Conflictual Accountability: Behavioral Responses to Conflictual Accountability of Agencies

Published date01 September 2021
Date01 September 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Administration & Society
2021, Vol. 53(8) 1232 –1262
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/00953997211004606
Behavioral Responses
to Conflictual
Accountability of
Thomas Schillemans1, Sjors Overman1,
Paul Fawcett2, Matthew Flinders3,
Magnus Fredriksson4, Per Laegreid5,
Martino Maggetti6,7, Yannis Papadopoulos6,7,
Kristin Rubecksen5, Lise H. Rykkja5,
Heidi H. Salomonsen8, Amanda Smullen9,
Koen Verhoest10, and Matthew Wood3
In contemporary public governance, leaders of public organizations are faced
with multiple, and oftentimes conflictual, accountability claims. Drawing
upon a survey of CEO’s of agencies in seven countries, we explore whether
and how conflictual accountability regimes relate to strategic behaviors by
1004606AAS0010.1177/00953997211004606Administration & SocietySchillemans et al.
1Utrecht University, the Netherlands
2University of Melbourne, Australia
3University of Sheffield, UK
4University of Gothenburg, Sweden
5University of Bergen, Norway
6Institute of Political Science (IEP), Switzerland
7University of Lausanne, Switzerland
8Aarhus University, Denmark
9Australian National University, Australia
10University of Antwerp, Belgium
Corresponding Author:
Thomas Schillemans, School of Governance, Utrecht University, Bijlhouwerstraat 6,
Utrecht 3511 ZC, The Netherlands.
Schillemans et al. 1233
agency-CEO’s and their political principals. The presence of conflictual
accountability is experienced as a major challenge and is associated with
important behavioral responses by those CEO’s. This article demonstrates
empirically how conflictual accountability is related to (a) controlling
behaviors by principals, (b) constituency building behaviors by agencies, and
(c) a general pattern of intensified contacts and information processing by
both parties.
accountability, agencies, conflictual accountability, governance
The contemporary world of public governance is characterized by multiplic-
ity in a dual sense. On one hand, the execution of many public tasks has
shifted upward, sideward, or downward (Hooghe & Marks, 2003) to a large
variety of agencies that fulfill public tasks while enjoying arm’s-length rela-
tionships with elected politicians (Dommett & MacCarthaigh, 2016; Pierre
& Peters, 2020). On the other hand, these agencies often find their de facto
discretion and autonomy restricted by the existence of dense webs of
accountability (Page, 2006) in which they are held accountable by central
governments as their principals yet also have to cope with (de facto) account-
ability claims from many others, such as regulatory authorities, courts of
audit, clients, and societal stakeholders. This creates one of the prominent
accountability challenges for executive organizations in contemporary gov-
ernance: coping with the conflictual expectations emanating from a multi-
plicity of “accountability forums” (Bovens, 2007; Martin et al., 2018) who
operate on the basis of divergent institutional logics (Romzek & Dubnick,
1987; Thomann et al., 2018).
The dominant stream in the public administration literature relates the mul-
tiplicity of accountability to a range of problems. It often features as a disorder
(Koppell, 2005) leading to dysfunctional outcomes. The “problem of many
eyes” (Bovens et al., 2014: 11) has for instance been identified as the root
cause of technical disasters (Romzek & Dubnick, 1987), dysfunctional orga-
nizations (Koppell, 2005), policy failures (Halachmi, 2014), feelings of shame
and embarrassment (O’Connell & Yusuf, 2018), and as a dilemma for street-
level bureaucrats (Thomann et al., 2018). The basic assumption is that multi-
ple accountability produces conflicting expectations for decision-makers with
dysfunctional effects on various aspects of their behavior. There are, however,

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