Transparency Mechanisms: Building Publicness into Public Services

Date01 December 2001
AuthorLindsay Stirton,Martin Lodge
Published date01 December 2001
ISSN: 0263-323X, pp. 471–89
Transparency Mechanisms: Building Publicness into
Public Services
Lindsay Stirton* and Martin Lodge**
Recent changes in patterns of public service provision, sometimes
associated with the `regulatory state', have been said to have eroded
citizenship and diminished accountability. This paper responds to these
challenges by outlining a toolbox of four transparency mechanisms –
information, choice, representation, and voice – as alternative devices
that can be built into the architecture of public service regimes, to
increase responsiveness and answerability. Using insights drawn from
cybernetics and transaction cost analysis, this paper looks at the
consequences of different choices of combinations of mechanisms in
allocating authority in line with competing administrative doctrines of
fiduciary trusteeship and consumer sovereignty. Attention is drawn to
differences in `cost profiles'between different public services that can
facilitate or inhibit consumer choice as a basis for understanding the
suitability of different combinations of mechanisms to specific public
services. A contingency model determining the suitability of particular
mechanisms to particular services of different `cost-profiles'is
presented. Given the variety of public services and among different
public service architectures in the regulatory state, it is argued that this
differentiated approach to transparency and accountability provides a
more effective response to holding public services accountable than
narrower traditional notions of political accountability.
ßBlackwell Publishers Ltd 2001, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA
*Department of Law, London School of Economics and Political Science,
Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE, England
** Centre for Analysis of Risk and Regulation, London School of Economics
and Political Science, Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE, England
Financial support for this research was provided by an Association of Commonwealth
Universities/British Academy grant for international collaboration and by the Ford
Foundation Endowment to the Social Sciences, University of the West Indies. Tony Prosser
and Jurgen de Wispelaere both provided helpful comments and suggestions. For the
remaining deficiencies and shortcomings each of the co-authors holds the other accountable.
The past three decades have seen a considerable change in the relationship
between the state and the citizen. One of the key areas of visible change has
been in the provision of public services. Public services are crucial to
facilitating an individual’s economic activities and are thus central to the
modern understanding of citizenship.
These changes, which have been part
of the so-called deregulation agenda and the introduction of New Public
Management, have arguably led to a shift from the ‘positive’ to the
‘regulatory’ state.
This shift towards the regulatory state is said to involve a
shift from public to private ownership of public utilities and other social
service infrastructure, an increasing emphasis on pro-competitive regulation
by quasi-autonomous independent agencies, and a shift on the style of the
organization of the ‘core’ public sector. This has also included the separation
of policy-making and service delivery functions, the ‘reading-over’ of
private management practices into public services and the emphasis on
securing performance of service delivery through contracts. One
consequence of these changes has been a notable increase in the diversity
of arrangements and institutions through which public services are provided.
It is often argued that these changes have often been made without careful
regard to the accountability of public services under these decentralized
arrangements. Martin Loughlin, for example, claims that these reforms to
public services were part of ‘a strategy driven and fashioned almost entirely
by a political-economic impetus and with virtually no legal or constitutional
Most of the ‘constitutionalist’ critiques of the regulatory
state have been in terms of the lack of accountability and transparency of
1 This contribution does not deal directly with the important question as to what counts
as a public service. This issue has never been adequately dealt with within the
framework of British constitutional system or its colonial derivatives where public
service has for half a century been equated with public ownership, control, and
financing of services. In a number of European jurisdictions, as well as in EU law
there is a substantial body of law attempting to define the concept of public service,
although once the notion is uncoupled from public ownership or natural monopoly, it
does not offer much guidance. For an interesting argument concerning the
incorporation of the European concept of service public into British law, as an
unintended consequence of privatization, see T. Prosser, ‘Public Service Law:
Privatization’s unexpected offering’ (2000) 63 Law and Contemporary Problems 63.
2 For the literature on the regulatory state see, for example, P. Day and R. Klein, ‘The
Business of Welfare’ New Society, 19 June 1987; G. Majone, ‘From the Positive to
the Regulatory State: Causes and consequences from changes in the modes of
governance’ (1997) 17 J. of Public Policy 139; G. Majone, ‘The Regulatory State and
its Legitimacy Problems’ (1999) 22 West European Politics 1; M. Loughlin and C.
Scott, ‘The Regulatory State’ in Developments in British Politics, eds. P. Dunleavy et
al. (1997) 5; C. Scott, ‘Accountability in the Regulatory State’ (2000) 27 J. of Law
and Society 38.
3 Quoted in Scott, id., p. 40.
ßBlackwell Publishers Ltd 2001

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