Ambiguity and the Politics of Accountability

Johan P. Olsen

in Democratic Accountability, Political Order, and Change

Published in print April 2017 | ISBN: 9780198800606
Published online April 2017 | e-ISBN: 9780191840081 | DOI:
Ambiguity and the Politics of Accountability

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  • Comparative Politics
  • European Union


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In mainstream principal–agent approaches, as well as in much democratic theory and organization theory, accountability is linked to a belief in human agency and history determined by human will, causal understanding, and control. An institutional approach considers the possibility that events are not necessarily a product of the deliberate choices of identifiable actors, and takes into account that ambiguity, uncertainty, and limited control are inherent to political and organizational decision making. The fluidity and unresolved conflicts of political life make it difficult to conclude who is responsible and should be held to account and learn from experience and there is more to accountability processes than decision making, control, and compliance. Ambiguity and uncertainty about the past—what has happened, why, and who is responsible and should be held to account—open the way for the politics of accountability, involving sense-making processes, competing interpretations, and coping with conflict.

Keywords: ambiguity; autonomy; decision making; political agency; politics of accountability; power; rational adaptation; resources; sense making

Chapter.  9313 words. 

Subjects: Comparative Politics ; European Union

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