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Headlines Published on 19 December 2006

Title EU research project asks if traditional accountability is suited for modern times

Public accountability has long been considered a cornerstone of European societies. Access to public officials’ records and publicly traded companies’ bank statements is considered such an ordinary concept that we hardly give it much thought. Yet, with today’s overlapping layers of government coupled with a near-constant flow of information through numerous channels of communication some European researchers wondered what the traditional concept of public accountability means for contemporary Europe. Indeed, the rejection of the EU constitution was due in part to a lack of confidence in European public officials. For a closer look at such issues, the EU funded PubAcc, an FP6 project aimed at understanding public accountability within a contemporary context.

The French 'no' vote on the constitution was partly due to low confidence in public accountability. © Trainth
The French ‘no’ vote on the EU constitution was partly due to low confidence in public accountability.
© Trainth
The project, coordinated by Dr Simon Joss of the University of Westminster, analysed public accountability in three different policy-making areas: genetically modified crops, household waste and transport infrastructure projects. It studied these themes at both national and European level. It also looked at the significance of public accountability for contemporary democratic governance and legitimacy.

The international team of researchers carried out 21 case studies covering the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Latvia, Portugal and the UK. For the purposes of their study, researchers related public accountability to science and technology policy and decision-making processes, the dynamics of social mobilisation, and wider public sphere discourse.

Through interviews and literature and media analysis they discovered, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the mere phrase “public accountability” had no exact equivalent in a number of European languages. They also noted that defined public accountability played out differently in practice across borders.

They argue that a difference in formal accountability structures and ‘lived’ experience can be characterised as a “dysfunction of formal public accountability provisions”, and that as a result there has been a “growth in ‘extra-parliamentary’ public accountability processes” where normal citizens pick up where formal institutions leave off.

As Europe’s borders stretch further east, the process of Europeanisation has had dual effects in terms of public accountability, according to PubAcc experts. The researchers report that in some cases Europeanisation has “fostered public accountability provisions” where they hadn’t previously existed, and in others accountability has “been curtailed due to the pressure to adopt EU law and regulation.”

Where science and technology are concerned, the project team noted that new forms of governance have been established with increased stakeholder and citizen participation thanks to the controversial nature of such issues. They found this to be particularly true for the Czech Republic and Latvia, where S&T topics proved less politically controversial. Despite such new mechanisms for public accountability, however, the researchers were unable to detect any new structures that rivalled traditional systems, suggesting that tried and tested measures are best suited to provide viable accountability of European public officials.

More information:

  • PubAcc homepage
  • Social Sciences and Humanities on Europa

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