Accountability and the Multidimensional Mandate

Published date01 June 2021
Date01 June 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2021, Vol. 74(2) 364 –376
© 2020 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912920906880
What does it mean for public organizations to be account-
able in modern systems of governance? This article aims
to rehabilitate a view on public accountability that is
commonsensical yet currently in academic disrepute. The
suggestion here is that accountability is essentially about
answerability to mandate. That is, for a practice to count
as an accountability practice, it must be reasonable to
describe it as a competent, good faith attempt to check
fidelity to the mission of the institution (broadly under-
stood). Making practical sense of this idea requires seri-
ous reconsideration of the concept of mandates.
The idea of answerability to mandate is not very prom-
ising if mandates are composed of a mere heap of con-
flicting types of considerations. But arguing otherwise
means challenging a key premise in standard approaches
to public accountability. A common theme is that public
organizations are subject to incompatible standards or
values. The claim is not simply the platitude that organi-
zations are faced with conflicting expectations because
conflicting expectations do not by themselves establish
that there is an incoherent mandate. We have no reason to
assume that all expectations are equally warranted.
Rather, the serious challenge is raised by the claim that
accountability is fragmented by a set of conflicting yet
equally legitimate standards:
There are instances where accountability to one authority
under one standard violates the expectations of legitimate
sources of authority under another standard. Following rules
often requires one to be unresponsive to a constituent’s
request for special treatment. At other times exercising one’s
professional judgment can conflict with rules. (Romzek
2000, 30. For similar claims couched in terms of incompatible
values, see De Graaf, Huberts, and Smulders 2016; Stewart
2006; Thacher and Rein 2004)
In the same vein, the idea of fundamentally conflicting
standards is essential to what Julia Black calls “legiti-
macy dilemmas”: “Actions that organizations need to
take to render them legitimate for one legitimacy com-
munity can be in direct opposition to those they need to
adopt to satisfy another” (Black 2008, 157–58).
This raises difficulties for anyone who thinks account-
ability is about answerability to mandate. Indeed, the claim
of fundamental conflict seems to suggest what we can call a
myth of the mandate charge against the common-sense
view of accountability. According to this charge, organiza-
tions are tasked with a heap of incompatible standards that
906880PRQXXX10.1177/1065912920906880Political Research QuarterlyEriksen
1University of Oslo, Norway
Corresponding Author:
Andreas Eriksen, ARENA Centre for European Studies, University of
Oslo, P.O. Box 1143, Blindern, Oslo 0318, Norway.
Accountability and the Multidimensional
Andreas Eriksen1
Public organizations are subject to many kinds of control mechanisms and analysts worry that they often suffer from
an “accountability overload.” This article argues that such diagnoses are typically set without an adequate demarcation
criterion for identifying accountability practices and separating them from other kinds of interaction, such as strategic
pursuit of power or reputational standing. In response, the suggestion is that accountability practices should be
restricted to procedures that track the mandate of the organization. This requires clarification of how mandates can
be seen as more than a mere heap of conflicting considerations. The concept of a “multidimensional mandate” is
introduced as a heuristic for thinking about how different perspectives on organizational action can be integrated. The
interpretive test for deciding if a procedure qualifies as an accountability practice is whether it is sufficiently sensitive
to the intertwinement of the goals and commitments of the organization. Neither account-givers nor account-holders
can legitimately refrain from orienting themselves in this broader normative framework.
public accountability, multidimensional mandates, interpretation, legitimacy

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