Accountability Deficits and Overloads: a missing framework




Rock, Ellen Maree

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Canberra, ACT : The Australian National University


Accountability is touted as an essential feature of modern democratic society, said to underpin the legitimacy of our system of government. Given its lofty status, it is unsurprising that the concept has given rise to the search for accountability ‘deficits’, claims that a particular mechanism or area is lacking in accountability. At the other extreme sit accountability ‘overloads’, claims that a particular mechanism or area over-delivers on accountability. Though claims of deficit and overload are prevalent in academic and social discourse, little work has been done to explore the content of these concepts. This thesis posits that claims of accountability deficit and overload conceal two steps in logic. The first hidden assumption is that it is possible to define a ‘benchmark’ of accountability. The ideas of deficit and overload are essentially claims of ‘not enough’ accountability, on the one hand, and ‘too much’ accountability on the other. In order to make good on that claim, we must first accept that it is possible to describe what ‘enough’ accountability looks like. In other words, we must be able to articulate an ideal benchmark of accountability against which we can compare a given mechanism or area, and find that it either falls short of or exceeds that expectation. One possible way of giving shape to such a benchmark would be to transform the mechanistic framework frequently used to analyse accountability mechanisms (ie who is accountable to whom, for what and how?) into a normative framework (ie who should be accountable to whom, for what and how?). The difficulty, as explored in this thesis, is that in order to give shape to that normative benchmark, we are called on to resolve complex debates regarding our views and expectations of government, issues that have troubled legal philosophers for centuries. These complexities are concealed when we make claims by reference to the anomalous notion of accountability. The second hidden assumption in claims of accountability deficit and overload is that the claimant has located the particular mechanism under scrutiny within the wider system of accountability mechanisms. After all, there is little merit in a claim that a particular shortfall in one mechanism represents an accountability gap unless one can also establish that this shortfall is not ameliorated by other mechanisms within the system. Likewise, in making a claim that the accumulation of mechanisms represents an accountability overload, it is necessary to accept that those mechanisms in fact operate simultaneously to produce that effect. Missing from the literature, however, is a detailed explanation of the various types of relationship dynamics that might exist between accountability mechanisms, which in many cases will have the effect of ameliorating those concerns. This thesis unpacks these hidden assumptions, ultimately demonstrating that much more work needs to be done to give concrete shape to the concepts of accountability deficits and overloads. If accountability is indeed a foundational concept underpinning our system of government, there is merit in meeting this challenge head-on.



Accountability, government accountability, accountability deficit, accountability gap, accountability overload, accountability system, accountability network, government liability, misfeasance in public office, misconduct in public office, judicial review




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