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 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.
French ‘no' vote on the EU constitution
was partly due to low confidence in public accountability.|
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.