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Public Accountability and the Public Sphere of International Governance

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 March 2011


In much of the current literature on global and European governance, “public accountability” has come to mean accountability to national executives, to peers, to courts, and even to markets. I argue that such a re-conceptualization of “public accountability” as an umbrella term blurs a crucial dimension of the original concept: the critical scrutiny of citizens and the collective evaluation of government through public debate. In this article I critically discuss the advance of managerial and administrative notions of accountability that accompanied the steep rise of the governance concept. I advocate a return to a conception of public accountability as accountability to the wider public. I investigate the prospects for such public accountability beyond the state, which depends upon the emergence of a transnational public sphere, consisting of media and organized civil society. The function of such a transnational public sphere is to put pressure on governance institutions in case of massive maladministration, and to make sure that emergent political concerns and demands are recognized in the process of international policy making.

Symposium on Global Democracy
Copyright © Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs 2010

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1 Translation by the author. This comment can be found at http:\\,tt4m1/politik/693/495024/text/?page=2#readcomment.

2 Sol Picciotto, “Networks in International Economic Integration: Fragmented States and the Dilemmas of Neoliberalism,” Northwestern Journal of International Law and Business 17 (1996–97), p. 1021; and Gunther Teubner and Andreas Fischer-Lescano, “Regime-Collisions: The Vain Search for Legal Unity in the Fragmentation of Global Law,” Michigan Journal of International Law 25, no. 4 (2004), pp. 999–1046.

3 Kal Raustiala, “The Architecture of International Cooperation: Transgovernmental Networks and the Future of International Law,” Virginia Journal of International Law 43, no. 1 (2002), p. 24.

4 Christopher Lord, A Democratic Audit of the European Union (Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), p. 195; and Yannis Papadopoulos, “Problems of Democratic Accountability in Network and Multilevel Governance,” European Law Journal 13, no. 4 (2007), p. 473.

5 Navdeep Mathur and Chris Skelcher, “Evaluating Democratic Performance: Methodologies for Assessing the Relationship between Network Governance and Citizens,” Public Administration Review 67, no. 2 (2007), p. 235.

6 Thorsten Benner, Wolfgang H. Reinicke, and Jan M. Witte, “Multisectoral Networks in Global Governance: Towards a Pluralistic System of Accountability,” Government and Opposition 39, no. 2 (2004), pp. 191–210; Ruth Grant and Robert O. Keohane, “Accountability and Abuses of Power in World Politics,” American Political Science Review 99, no. 1 (2005), pp. 29–43; and Carol Harlow and Richard Rawlings, “Promoting Accountability in Multi-Level Governance: A Network Approach,” European Law Journal 13, no. 4 (2007), pp. 542–62.

7 Deirdre M. Curtin, “Betwixt and Between: Democracy and Transparency in the Governance of the European Union,” in Jan A Winter et al., eds., Reforming the Treaty on European Union: The Legal Debate (The Hague: Kluwer, 1996); Erik O. Eriksen, “An Emerging European Public Sphere,” European Journal of Social Theory 8, no. 3 (2005), pp. 341–63; and Papadopoulos, “Problems of Democratic Accountability,” pp. 469–86.

8 For various geographical and sectoral perspectives, see Jane Broadbent and Richard Laughlin, “Control and Legitimation in Government Accountability Processes: The Private Finance Initiative in the UK,” Critical Perspectives on Accounting 14, nos. 1–2 (2003), pp. 23–48; Tero Erkkilä, “Governance and Accountability: A Shift in Conceptualisation,” Public Administration Quarterly 31, no. 1 (2007), pp. 1–38; M. Shamsul Haque, “The Diminishing Publicness of Public Service Under the Current Mode of Governance,” Public Administration Review 61, no. 1 (2001), pp. 65–82; Donald F. Kettl, “The Global Revolution in Public Management: Driving Themes, Missing Links,” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 16, no. 3 (1997), pp. 446–62; and Paul G. Thomas, “The Changing Nature of Accountability,” in B. Guy Peters and Donald Savoie, eds., Taking Stock: Assessing Public Sector Reforms (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1998).

9 The use of the English term “accountability” can be traced back to the Middle Ages. While the technical term “accounting” in the financial context is perfectly translatable into other languages, “accountability” is not; see Melvin J. Dubnick, “Situating Accountability: Seeking Salvation for the Core Concept of Modern Governance” (manuscript, University of New Hampshire, 2007); available at (accessed November 23, 2009). If translation cannot be avoided it normally comes as a version of responsibility (e.g., responsabilidad in Spanish, responsabilité in French, Verantwortung in German). Responsibility is about good individual conduct, with a view to moral or religious duties, or legal obligations. What it does not convey is the idea of a contractual or fiduciary relationship between two social actors, in which an agent is regularly summoned to account by one or several principals.

10 John Roberts and Robert Scapens, “Accounting Systems and Systems of Accountability: Understanding Accounting Practices in Their Organisational Contexts,” Accounting, Organizations and Society 10, no. 4 (1985), p. 447.

11 Richard Mulgan, “‘Accountability’: An Ever-expanding Concept?” Public Administration 78, no. 3 (2000), p. 556.

12 Michael W. Dowdle, “Public Accountability: Conceptual, Historical, and Epistemic Mappings,” in Michael W. Dowdle, ed., Public Accountability: Designs, Dilemmas and Experiences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 3.

13 Robert D. Behn, Rethinking Democratic Accountability (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2001), p. 22.

14 Grant and Keohane, “Accountability and Abuses of Power,” p. 37.

15 Monica Blagescu and Robert Lloyd, Holding Power to Account: The 2006 Accountability Report (London: One World Trust, 2006), pp. 22–23.

16 David Held and Mathias Koenig-Archibugi, “Introduction,” in David Held and Mathias Koenig-Archibugi, eds., Global Governance and Public Accountability (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), pp. 1–7.

17 For the EU, see Justin Greenwood and Darren Halpin, “The European Commission and the Public Governance of Interest Groups in the European Union: Seeking a Niche between Accreditation and Laissez-Faire,” Perspectives on European Politics and Society 8, no. 2, pp. 189–210; for the global setting, see Marina S. Ottaway, “Corporatism Goes Global,” Global Governance 7, no. 3 (2001), pp. 265–93.

18 See Christine B. Harrington and Z. Umut Turem, “Accounting for Accountability in Neoliberal Regulatory Regimes,” in Dowdle, ed., Public Accountability, p. 218.

19 Michael C. Jensen and William H. Meckling, “Theory of the Firm: Managerial Behavior, Agency Costs and Ownership Structure,” Journal of Financial Economics 3, no. 4 (1976), pp. 305–60; and Jean-Jacques Laffont and David Martimort, The Theory of Incentives: The Principal-Agent Model (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002).

20 Arthur Benz, Carol Harlow, and Yannis Papadopoulos, Introduction to “Accountability in EU Multilevel Governance.” Special issue, European Law Journal 13, no. 4 (2007), p. 443.

21 Miles Kahler, “Defining Accountability Up: The Global Economic Multilaterals,” Government and Opposition 39, no. 2 (2004), pp. 145–46.

22 Graham Scott, Ian Ball, and Tony Dale, “New Zealand's Public Sector Management Reform: Implications for the United States,” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 16, no. 3 (1997), pp. 359–60.

23 Robert Gregory, “A New Zealand Tragedy: Problems of Political Responsibility,” Governance 11, no. 2 (1998), pp. 231–40.

24 Mark Bovens, “Analyzing and Assessing Accountability: A Conceptual Framework,” European Law Journal 13, no. 4 (2007), pp. 454, 455–57.

25 Benner et al., “Multisectoral Networks,” pp. 199–200.

26 Grant and Keohane, “Accountability and Abuses of Power,” p. 36.

27 Haque, “The Diminishing Publicness of Public Service Under the Current Mode of Governance,” p. 77.

28 Harlow and Rawlings, “Promoting Accountability in Multi-Level Governance,” p. 545; emphasis in the original.

29 Eurobarometer 68: Public Opinion in the European Union (May 2008), QA 15; available at http:\\ (accessed July 16, 2009).

30 A similar understanding, though not always explicit, can be detected elsewhere in the literature. See, e.g., Amanda Sinclair, “The Chameleon of Accountability: Forms and Discourses,” Accounting, Organizations and Society 20, nos. 2–3 (1995), p. 225; and Papadopoulos, “Problems of Democratic Accountability,” p. 477.

31 Philip Pettit, “Democracy, National and International,” Monist 89, no. 2 (2006), pp. 301–24.

32 Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (New York: Free Press, 1997 [1922]), p. 18.

33 Oran R. Young, “The Effectiveness of International Institutions: Hard Cases and Critical Variables,” in James N. Rosenau and Ernst-Otto Czempiel, eds., Governance without Government: Order and Change in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 176–77.

34 Jürgen Habermas, “The Public Sphere,” New German Critique 3 (1974), p. 51; Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996), pp. 360–67; Jürgen Habermas, “Political Communication in Media Society: Does Democracy Still Enjoy an Epistemic Dimension? The Impact of Normative Theory on Empirical Research,” Communication Theory 16, no. 4 (2006), pp. 416–17; and Bernhard Peters, Die Integration moderner Gesellschaften (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1993), p. 340.

35 Habermas, Between Facts and Norms, p. 373; and Eriksen, “An Emerging European Public Sphere,” p. 344.

36 James Bohman, “The Globalization of the Public Sphere: Cosmopolitan Publicity and the Problem of Cultural Pluralism,” Philosophy & Social Criticism 24, nos. 2–3 (1998), pp. 199–216.

37 Myra Marx Ferree et al., “Four Models of the Public Sphere in Modern Democracies,” Theory and Society 31, no. 3 (2002), p. 289.

38 Nancy Fraser, “Transnationalizing the Public Sphere: On the Legitimacy and Efficacy of Public Opinion in a Post-Westphalian World,” Theory, Culture & Society 24, no. 4 (2007), p. 19.

39 James Bohman, “International Regimes and Democratic Governance: Political Equality and Influence in Global Institutions,” International Affairs 75, no. 3 (1999), pp. 499–513; Manuel Castells, “The New Public Sphere: Global Civil Society, Communication Networks, and Global Governance,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 616 (2008), pp. 78–93; and Robyn Eckersley, “A Green Public Sphere in the WTO? The Amicus Curiae Interventions in the Transatlantic Biotech Dispute,” European Journal of International Relations 13, no. 3 (2007), pp. 329–56.

40 Marianne van de Steeg, “Rethinking the Conditions for a Public Sphere in the European Union,” European Journal of Social Theory 5, no. 4 (2002), p. 507.

41 Klaus Eder and Cathleen Kantner, “Transnationale Resonanzstrukturen in Europa,” in Maurizio Bach, ed., Die Europäisierung nationaler Gesellschaften, Sonderheft 40 der Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 2000), pp. 306–31.

42 Van de Steeg, “Rethinking the Conditions for a Public Sphere,” pp. 499–519.

43 Stefanie Sifft et al., “Segmented Europeanization: Exploring the Legitimacy of the European Union from a Public Discourse Perspective,” Journal of Common Market Studies 45, no. 1 (2007), pp. 127–55.

44 Ruud Koopmans and Jessica Erbe, “Towards a European Public Sphere?” Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research 17, no. 2 (2004), pp. 97–118.

45 Sifft et al., “Segmented Europeanization,” pp. 127–55.

46 Slavko Splichal, “In Search of a Strong European Public Sphere: Some Critical Observations on Conceptualizations of Publicness and the (European) Public Sphere,” Media, Culture & Society 28, no. 5 (2006), pp. 695–714; Jürgen Habermas, Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1962), pp. 90–107; Bohman, “Globalization of the Public Sphere,” pp. 199–216; Fraser, “Transnationalizing the Public Sphere,” pp. 7–30; and Zizi Papacharissi, “The Virtual Sphere: The Internet as a Public Sphere,” New Media & Society 4, no. 1 (2002), pp. 9–27.

47 Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke, Global Showdown: How the New Activists Are Fighting Global Corporate Rule (Toronto: Stoddart, 2001); Mary Kaldor, “‘Civilising’ Globalisation? The Implications of the ‘Battle in Seattle’,” Millennium 29, no. 1 (2000), pp. 105–14; Ngaire Woods, “The Challenge of Good Governance for the IMF and the World Bank Themselves,” World Development 28, no. 5 (2000), pp. 823–41; and Jan Aart Scholte, “Civil Society and Democratically Accountable Global Governance,” Government and Opposition 39, no. 2 (2004), pp. 211–33.

48 Jutta Joachim, “Framing Issues and Seizing Opportunities: The UN, NGOs, and Women's Rights,” International Studies Quarterly 47, no. 2 (2003), pp. 247–74.

49 Peter Dyrberg, “Accountability and Legitimacy: What Is the Contribution of Transparency?” in Anthony Arnull and Daniel Wincott, eds., Accountability and Legitimacy in the European Union (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 83; Curtin, “Betwixt and Between,” p. 95; and Adrienne Héritier, “Composite Democracy in Europe: The Role of Transparency and Access to Information,” Journal of European Public Policy 10, no. 5 (2003), pp. 824–25.

50 Jens Steffek and Patrizia Nanz, “Emergent Patterns of Civil Society Participation in Global and European Governance,” in Jens Steffek, Claudia Kissling, and Patrizia Nanz, eds., Civil Society Participation in European and Global Governance: A Cure for the Democratic Deficit? (Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pp. 1–29.

51 Christoph Meyer, “Political Legitimacy and the Invisibility of Politics: Exploring the European Union's Communication Deficit,” Journal of Common Market Studies 37, no. 4 (1999), pp. 617–39; Hans-Jörg Trenz, “Korruption und politischer Skandal in der EU: Auf dem Weg zu einer europäischen politischen Öffentlichkeit?” in Bach, ed., Die Europäisierung nationaler Gesellschaften; and Hans-Jörg Trenz, “The European Public Sphere: Contradictory Findings in a Diverse Research Field,” European Political Science 4, no. 4 (2005), pp. 407–20.

52 Marianne van de Steeg, “Does a Public Sphere Exist in the European Union? An Analysis of the Content of the Debate on the Haider Case,” European Journal of Political Research 45, no. 5 (2006), pp. 609–34.

53 Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink, “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change,” International Organization 52, no. 4 (1998), pp. 896–99; Kaldor, “‘Civilising’ Globalisation?” pp. 105–44; and Sidney Tarrow, The New Transnational Activism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

54 Richard Price, “Reversing the Gun Sights: Transnational Civil Society Targets Land Mines,” International Organization 52, no. 3 (1998), p. 619.

55 Neta C. Crawford, Argument and Change in World Politics: Ethics, Decolonization, and Humanitarian Intervention (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); and Audie Klotz, “Transnational Activism and Global Transformations: The Anti-Apartheid and Abolitionist Experiences,” European Journal of International Relations 8, no. 1 (2002), pp. 49–76.

56 Pascal Lamy, “Civil Society Is Influencing the WTO Agenda,” keynote address to the WTO Public Forum, October 4, 2007; available at http:\\ (accessed July 16, 2009).

57 Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” in Craig Calhoun, ed., Habermas and the Public Sphere (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992); Peter Dahlgren, “The Public Sphere and the Net: Structure, Space and Communication,” in W. Lance Bennett and Robert M. Entman, eds., Mediated Politics: Communication in the Future of Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 48; and Papacharissi, “The Virtual Sphere,” p. 21.

58 Clifford Bob, The Marketing of Rebellion: Insurgents, Media, and International Activism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 6.

59 Peters, Die Integration moderner Gesellschaften, pp. 348–52.

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