Public sector accountability styles in Europe comparing accountability and control of agencies in the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland and the UK

Published date01 January 2024
AuthorThomas Schillemans,Sjors Overman,Matthew Flinders,Per Laegreid,Martino Maggetti,Yannis Papadopoulos,Matthew Wood
Date01 January 2024
Subject MatterArticles
Public Policy and Administration
2024, Vol. 39(1) 125146
© The Author(s) 2022
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DOI: 10.1177/09520767221098292
Public sector accountability
styles in Europe comparing
accountability and control of
agencies in the Netherlands,
Norway, Switzerland and the
Thomas Schillemansand Sjors Overman
Utrecht University, Utrecht, the Netherlands
Matthew Flinders
University of Sheff‌ield, Sheff‌ield, UK;
Sir Bernard Crick Center for the Public Understanding of Politics, Sheff‌ield, UK
Per Laegreid
Department of Administration and Organization Theory, University of Bergen, Bergen, Norway
Martino Maggetti
Political Science at the Institute of Political Science (IEP), Laboratory for the Analysis of Governance, Public
Policy in Europe (LAGAPE), University of Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland
Yannis Papadopoulos
Political Science at the IEP, University of Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland
Matthew Wood
Politics, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Sheff‌ield, Sheff‌ield, UK
This paper develops and applies the concept of accountability styles for analyzing and
comparing accountability practices in different countries. This is relevant as there is
considerable scholarship on public sector accountability but only very few comparative
Corresponding author:
Thomas Schillemans, Public Governance at Utrecht University, Bijlhouwerstraat 6, Utrecht 3511 zc, the
studies. Extant studies have shown that national styles of accountability are both marked
by convergence as well as the resilience of national differences. The concept of ac-
countability style is adopted to describe and interpret how and why accountability
practices differ between administrative systems. It does so by analyzing practices of
accountability of public sector agencies in four European democracies with different state
traditions: the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland and the UK. These countries vary with
regards to state strength (interventionist propensity) and administrative concentration
(high or low centralization). The analysis focuses on the accountability of armslength
agencies which lends itself for comparisons across counties. The paper shows that the
national political-administrative context crucially shapes practices of accountability and
accountability regimes of agencies. The Norwegian accountability style is characterized as
centralized and convenient. The UK-style is equally centralized yet not so convenient as
it incurs high accountability-process costs on agencies. Switzerland is marked by limited
hierarchical accountability. And the Dutch accountability style is comparatively broad
and informal. State strength and administrative concentration explain some of the
variance while historical legacies explain additional national variations.
Accountability styles, accountability, administrative tradition, agencies, comparative
public administration
Accountability is a key issue in contemporary public administration, as governments have
delegated many tasks to lower-level bodies (Bovens, 2007;Thomann et al., 2018;
Willems and Van Dooren, 2012). While there is a burgeoning literature on accountability
in public administration, there is very little comparative scholarship. Most research has
been conducted in stand-alone studies (Brandsma, 2014;Yang, 2012). A large part of the
literature is of a conceptual nature, aiming to def‌ine a minimal conceptual consensus
(Bovens, 2007;Willems and Van Dooren, 2012) or an understanding of the varying
meanings individuals attach to accountability (Overman et al., 2021;Sinclair, 1995). On
that basis, typologies have been construed that help to understand the conf‌lictual logics of
accountability with which decision-makers cope. Scholars for instance distinguish po-
litical from administrative, legal and professional accountability (Romzek and Dubnick,
1987;Thomann et al., 2018) or distinguish between accountability for f‌inancial issues,
compliance with standards and policy-outcomes (Behn, 2001). Beyond that, there are
generic theories that help explain the dynamics of accountability, such as most notably the
principal-agent framework (Strøm et al., 2006), institutional theory (Olsen, 2017), but
also reputational approaches to accountability (Busuioc and Lodge, 2017). These studies
have many merits, yet they do not address the question how accountability may differ
between administrative contexts.
The few extant comparative accountability studies in Europe suggest this is a gap in the
literature in need of scholarly attention. These studies show that accountability practices
differ considerably between European countries, even when they belong to the same
126 Public Policy and Administration 39(1)

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