Although some independent regulatory and executive agencies render account in many different ways, others are neither required to render a lot of account nor committed to rendering account voluntarily. The organisations which are doing a good job in terms of accountability are typically those which receive a lot of media and parliamentary attention. These conclusions are drawn in the dissertation of visiting scholar Christel Koop which was successfully defended at the European University Institute in Florence this summer.
The study compares the accountability of more than hundred Dutch independent agencies and over thirty independent competition authorities in member states of the European Union and the European Free Trade Association. It focuses not only on the accountability provisions which are laid down in the statutes of these organisations, but also on the account which the organisations choose to render voluntarily.
In various European countries, including the Netherlands, independent agencies have been criticised for not giving enough account of their activities and decisions. The study by Christel Koop confirms that there are many agencies which do not render a lot of account. However, these are not the organisations which we know best. The independent agencies which we are most familiar with as a consequence of their receiving a lot of media and parliamentary attention – agencies such as the Dutch financial market regulator, the central bank, and the land registry – have to, and choose to, render account in many different ways. On the other hand, there is a category of agencies which are, in every respect, under the radar: they are neither subject to accountability instruments nor to scrutiny in the media and the parliamentary debate. Although these are often small organisations with limited responsibilities – for example, exam boards and bodies which provide subsidies for very specific purposes – they do exercise public authority and they do spend public funds. We should therefore definitely be concerned about the combination of lack of attention and lack of accountability.
Other factors matter as well for the degree of accountability. Independent agencies whose legislation was written is periods in which the issue of accountability received more political attention are required to render more account. Furthermore, agencies in countries with lower levels of trust in the civil service, and agencies with more powers and a public legal status are required to render more account. Finally, agencies operating in countries with longer history of democracy choose themselves to disclose more information about their practices and decisions.