwealth House of Representatives, for example, committees typically investigate only those ‘innocuous and peripheral matters’ which governments deem appropriate, since they frequently lack the capacity to explore issues without the consent of Cabinet. Not surprisingly, governments generally resist calls for inquiries into their activities that may be deemed inappropriate or ill-considered. ‘Inquiries of this kind’, observes Evans (1993a, 18), ‘come about only because of the lack of government control over the Senate’.
The scrutinising activities of parliamentary committees may also place public servants who are asked to testify in a difficult situation. As Corbett (1996, 216) explains,
public servants are caught on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand their obligation is to the minister and Cabinet. They know secrets such as the contents of Cabinet documents which no one but Cabinet is authorised to disclose. On the other hand, parliament is supreme and entitled to ask any question and demand an answer on pain of contempt charges and even imprisonment. That would be difficult enough but it can be worse. Public servants who have advised against a course of action which the minister or Cabinet have later decided to adopt may be hounded by the committee to reveal all the considerations which may make the minister’s or Cabinet’s decision appear to have been a bad one. Opposition members of committees can be relentless when they are on that sort of trail. The poor public servant has the dismal choice of either ratting on the minister or else giving an appearance of evasiveness and telling less than the whole truth. Careers can be ruined in a situation like that.
These topic related mainly to the material in Topic 1-3,although some are more wide-ranging.use examples or evidence in developing and supporting your arguments.
1. What is the meaning of ‘accountability’ and how does it differ from related terms such as ‘responsibility’, ‘control’, and ‘responsiveness’? In addressing this topic you need to explore the differing views concerning these terms and their inter-relationship. It may be useful to draw upon the practices in a particular country to illustrate your points.
In marking this assignment assessors will be guided by the marking criteria indicated in the first column below. The graduate attributes component indicates how this assignment fits with wider goals and attributes that Deakin University has established for its graduates.
Comprehension of unit material
Ensure that relevant theories or concepts and explanations are examined and applied in an appropriate, thoughtful way that demonstrates understanding and critical thinking.
Ensure that information used is accurate, appropriate and utilised effectively.
Your essay must sustain a coherent, well developed argument that is supported though your use of evidence and reasons. This will require for instance careful consideration and analysis of other people’s views, and judicious use of evidence or examples to illustrate and substantiate points or arguments.
Quality and breadth of your research
Ensure that your essay is well researched with good use of sources. Your reading must extend beyond the study guide materials and core readings.
Utilise and draw together in an effective manner materials from diverse print and electronic sources. While the web can provide valuable material you should not be overly dependent on this avenue, ensuring instead that such sources are balanced with your use of journals and books for instance.
One style of referencing (preferably Harvard in-text citation) is to be used. The use of other people’s ideas and evidence MUST be acknowledged appropriately.
Students are, as a matter of course, expected to make every effort to include relevant page(s) in all citations. It is accepted that this is not always possible with online sources.
A complete and fully detailed bibliography of sources MUST accompany your essay (include materials directly cited and any others utilised in developing your assignment).
Relevance to the question or topic
Ensure that the concepts and examples you use, and your argument as a whole, are
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