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Networks and accountability: Moving research forward.

The growth of networks, whereby governments must or choose to work with other partners to address stubborn and complex public policy problems, has important implications for accountability. Networks comprise variety of actors drawn from non-profit, public and for-profit sectors who are interdependent and thus need one another, and their resources, to resolve public policy problems. Networks are less hierarchical and blur the lines of responsibility by involving joint decision-making, joint funding and shared service delivery, as examples (Conteh 2016: 225). They give rise to the concept of horizontal accountability, defined by Howard and Phillip (2012: 315-16) as the "mutual accountability of collaborators, partners or co-producers of policy and services to each other and the accountability of each to citizens and users." The purpose of horizontal accountability is to allow partners to account for their work within the network on a peer-to-peer basis (for example, fulfilling promises) (Aucoin and Jarvis 2005: 35; Howard and Phillips 2012). In this sense, horizontal accountability is no centred on obligation or coercion, but functions to nurture trust so that each partner becomes accountable to the other partners in the network (Howard and Phillips 2012: 317). Mechanisms to operationalize this type o accountability may include self-evaluations, public reports, and pee assessments (Klijn and Koppenjan 2014: 252).

The literature and cases reviewed in this essay reveals, however, there is a failure to operationalize the concept of horizontal accountability in practice, though there are examples from which we can learn how to move for ward. It is especially difficult to operationalize because networks bring new debates within public administration, including decentralization of decision-making and the "problem of many hands" whereby identifying the contribution of each partner becomes difficult and may lead to shifting blame within the network (Klijn and Koppenjan 2014). Moreover, the fragmentation of responsibility and accountability makes it difficult to understand "who is accountable for what and to whom," including for the overall performance of the network (Klijn and Koppenjan 2014: 255). There are numerous types of networks, the diversity of which cannot be fully captured in this essay, but the illustrative examples below document the challenges of putting mechanisms of horizontal accountability in practice.

An important debate related to network accountability touches upon whether networks erode democratic control, particularly when nongovernmental partners in the network hold considerable influence or even authority, yet are not accountable to the public. The European Union (EU) is where considerable thought has emerged on horizontal accountability relationships between state and non-state actors because as Skogstad (2005) argues, much of our foundational knowledge stems from European networks and conceptualization. Moreover, the EU has delved into new policy areas thus requiring greater reliance on networks (see Eberlein and Newman 2008).

In her assessment of civil society actors in the EU, Kohler-Koch (2010: 1117) explores the fundamental question in accountability: "Who is accountable to whom"? This is a crucial research question because citizens have limited ability to control EU institutions and thus civil society organizations are thought to be intermediaries and fulfill this role. An example of a EU network that Kohler-Koch (2010) examines is the Director General: Health and Consumer Affairs (DG: SANCO), (1) which involves civil society organizations extensively through feedback/consultations mechanisms and serving on advisory committees. To understand the role of civil society organizations in holding the EU to account first requires greater analytical precision since they occupy many roles, she argues. Civil society organizations can be conceptualized as "actors" or "facilitators" of accountability. As actors, they "constitute the accountability forum to hold EU authorities to account" or they may be "subjected] to accountability exercised by their own members" (2010: 1121). Comparatively, civil society organizations can facilitate accountability, but again in different ways. They can facilitate political actors such as political parties or parliament to provide an account for their actions or they can facilitate--empower--citizens to participate and demand accountability. Her empirical findings provide useful insight into these different accountability relationships, but she concludes with a sobering message: civil society cannot make the EU more accountable, nor democratic, if citizens are unable to hold these civil society organizations to account.

Another debate relates to the tension between vertical and horizontal accountability and whether there is a fundamental trade-off. Aucoin and Jarvis (2005: 106) define vertical accountability as a "superior-subordinate accountability relationship where a subordinate is accountable to a superior in a hierarchical structure for the discharge of his or her respective duties." Vertical accountability involves mechanisms designed by government for government to satisfy ministerial responsibility to the legislature. Howard and Phillips (2012: 315) point out there is a "common assumption" in the literature that horizontal and vertical accountability undermine each other and thus, at best, only one type of accountability can succeed. Howard and Phillips (2012: 337) reject this assumption and argue that horizontal and vertical accountability can be "mutually supportive."

Koliba, Mills, and Zia (2011) explore this tension during Hurricane Katrina and point to the relationship between FEMA, which approves requests for assistance and coordinates networked actors, and the Red Cross, which is a non-profit tasked to fulfill requests for assistance. On the one hand, FEMA is vertically aligned and centred upon command-and-control processes. On the other hand, it entered into a partnership with the Red Cross and thus demands mechanisms of horizontal accountability. Koliba, Mills, and Zia (2011) share instances where the Red Cross was invited to critical policy meetings with FEMA and other government actors, but was not allowed to participate during discussions of how to coordinate the response, recovery and address problems. This, they argue, reveals that vertical accountability trumped horizontal accountability, as the Red Cross was a partner with responsibilities, but no opportunities or mechanisms to hold partners accountable, which may undermine trust and effective collaboration.

MacDonald and Levasseur (2014) similarly examine this tension when networks are constructed solely through mechanisms of vertical accountability. Their examination of devolved Indigenous child welfare in Manitoba illustrates that the partnership between the Government of Manitoba and Indigenous Child Welfare Authorities do not involve shared accountability. While Indigenous child welfare authorities were provided with more rights and responsibilities, the ability to develop culturally appropriate service standards must still be consistent with provincial standards. Moreover, funding is provided by the provincial government leaving Indigenous communities with little voice in this area while "dealing with some of the most difficult and extensive caseloads" (MacDonald and Levasseur 2016: 107). Also, these organizations have little ability within the networked structure to address other policy areas such as poverty, which have significant impact on families and children. The result, MacDonald and Levasseur argue, is an illusory network partnership whereby the lines of accountability run vertically, but the initiative is presented as a collaborative effort. The government has returned the authority to Indigenous child welfare organizations while keeping vertical accountability firmly in place (2016: 111). Meanwhile, Indigenous child welfare authorities are inappropriately blamed for failing children in their care despite not having sufficient resources or authority from the provincial government.

Comparatively, Conteh (2016) illustrates a successful approach of balancing both vertical and horizontal accountability in his examination of regional economic development in Manitoba. The lead agency, Western Economic Diversification (WD), is a useful case study to understand how vertical accountability can be complemented by horizontal accountability to promote trust and responsibility to networked partners (2016: 229). In the example of joint or pooled funding, Conteh shows how WD modified its contracting instrument to better accommodate network accountability. Federal contracts are typically rigid, with numerous layers of review, leading to delays in funding and stifling innovation (see Phillips and Levasseur 2004). However, WD employed a "relational contract," which is far more enabling than a regular contract because it allows continuous adaption of the contract when needed by the partners according to Conteh (2016: 233). This type of contract better reflects the accountability of the joint funders. Moreover, his case study illustrates how WD nurtured horizontal accountability by holding deliberation sessions when disagreements emerged within the network and through the development of feedback loops among networked partners.

Research related to network accountability is in its infancy (Klijn and Koppenjan 2014) despite the growth of networks in governing (Doberstein 2016: 21). As it stands, research is headed in multiple directions, which is not surprising given the vast differences in networks. Some networks emphasize service delivery whereas others emphasize joint decisionmaking. Some networks are better organized meaning there may be more precise accountability requirements (Klijn and Koppenjan 2014: 244). In Europe, for example, research on network accountability focuses on democratic governance--that is, the legitimacy of network partners, whereas public administration in Canada tends to focus on the mechanisms of accountability more generally. Considerable conceptual and empirical work is needed with respect to three foundational questions in accountability: 1. who is accountable for what; 2. how do networks both challenge, but also provide opportunities to improve, accountability; and 3. how does horizontal accountability compare to other types of accountability, such as shareholder accountability in the for-profit business realm as an example.

Future research must also explore the conditions that lead to building complementary horizontal accountability frameworks alongside vertical accountability requirements. Conteh's research (2016) illustrates how government actors use their agency to build complementary accountability frameworks. What we do not yet know are the conditions that foster this sense of agency. Or, is it less about the conditions and more about the personal characteristics of bureaucrats to be accountable to networked partners? More broadly, how are graduate public policy and public administration programs in Canada training the next generation of public servants to recognize the importance of horizontal accountability in an increasingly networked environment? Relatedly, research must emphasize the capacity of partners to not only work through networks, but to hold each other accountable. Yet, there are serious capacity concerns, so future research must address insufficient capacity and the resulting implications for accountability. Koliba, Mills, and Zia (2011) effectively illustrate this point in their discussion of continuous staff turnover and volunteer fatigue at FEMA and the Red Cross. Have networks successfully overcome capacity limitations and, if so, how? Do some network actors bear more responsibility for building capacity of their networked partners? What are the best practices? Klijn and Koppenjan (2014: 255) are correct in their assessment that "research on [network] accountability has only just started," but this potential is what makes this research domain so exciting.

Karine Levasseur is Associate Professor, Department of Political Studies, University of Manitoba.


(1) This is now the Director General: Health and Food Safety (DG: SANTE).


Aucoin, P., and M. Jarvis. 2005. Modernizing Government Accountability: A Framework for Reform. Ottawa: Canada School of Public Service.

Conteh, C. 2016. "Rethinking accountability in complex and horizontal network delivery systems." Canadian Public Administration 59 (2): 224-44.

Doberstein, C. 2016. Building a Collaborative Advantage: Network Governance and Homelessness Policy-Making in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Eberlein, B., and A. Newman. 2008. "Escaping the international governance dilemma? Incorporated transgovernmental networks in the European Union." Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration, and Institutions 21 (1): 25-52.

Howard, Cosmos, and Susan Phillips. 2012. "Moving away from hierarchy: Do horizontality, partnerships and distributed governance really signify the end of accountability?" In From New Public Management to New Public Governance, edited by Herman Bakvis and Mark Jarvis. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Klijn, E., and J. Koppenjan. 2014. "Accountable networks." In The Oxford Handbook of Public Accountability, edited by M. Bovens, R. Goodin, and T. Schillemans. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, pp. 242-57.

Kohler-Koch, B. 2010. "How to put matters right? Assessing the role of civil society in EU accountability." West European Politics 33 (5): 1117-41.

Koliba, C, R. Mills, and A. Zia. 2011. "Accountability in governance networks: An assessment of public, private, and nonprofit emergency management practices following hurricane Katrina." Public Administration Review 71 (2): 210-20.

MacDonald, Fiona, and Karine Levasseur. 2014. "Accountability insights from the devolution of Indigenous child welfare in Manitoba." Canadian Public Administration 57 (1): 97-117.

Phillips, Susan, and Karine Levasseur. 2004. "The snakes and ladders of accountability: Contradictions between contracting and collaboration for Canada's voluntary sector." Canadian Public Administration 47 (4): 451-74.

Skogstad, G. 2005. "Policy networks and policy communities: Conceptual evolution and governing realities." A paper presented at the Canadian Political Science Association. University of Western Ontario, London, ON.
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Author:Levasseur, Karine
Publication:Canadian Public Administration
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 1, 2018
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