Democratic Accountability, Political Order, and Change by Johan P. Olsen

The central thesis of this book is that accountability regimes are crucial for the legitimacy of a political system. By focusing on the interrelations between democratic accountability, political order, and orderly change, Johan Olsen approaches democratic accountability as a mechanism by which citizens can influence and even control the elected representatives, non-elected officials, and other power holders. The author identifies a predominant crisis of legitimacy in contemporary polities, which he traces back to an increased demand for accountability. Whilst most research carried out on accountability has been heavily focused on formal systems of accounting and auditing, as well as mechanisms of rule enforcement and imposition of sanctions, the author introduces a dynamic conceptualization of accountability which is factoring the shifting circumstances of a democratic polity.

This book builds on the author’s previous research on organization theory-based institutional perspective on political organization and organizing. The author, Johan Olsen, is Professor Emeritus in Political Science and Founding Director of Arena, Center for European Studies at the University of Oslo. Having the European Union as an empirical example of “an unsettled and dynamic polity,” he is aiming at contributing to the debate of accountability in relation to political order and change in the EU and beyond.

The original contribution of this book lays at the emphasis given to transformative processes, contrasting forces of integration and disintegration within the EU and overall political change. What is fascinating and innovative about Olsen’s book is the fact that he chooses to examine democratic accountability also within an unsettled polity. Although this choice is far more complex, he manages to offer a better understanding of how accountability processes play out in practice. For achieving this, he is bringing to the forefront the organization-institution related explanatory factors rather than the macro-societal based ones or the ones referring to the role of individual actors.

The author contributes to a growing literature on accountability in democratic political orders. In doing so, he is challenging the predominant conceptions of accountability of the rational choice principal-agent and other actor centric theoretical approaches. Principal‐agent approaches perceive accountability as monitoring and controlling agents, achieving compliance, and implementing the principal’s preferences. According to principal-agent theory, the principal(s) use available resources in order to motivate the agent(s) to make decisions that the principal(s) prefer. The focus of this theory on the responsiveness of the agent(s) decisions to the principal’s goals is making it a very fertile model for the study of accountability. To these assumptions, Olsen is adding the institutional explanatory factors, convincingly proving through the book that they can widen our understanding of accountability mechanisms not only of settled but also of transforming democratic political orders. His hypotheses build on the presumption that in an unsettled and less legitimate polity, accountability processes go beyond the politics of the existing political order and into the politics of defying and redefining the political order itself. In that case, the trust in order is reduced or withdrawn and thus decision makers have narrower margins of discretion and the popular mobilization has a better chance to achieve change.

The book is organized into seven chapters. In the first chapter, the author outlines the framework of analysis, which is bridging democratic accountability, political order, and orderly change. More specifically, he is making the presumption that democratic accountability processes are affected by the institutional framework of the existing political order, while at the same time, these processes affect and drive the changes of the order itself.

In the second chapter, the author is presenting a theory of institutional accountability. His goal is to examine both settled and unsettled polities, and more in particular, he is focusing on the organizational basis of accountability and the different access structures and related roles for citizens.

The third chapter dives further into a discussion of how accountability, under different circumstances, either contributes to the maintenance of the political status quo or triggers political change. Although mainstream rational choice theories perceive the accountability processes only as part of establishing, sustaining, or strengthening a political order, Olsen points to the potential of accountability process to affect the reforming or the replacement of an existing order through orderly change.

The fourth chapter explores the link between accountability and decision making. Drawing from institutional theory, the author claims that rational choice theories are rather narrow and they fail to capture the inherent limited control and ambiguity in political life. Therefore, he makes the assumption that accountability theory should factor the importance of ambiguity and the limitations in control during the decision making processes.

In chapter five, the author states Norway as an example of a settled, rather legitimate, and integrated polity, and the EU as an example of unsettled polity with problematic legitimacy in search of a unifying narrative. This comparison is serving the purpose of analyzing how a polity—even when there are inconsistencies between political discourses and political actions—can achieve fairly unchallenged legitimacy.

In the sixth chapter, the author looks at the public audience of accountability processes. In particular, he is exploring the visibility and importance of accountability processes for the citizens, as well as the institutionalized opportunities to participate in those. Therefore, this chapter offers a good account of the explanatory factor of political association and political organization in relation to accountability.

The last chapter takes the lessons learned from studying accountability processes and applies them on the case of the European continent in a time of turbulence, discontent, and low trust in representative officials and institutions. Here, the author can empirically test his hypotheses regarding the interrelation of accountability, political order, and change. The challenge of sovereignty opens the way for accountability politics to relate with order politics. In the context of the EU, which is an unsettled polity, the ongoing debates on normative and organizational principles provide a window of opportunity for accountability processes that may have order transforming effects.

Olsen sets for himself two aims in the beginning of the book. First, to contribute to the democratic accountability theory, and second, to draw conclusions on what the accountability processes of contemporary Europe can tell us about political order and orderly change. These ambitious aims are partially met through the book, and they partially open the discussion for future research. Regarding his first aim, it is beyond doubt that introducing institutional explanatory factors to accountability theory is a valuable addition to the mainstream rational choice approaches. Furthermore, broadening the empirical and theoretical scope of the book to unsettled transitioning polities, and pointing out that the mere institutional-organizational basis can be interrelated with the accountability processes in both directions of order maintenance and order transformation, is an important contribution that is opening new spaces of inquiry in accountability research.

Regarding the second aim of the book, drawing from the European empirical example is certainly enriching the theoretical contribution, but also raises the question of how much of this contribution remains context specific or can be generalizable. In any case, this thought-provoking, groundbreaking book feeds to ongoing political theory debates on accountability, democracy, order, and change by posing many interesting questions especially in regards to ambiguity, uncertainty and limited control.


Reviewed by Alexandra Bousiou, School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg

Democratic Accountability, Political Order, and Change
Edited by Johan P. Olsen
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Hardback / 224 pages / 2017
ISBN: 9780198800606

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Published on October 2, 2018.


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