The CCPD-program examines West European parliamentary politics from a principal-agent perspective. It involves thirty-five scholars from Western Europe and the Americas. It has made both conceptual and empirical contributions in the fields of comparative politics, parliamentary democracy, and coalition politics in particular.

Democracy, delegation and accountability

Today, parliamentarism is the most common form of democratic delegation and accountability. Yet knowledge about this regime type has remained incomplete and is often unsystematic. Drawing on the framework outlined below, we investigate the different stages in the chain of delegation and accountability and we explore the ways in which governance in parliamentary democracies is related to a variety of institutional mechanisms. When we study the dynamics of parliamentary democracy, two fundamental questions exist: 1) how do citizens delegate to elected representatives? and 2) can they hold elected representatives accountable?

Contemporary democracy is built on representation (Pitkin, 1967). Among the many schools of thought on representative democracy, one highlights how competing parties and party elites allow voters to choose their leaders and, above all, make it possible for voters to remove unwanted political leaders from office. Schumpeter (1942) is often recognized as the paramount thinker in this tradition. A contrasting view places emphasis on the participatory aspects of democracy and is therefore critical of how the former school places emphasis on leadership (Pateman, 1970). Generations of thinkers have maintained these basic distinctions.

In the Comparative Parliamentary Democracy project we have adopted a somewhat different approach to representation and democracy. Our view of democracy emphasizes that competition among political leaders is a necessary element of any large-scale democracy, but also that the election of democratic leaders does not solve all the problems extant in the relationship between leaders and followers. Instead, selection and control problems exist at every level of democracy, not only at the highest levels of government. The potential for such problems is always present, and the accountability of democratically elected leaders is a concern throughout their tenure, not only at election time. This is sometimes referred to as a Jeffersonian (after Thomas Jefferson) view of democracy (Kiewiet and McCubbins, 1991). It can be more precisely defined as a series of delegation and accountability relationships between principals and agents. In a chain of delegation, those authorized to make political decisions (principals) conditionally designate others (agents) to act in their name and place. A delegation chain thus consists of a series of agency relationships.

Two perils of agency relationships are adverse selection and moral hazard. The former problem may lead principals to select the ‘wrong’ agents, i.e., those who do not have the most appropriate skills or preferences. The problem of moral hazard arises when agents, once selected, have incentives and opportunities to take action contrary to the principal’s interests. Hence, where democratic delegation is exercised, accountability becomes necessary (otherwise delegation becomes abdication). As Lupia (2003) points out, we can think of accountability as a property of political procedures (control), or as an outcome. The focus of the project is largely on the former. Political accountability, then, refers to mechanisms by which agency loss can be contained. Strictly speaking, accountability focuses on the rights and sanctions (oversight) that the principal retains after she has contracted with the agent. However, in a broader sense, principals can accomplish some of their control objectives even before delegating.

The principal-agent literature identifies several means by which principals can contain agency costs: (1) contract design, (2) screening and selection mechanisms, (3) monitoring and reporting requirements and (4) institutional checks (Lupia, 2003). The first two are mechanisms by which principals seek to contain agency losses ex ante, i.e., before entering into any agreement. The remaining control mechanisms are ways to contain agency losses after the contract has been made (ex post facto). Such ex post accountability may rely on information produced by the principal (known as monitoring or police patrols), by the agent (reporting), or by some third party (institutional checks and so-called fire alarms). In politics, legislators may seek to control executive agencies through committee hearings at which ministers or civil servants have to appear and testify (see Mattson and Strøm, 1995). Additionally, executive agencies may be required regularly to report to their democratic principals.

Many important control mechanisms serve as vehicles of both ex ante and ex post control. They can be used both to select agents in the first place and to subject them to sanctions and possible ‘deselection’ after the fact. The most basic mechanism of representative democracy ‘election’ is clearly of this kind. Voters use elections both prospectively (to select office-holders) and retrospectively (to sanction incumbents).

Principals face two serious constraints on oversight. First, even though the principal may find some forms of oversight (such as selection, reporting, fire alarms) less burdensome than others (for example because they rely on third-party efforts), all oversight is costly. Therefore, the principal obviously wants to maximize effectiveness relative to cost. And reliance on third-party oversight provides no free lunch, since it introduces additional agency problems. For example, when can the principal trust the reports she gets (Lupia and McCubbins, 1994)? Second, principals may face collective action and coordination problems in their oversight activities. For example, in most large-scale societies, voters cannot actively deliberate about the selection and supervision of all their agents. And while it is typically in the interest of all principals that someone bears the cost of monitoring their agents, individual principals may have no incentive to do so. Nonetheless, principals possess a substantial menu of oversight mechanisms that facilitate accountability. A major task of this project is to examine these mechanisms in representational politics in order to generate knowledge about how parliamentary democracy functions today.

Coalition politics

With the spread of parliamentary government and proportional representation, multi-party politics has become more frequent. And in multi-party systems, where three or more parties gain parliamentary representation, the possibility always exists that no party alone will command a parliamentary majority. Indeed, that possibility has become the rule, rather than the exception, in the majority of the world’s parliamentary systems. Minority situations require some sort of interparty coalition-buildingcoalition building. Whenre parliaments operates by majority decision rules, as is commonly the case, single parties cannot hope to monopolize political control. Coalitions become a necessity. But the shape of such alliances is by no means foreordained. Coalitions in minority situations could be purely legislative alliances, in which a minority government seeks support from day to dayday-to-day and from issue to issueissue-to-issue among its companions in parliament. More commonly, however, coalition-buildingcoalition building involves more committal agreements that include the offices of the executive branch as well, in the sense thatbecause typically the parties that form the parliamentary majority also share control of the cabinet and the executive branch. Such coalition politics has stimulated a stream of important research since the birth of modern political science.

In our first joint publication, “Coalition Governments in Western Europe”, and in the final project volume that is currently on the way, we shed light on coalition politics in Western Europe. In doing so, the contributors provide a handy set of data on ten or fifteen years of coalition politics that have taken place since the publication of the most prominent previous studies. The data documents aspects of cabinet politics that have only recently come to occupy center stage in the concerns of students of coalition politics. While we happily serve the first of these functions, the major ambition lies in the second objective.

The contributions to these two volumes present the relevance of political institutions on government formation, coalition governance, and coalition termination. They also consider whether government formation is affected by specific rules concerning cabinet formation, its size and composition and such institutions as investiture rules.

When the final volume, scheduled for 2005, is published our project will have generated seven major publications. This project has also partly sponsored a dissertation written by Benjamin Nyblade (2004) of the University of California at San Diego, which is entitled, “The Dynamics of Dominance: Party Government Duration and Change in Parliamentary Democracies”. Five of the project publications address agency problems in modern parliamentary democracies broadly speaking. The other two focuses on how agents and voters interact in coalition formation among political parties competing for power in these democracies. We briefly present each of these publications under the “Publications” link above.


Kiewiet, R.D. and McCubbins, M.D. (1991) The Logic of Delegation. Congressional Parties and the Appropriations Process, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lupia, A. (2003) ‘Delegation and its Perils’, in K. Strøm, W.C. Müller and T. Bergman (eds), Delegation and Accountability in Parliamentary Democracies, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 33-54.

Lupia, A. and McCubbins M.D. (1994) ‘Learning from Oversight: Fire Alarms and Police Patrols Reconstructed’, Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization 10(1): 96-125.

Mattson, I. and Strøm, K. (1995) ‘Parliamentary Committees’, in H. Döring (ed.), Parliaments and Majority Rule in Western Europe, New York: St. Martin’s Press, pp. 249-307.

Pateman, C. (1970) Participation and Democratic Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pitkin, H.F. (1967) The Concept of Representation, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Schumpeter, J.A., (1942) Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, New York: Harper and Row.