The Principal–Agent Model of Accountability
This chapter argues that contemporary social scientific discourse has become dominated by a narrow, disciplinary model of accountability typified by the widespread use of the principal–agent framework. Within this model, accountability is treated as involving citizen “principals” holding representative “agents” to account in order to compel the agent to uphold the principal’s interests. Accountability becomes equated with punishability. The model has the benefit of illuminating how conflicting interests and informational constraints can confound the effects of electoral accountability. Nonetheless, when it comes to gaining a full picture of what democratic accountability entails, this approach has several shortcomings. It is too bound to institutional hierarchies at the expense of horizontal forms of accountability. It is too focused on disciplining officials according to the principal’s preferences, at the expense of accountability’s role in generating preferences and new forms of solidarity. It also reflects a conservative bias that favors formal institutions and that discounts accountability initiatives coming from outside established institutional structures.
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