European Court of Auditors
20 min readApr 9, 2024

Interview with Professor Mark Bovens, Utrecht University School of Governance

By Gaston Moonen and Tamara Pap, ECA

Accountability is a wide-ranging topic that can have different meanings for different people. Anyone looking into accountability as a concept will inevitably come across the research and publications of Mark Bovens, Professor of Public Administration at the Utrecht University School of Governance. Professor Bovens’ publications on accountability, particularly in the public sector, are a benchmark not only for scholars, but also for the EU institutions. He has also advised the ECA on accountability challenges. Gaston Moonen, together with trainee Tamara Pap, interviewed the professor about accountability concepts, prerequisites, practices and gaps, discussing accountability developments in the EU and for oversight institutions including the ECA. Professor Bovens challenges the ECA to go beyond its comfort zone and plan ahead for the increasing role of the EU institutions in EU policymaking and implementation.

Accountability — a ‘Sunday concept’?

Professor Bovens’ interest in accountability dates back several decades. Initially, it related to his PhD research, entitled The Quest for responsibility. This was about how we can hold individual civil servants responsible for the behaviour of large complex organisations.’ He explains that it took him some time, as a non-native speaker, to comprehend the semantic differences between ‘responsibility’ and ‘accountability’. Accountability became prominent in his research after he received a grant from the Dutch Research Council to research potential EU democratic and accountability deficits. ‘The project was about describing and evaluating the extent of an accountability deficit in the EU, a very topical issue, salient already 20 years ago.’ He points out that he and his team had to invent a framework to tackle this very ‘elusive’ concept. ‘Accountability is a golden concept: everybody is in favour of accountability, and nobody is against it.’ He explains that it is a ‘container’ concept, covering multiple issues. ‘It is also a ‘Sunday’ concept: on Sunday you hear the sermon that we should have more accountability. Then, back at work on Monday, nobody knows what it means, and we just continue doing what we did.’

ECA Journal Short Read

Accountability can mean many things. Overall, two schools of thought emerge: accountability as a virtue (mostly in the US) or as a mechanism (Europe). It is an elementary aspect of human activity — a way to keep relations together; a way to control how power is exercised; a way to improve by learning from mistakes; and a way to bring closure, as in the case of discharge. Through these four goals, it contributes to legitimacy, the key element of which is trust, an outcome of accountability. The second and third goals may be contradictory: holding people to account (blaming) often decreases incentives to be open about errors.

Standards are essential for accountability, in both schools of thought. Accountability can happen involuntarily, sometimes even enforced by the courts, or voluntarily, driven by reputation management. It can be vertical in nature, for example in principle-actor relations. Or it can be horizontal, for example through the media, which is very prominent in open societies. Accountability is much more than transparency, the latter being a condition for accountability, but lacking the aspect of public debate and judgement. Public accountability also relates to the private sector in terms of its effects on society and adherence to publicly set rules. There is a risk of goal displacement and accountability overload, burdening the actor. The way forward may be to increase trust, but in multi-level governance structures there can be a risk of free riding.

There has been much talk of EU accountability deficits. Looking more closely, however, EU accountability arrangements and practices are often on a par with those in many member states, if not better. Accountability is a necessary condition for democratic control. EU institutions can enhance their influence by actively seeking out accountability roles, as the European Ombudsman has proven. This requires clear choices, a clear vision of what you are pursuing, and coalition-building. In a changing EU with new tasks, the ECA can optimise its broad mandate to be an agenda-setter when it comes to future accountability issues.

He distinguishes two schools of thought regarding the concept. ‘If you read US literature, accountability is often seen as a kind of virtue, it’s about ethics. There is a positive connotation to it, that’s why you find ‘accountability’ in many US acts, like the “Syria Accountability Act”. If Americans talk about accountable behaviour, it means virtuous behaviour.’ Accountability is a dependent variable or outcome. ‘But on the European continent, accountability is much more seen as a mechanism. It is a social relation between an actor — an organisation or an individual official — and a forum — an institution or an individual journalist. The actor is supposed to come forward with information about conduct and outcome, then the forum can ask questions and engage in debate. And eventually this may lead to a judgement, which can have consequences.’ He makes an analogy with a school oral exam. ‘There are questions, a debate, and then you get a mark. The same goes for the work the ECA does: in the end there is a judgement which can have consequences, because the European Parliament can decide to follow up.’

If you read US literature, accountability is often seen as a kind of virtue (…) But on the European continent, accountability is much more seen as a mechanism.

The European interpretation considers accountability an independent variable. ‘Accountability is a mechanism that can bring forward various goals you find attractive in a democracy. Such as more democratic control, less abuse of public funds, better policies, more legitimacy.’

Professor Bovens identifies accountability as a very elementary human activity. ‘If you go home tonight, your partner may ask what you have done today, how you spent your money, or why you didn’t clean the dishes. Accountability is a form of social control. A way to keep relations together.’ It is also a way to curb power, as a second goal. ‘Political accountability is necessary for parliament to control the executive, just as legal accountability to the courts is necessary to curb the way power is exercised. But thirdly, it is also a way to control the quality of our society, to help improve society by learning from our mistakes. Obtaining public lessons so others in a similar position can learn and avoid making the same mistakes.’ Finally, it may also bring social and political closure. ‘Extreme examples are the truth commissions in South Africa, or the Nuremberg trials. Accountability processes can provide catharsis and end a profound crisis.’ This can also mean financial closure. ‘Discharge is an important accountability tool to provide financial closure, but also political closure.’ He also refers to parliamentary inquiries. ‘Find out who has done what, who should be punished or not, so we can move on as a society.’

…accountability is very important as a source of legitimacy. (…) a key element of legitimacy is trust, also an outcome of accountability

In his view, all four of these goals contribute to legitimacy. ‘Both in the public and private sphere, accountability is very important as a source of legitimacy. Public institutions have been given certain powers by law or through elections, and accountability is a way to legitimise the exercise of this power. And a key element of legitimacy is trust, also an outcome of accountability.’

For an accountability structure to work well, standards are essential. ‘If an accountability forum assesses whether the actor — for example, the executive — has acted in a correct way, you need standards. With these standards you will have to evaluate the behaviour of the actor. This is where the two schools of thought — accountability as a virtue or as a mechanism — are connected.’ Another element for him is the nature of accountability: voluntary or involuntary. ‘Quite a few mechanisms are the latter, particularly the legal system. Police, the public prosecutor, the courts have strong powers. Similar in the political sphere, with parliamentary enquiries.’

He notes an interesting trend in the public sphere, where many actors are coming forward on a voluntary basis. ‘In the past 10 to 15 years, agencies, a good example being European agencies, have voluntarily provided all sorts of information about their behaviour, engaging in ex-ante or ex-post forms of accountability. Sometimes organising their own accountability processes.’ He considers that one possible reason for this could be pre-emptive action. ‘I recently read the dissertation of Benjamin Tidå, who shows that many EU agencies engage in proactive forms of accountability, by and large driven by reputation management.’ That is one driver. As another driver, he notes the will to communicate because of calls for transparency. ‘Many agency directors have become socialised in the sense that accountability is one of the key elements of good governance in the public sphere. That it is part of being in the public realm, which is different from before.’ This trend is relevant in his view because, while the focus was previously on accountability deficits, there is now also research on accountability as a management instrument. A related focus in accountability research is avoiding blame. ‘A topic Christopher Hood wrote about, how to deflect blame.’

While many accountability structures are vertically organised, Professor Bovens considers horizontal accountability to be very important. ‘This relates to the role of the media. Strikingly this mechanism is very informal. Nevertheless, it is very strong in democracies, in open societies, a very strong and important factor for accountability.’ With various conditions, such as access to information. ‘They have to rely on their investigative skills.

Accountability beyond scapegoating

This brings him to another aspect: accountability as an intrinsic condition for a functioning democracy. ‘It is one of the main pillars of a democratic society, but also of a constitutional state.’ He identifies three important purposes of accountability in this setting. ‘First of all, democratic control. Without accountability it is almost impossible for voters and subsequently for parliament to control the exercise of power. Basically, without accountability, no democratic control! This can be exante, for example in budget discussions, and of course afterwards.’ As a second element, he relates accountability to the rule of law. ‘Accountability is very important for a system of checks and balances — curbing misuse of power, financial abuse, corruption, administrative or political abuses.’

…learning and democratic control can be at odds “ with each other

While the link to a democratic constitutional state may resonate with many, he thinks the third element is less obvious. ‘I referred already to learning as an important goal of accountability. Yet learning and democratic control can be at odds with each other. Particularly for the ECA, this is an interesting issue. How to enhance learning and still keep your role as auditor, checking your auditee with possible consequences?’ He identifies the central point for learning as preventing naming and shaming. ‘In the literature, a distinction is made between a blame culture and a just culture. For the first, it is crucial to find out who is responsible and who should remedy the problem. Perfectly fine for democratic control and certainly for financial management. Because we want to make sure the buck stops in time.’ But for learning and improving, more is needed. ‘In order to learn, people have to come forward and be willing to report that a mistake has been made. But you will not come forward if you are punished for it. So more politicised forms of accountability are difficult to combine with learning. Parliamentary enquiries often result in scapegoating.’

He explains that there are only a few areas that have established a just culture, with the focus on improving instead of blaming. ‘A good example is aviation. There, already from before the Second World War, the rule is that if a mistake is made by a pilot, they should come forward and report it. And you’re not punished. You will only be punished if you do not report a mistake. This has helped enormously to increase safety in aviation.’ Similar practices can be found in the health sector. ‘It would be interesting for the ECA to see how it can enhance a just culture in areas where we find this necessary. In areas like safety or security, a just culture can be much more important than a blame culture because only then we can learn and get better policies.’

He observes that in practice this may be at odds with reporting to Parliament. ‘Because then defensive routines will be put in place. But it may be feasible if combined with voluntary forms of accountability. For example, by engaging directly with agencies in more informal ways at an early stage of novel policy instruments to find out ex ante how practices can be improved. Consider starting with a pilot project with one or two.’ Risk assessments could be another avenue to explore. ‘This could be an area where the ECA could operate more easily because there is not yet any reason for blame, but you can still proactively look into accountability issues.’ He thinks it could be interesting for organisations to receive this type of advice from the ECA. ‘Instead of fear because the ECA is coming, you create a win-win situation, with the institution obtaining praise for strategic thinking and action on prevention, and the ECA trying to nudge them towards enhanced standards, creating best practice.’

Public accountability is on the rise, in his view — including in the private sector. This does not only relate to environmental and social governance (ESG) arrangements. ‘In the public sector, you have different forms if you compare it to the private sector. Voters, represented by parliament, versus shareholders. Yet increasingly the mechanisms are converging.’ He refers to all sorts of inspectorates. ‘Public tasks are outsourced to private enterprises, a trend we see for example in the Netherlands. There, the Ombudsman also declared himself the authority for all sorts of private industries that perform public tasks. Because otherwise there is an accountability gap.’ For him, that relates to the mechanism. ‘But you see indeed most convergence on the virtue part — ESGs, SDGs, the new CSRD– the EU’s corporate social responsibility directive. As the American scholar Bozeman once said, “all organisations are public.” Because, in the end, every organisation’s activities have a public effect. All organisations have to comply with a large range of public rules, and they are held accountable for it.’ He calls this ‘the next step in the publicness of private organisations. In the end, all organisations have to deal with the EU because the EU has great consequences for the way companies operate.’

The latter was one of the reasons why Professor Bovens chose to open his 2010 book, The Real world of EU accountability, with the phrase ‘EU governance matters’. ‘And it matters a lot! Because the EU exercises so many public powers, its accountability is important. Whether you like it or not, it’s becoming like a federal state.’ He recalls that, when he started the research for this book, both public opinion and academia were critical of the EU’s accountability deficits. ‘Perceived to be very deficient in terms of accountability and democracy. But looking at it systematically, we found that the EU was actually doing quite well. If you compare the accountability architecture of the EU with what is there in member states, I would say that this architecture in some instances is even better than in many member states.

[on accountability at EU level]… looking at it systematically, we found that the EU was actually doing quite well.

He gives an example relating to the hearing of candidate Commissioners by the European Parliament. ‘We were then struck — and I am still struck — by the very intensive accountability process that these candidates have to go through by means of the hearings in the European Parliament. They are so much more stringent — and effective, at least compared with the Netherlands. Here there is no such equivalent.’ He recalls how the recent Dutch Commissioner Hoekstra was grilled for days by the European Parliament. ‘The European Parliament is very powerful there in terms of ex-ante accountability.’ He sees that people like to think that the EU is not accountable. ‘Of course, it is difficult because of its combination of intergovernmental and supranational accountability mechanisms. But if you look at the latter ones, I find many of them on a par with what you find in other federal systems.’

Ex post, when Commissioners have to reply to questions regarding their policy and its implementation, he observes that Parliament is increasingly critical. He puts this into a historical perspective, observing that it took a century before the national democracies grew into the strong parliamentary democracies they are now.

In his work with Anchrit Wille of Leiden University, he found that, while formal powers can be helpful, clear leadership and a clear sense of purpose can sometimes be more important. He gives the example of the European Ombudsman. ‘Not extremely powerful in legal terms but nevertheless with a lot of influence. Because Emily O’Reilly has a clear sense of where she wants to go and a clear view of the sort of topics she wants to put on the agenda. Therefore, even without very formal power, she has been able to enhance the level of accountability, for example with new standards on transparency and revolving doors. She clearly punches above her weight, with concentrated efforts and clear strategic priorities.’

He thinks it may be more difficult for the ECA to follow this path. ‘With a college of 27 Members, it is far more difficult for the ECA President to operate strategically. I think it would be interesting for the ECA to decide on a strategic agenda for the next five to ten years, with a focus on topics even if they are not in its official remit. And come up with some standards and going public on them.’ He recognises that there are some challenges in getting certain ECA concerns through at Council level. ‘There it may be possible for the ECA to team up with national auditors and see what they come up with, with specific issues in the memberstates, have a concerted effort, including involving national media.’ He thinks that finding a coalition of the willing could help to progress and pick promising issues to win selected battles. Selecting new topics along those lines, with substantial financial amounts involved, could also lead to success. ‘Such as the financial management in the Recovery and Resilience Facility.’

…it would be interesting for the ECA to decide on a strategic agenda (…) with a focus on topics even if they are not in its official remit.

Accountability risks

While accountability can be beneficial, it also brings certain risks, like imposing unnecessary burdens on the auditee, or ‘actor’ in the words of Professor Bovens. ‘This is what in the theory is called “goal displacement”. A well-known phenomenon — if you choose to be rigid on facts and standards then the fact or instruments will become the goals. People want to have complied with the instruments, but the ultimate goals that are behind the policy have been forgotten.’ The focus might turn to the use of the instrument instead of its output. ‘Let alone outcome. Then the use of instruments is measured instead of reaching the ultimate policy objectives.’ In his view, there is a substantial risk that people will focus on ticking boxes instead of looking at why the policy is there in the first place. ‘What often works best is a combination of quantitative and more qualitative forms of accountability. Where the forum can engage in a debate with the actor to get more qualitative information. Qualitative discussions can also contribute more to learning.’

…your past performance can give you credit, and you get some relief on your administrative burden. (…) with rewards in the form of trust.

He sees a risk that people in both the public sphere and his own university environment could easily be overburdened by administrative requirements. ‘Here the interesting question arises whether you can operate on the basis of trust. In some cases you can do that, a method used by the Taxation Office in the Netherlands. If you for some years had no issues with your tax declaration, they will not check you as much as before. You will build up credit points, so to speak.’ He sees a possible analogy with compliance auditing. ‘Instead of having to tick all the boxes, your past performance can give you credit, and you get some relief on your administrative burden. A more insightful way of learning, directed by new approaches to accountability, with rewards in the form of trust.’

However, he wonders whether this fits into the blame culture which is prevalent in parliamentary accountability. ‘This relates also to the larger, perhaps even cultural issue of a large EU with many member states, with a risk of free riding. Then distrust often becomes the modus operandi.’ He underlines that countries or systems able to operate on a basis of trust are often more efficient. ‘Yet in multi-level governance systems it is difficult to operate on the basis of trust. With the possibility of games — and blames — between member states coming into the picture.’ In addition, trust is easy to damage and difficult to repair. ‘Accountability is the cornerstone of a democratic society. If public actors are not held accountable, if their behaviour is seen as inappropriate and not punished, then the general public will lose trust. Then the legitimacy of the publicly elected will diminish. Countries with little incidence of corruption show much higher political trust. The ECA and other oversight institutions, they’re all, in the long run, crucial for political trust.’

Yet in multi-level governance systems it is difficult to operate “ on the basis of trust.

Accountability — much more than transparency

While transparency and accountability are often connected, Professor Bovens makes a clear distinction between the two. ‘Transparency is the extent to which actors come forward with Interview with Professor Mark Bovens, Utrecht University School of Governance …your past performance can give you credit, and you get some relief on your administrative burden. (…) with rewards in the form of trust. “ Yet in multi-level governance systems it is difficult to operate “ on the basis of trust. 13 information in the public domain. But that is only a first step. It is not accountability yet.’ He explains that having a good website, and publishing what you do and achieve, is important. ‘But as long as there is no one who questions you, debates with you and judges you on what you have done, then there is no accountability. Accountability is much more than transparency.’

With the various crises that have emerged in the EU over the last few years, Professor Bovens considers that, while accountability can lag behind, it follows. ‘Crises are actually helpful to enhance the debate about accountability.’ He identifies two developments. ‘When after or during a crisis people need to be held accountable, we often see there is no mechanism. Therefore, a crisis can help to institute such mechanisms. Secondly, a crisis has often meant an expansion of the powers of the EU.’ He notes that an extension of powers comes first. ‘And then, after a while, the European Parliament, or the ECA or European Ombudsman, manage to address accountability needs. So first comes an extension of powers and a few years after also an extension of accountability.

Crises are actually helpful to enhance the debate about accountability.

In his view, an organisation like the ECA should not be too modest about stretching its mandate. For example, Professor Bovens sees various reasons for the ECA to audit EU compliance with the rule of law. ‘Even if this would mean stretching it a bit, like the European Ombudsman has successfully done.’ He reflects on who else would review adherence to rule-of-law conditions. ‘European courts cannot write this type of report because they can only act in specific cases. I very much welcome the ECA doing this kind of assessment because it is also very important from a constitutional point of view, not only financial compliance, but also legal compliance. In that sense, the ECA can enhance the quality of the constitutional state — although we often do not refer to it in such terms.’ He thinks that if the ECA did this kind of work alongside the European Commission, it would help to depoliticise the issue. ‘The ECA can rightly argue it is addressing legal compliance.’

He observes that the EU is engaging in new activities, such as Frontex, external action, defence and security. ‘These will be major topics for the coming years.’ Since many are also intergovernmental in nature, he foresees national audit institutions acting on these topics too. ‘This may lead to what in the literature is called “the problem of many hands” — who is responsible for the general outcome — and the ECA is in a position to provide for more collective forms of accountability.’

All bark, no bite? For the future, he sees a role for the ECA putting accountability issues on the agenda, for example regarding innovation of standards (where feasible validated by external experts), or identifying new topics and areas where accountability questions can be expected. ‘The ECA can put them on the agenda in a non-political way. If I look at that agenda, I see new topics, new actors, and new fields. First, from a compliance point of view, I think it is very interesting to look at the use of AI — artificial intelligence — in all sorts of practices.’ He sees work for the Ombudsman but also for the ECA. ‘The increasing use of AI in policing, border control, and service delivery raises questions on accountability: who is accountable for the decisions of what we call system-level bureaucracies — bureaucracies that operate based on machine-learning algorithms?’

The second issue he identifies is accounting for the activities of transnational organisations. ‘My colleague Thomas Schillemans has identified hundreds of transnational organisations that operate within the EU or partly within it — cross-border cooperation, European corridors, new regions, Interreg. Many actors are involved, but accountability regimes are not always clear.’

As a third element, he sees the EU operating through all kinds of international treaties. ‘In the External Action area, security, Frontex, immigration. And perhaps also health issues, propelled by the pandemic. So a new topic, various actors, new fields, but often not yet with adequate accountability arrangements.

Having researched and published on the EU’s capacity as an accountability watchdog in 2021, he thinks that the ECA has the powers to fulfil its watchdog role properly. ‘Of course, the official powers of watchdogs are essential. Secondly, the organisational power. The ECA has a lot of expertise. It engages in professional training, enhances its expertise, and has developed a strategy to address its mission to lead as a watchdog.’ Thirdly, he refers to the actual use of these powers. ‘The dog should not only bark, but does it actually bite?’ He thinks the ECA does quite well on various issues. ‘In his dissertation, Benjamin Tidå also looked at the powers of the ECA and he found a good balance between the traditional tasks of financial and compliance audit and special reports.’

…it would be helpful for the ECA to be more visible in the EP and with European media (…) also as a mover and shaker in the agenda of how governance and accountability is going.

He reiterates the idea that the ECA can use more of its ‘soft’ power to set the agenda regarding accountability discussions, including through more informal standard-setting. ‘What I find particularly interesting is the ECA-EP relationship. I think it would be helpful for the ECA to be more visible in the EP and with European media by being more present in Brussels. Not only as external auditor but also as a mover and shaker in the agenda of how governance and accountability is going.’ He thinks that Emily O’Reilly has set an example there. ‘So be available for interviews, etc. So not behind the curtains but in front of the curtains. Giving account of the ECA role, going beyond seeking publicity for ECA work and its reports. Including new standards the ECA envisages as a professional institution.’ He highlights the ECA’s role in rule-of-law accountability issues, as well as contributions on upcoming issues such as AI, including input into standards. ‘In this sense, the ECA can be a trailblazer for national audit institutions regarding new approaches.’

While an oversight institution as the ECA may be seen as the ultimate fact checker, Professor Bovens has observed developments where facts appear less relevant, for example in an increasingly polarised discussion landscape. ‘With the rise of populist parties, we see that facts do not always matter. And neither do fact checkers then. Some studies show that large numbers of citizens turned towards populist nationalist parties because they feel that the traditional parties did not deliver on curbing or regulating migration. This is an accountability issue, they hold them to account, changing their vote to parties that promise to deliver.’ He believes that with an increasing EU role in regulating migration, this will be very relevant, including from an accountability perspective.

Overall, Professor Bovens is optimistic about the EU addressing its accountability aspirations. ‘With new powers installed in the EU, accountability is often lagging a few steps behind, but on the supranational part, the EU is doing quite well.’ Due to their intergovernmental nature, he also sees defence, security and external affairs as accountability challenges. ‘Yet very important because these policy areas are key and accountability discussions started on such issues. Think about the Magna Carta, that’s where accountability started. How can we curb the power of the King?’

Given its audit prerogative under Article 287 of the Treaty, he thinks the ECA has a broad mandate. ‘I am not a legal scholar, but as a political scientist I would say: don’t be too legalistic and use your remit to the fullest extent. Exercise it in the way it was meant to be. Like the Ombudsman has done.’ He argues for a flexible, non-restrictive interpretation of Article 287. ‘Because the EU is a living organisation and changes in shape and powers. And so should the ECA.

…don’t be too legalistic and use your remit to “ the fullest extent.

This article was first published on the 01/2024 issue of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors.



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