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Redundant Accountability: The Joint Impact of Horizontal and Vertical Accountability on Autonomous Agencies

PAQ, Vol. 34 No. 3, (2010)

Since the 1990s, many executive and regulatory agencies have been (partially) separated from central government departments. In response, new forms of accountability have been introduced. Many of these mechanisms are horizontal forms of accountability, where agencies report to others than their hierarchical principals. This papers evaluates the joint impact of vertical accountability of agencies towards parent-departments and horizontal accountability to professional evaluations and boards of commissioners. Autonomous agencies seem to operate in a redundant accountability regime where they have to provide accounts of the same behaviour towards different stakeholders. Redundancy is often considered as problematic and costly but may also have significant benefits in complex systems, such as greater reliability and the capacity to incorporate different values. Two successive research questions have been posed. Is the accountability regime in practice redundant in the sense that agencies have to account for the same aspects of their behaviour towards vertical and horizontal accountability forums? If found to be the case, does redundant accountability then have the advantages identified in the redundancy-literature? The subsequent analyses – based on a qualitative research design and studies of nine Dutch executive agencies – show that the agencies indeed face multiple or redundant accountability. This does involve costs, however, in these cases some advantages of redundancy were manifest. To begin with, redundant accountability may improve systems reliability. The chance increases that unwanted behaviour will be discovered by one of the seemingly redundant accountability mechanisms. Secondly, redundancy mitigates the information symmetry between agencies and their principals. And finally, redundancy allows the accountability system to incorporate multiple legitimate and important but contradictory values.

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