Delegation and Accountability in Parliamentary Democracies

By Kaare Strøm, Wolfgang C. Müller & Torbjörn Bergman (eds.)

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The project’s main volume on delegation in modern parliamentary democracy is Delegation and Accountability in Parliamentary Democracies. This book is a comprehensive and theory-driven survey of cross-national institutional frameworks and agency problems (Strøm, Müller, and Bergman, 2003). We examine accountability problems in seventeen West European countries and show how each of the countries addresses these problems, paying particular attention to the institutions that have been designed to resolve agency problems.

Building on principal-agent models and the ideal-type conceptualization of parliamentary democracy outlined above, we address empirically a number of questions about how principals in different settings delegate authority to agents to act on their behalf. The seventeen countries are compared in a series of cross-national tables and figures, and the country chapters provide a wealth of information on the four discrete stages in the delegation process. This is complemented by an analysis of political parties and external constraints, including courts, central banks, corporatism, and the European Union, all of which can impact on national-level democratic delegation. The book also shows that despite sharing common characteristics, parliamentary systems are by no means entirely alike. European politics is still dominated by representative and parliamentary systems of policy-making. In these chains of democratic delegation, a major trend over the past 30 years, and one that has accelerated during the second half of the period, is a strengthening of agents’ accountability to principals. Some contemporary developments favor more direct involvement by voters (the people) and their directly elected representatives (MPs). This is exemplified by the opening up of candidate nomination processes, an increase in preference voting, greater scrutiny by parliamentary committees and increased use of parliamentary questions and the spread of ‘freedom of information’ laws. Simultaneously, however, citizens’ ability to exercise accountability through parliamentary democracy is eroding because of changes in two other avenues of citizen control.

One way to reinforce democratic accountability is through parties, which structure the preferences of candidates for key political offices. In such an ideal-typical conceptualization of the role of political parties, they perform the function of a democratic mechanism. Party leaders can present to the democratic principals (the voters) a package of candidate-agents whose policy preferences are fairly well understood. However, our data suggest that there is good reason to question the ability of contemporary political parties to perform their function as a mechanism of citizen control. To exemplify, the overall West European trend has been increasing distrust of politicians, decreasing party-identification and decreasing party membership. At the same time, “external constraints” also often impact on citizen control. Some of these enhance the information available to principals; others constrain agents in a way that is advantageous to the principal. Still others allow agents credibly to suggest proposals that are closer to those that the agent prefers than to the principals’ ideal position. The country chapters in the book capture empirically how actors, institutions and organizations – such as the European Union, courts, central banks – all of which are formally external to political parties as well as to the constitutional chain of policy-making, impact on agents in the chain and influence their opportunities to act as democratic representatives of citizens. The research reported confirms that the constraints external to the constitutional chain are growing stronger. The changes along these three dimensions, the constitutional chain, political parties and external constraints, lead to a situation in which democratic principals commonly decide more about less. Thus, while reforms have strengthened the constitutional parliamentary chain, there is also an ongoing de-parlamentarization of modern politics.

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