Dissecting the semantics of accountability and its misuse


We focus on Mark Bovens’s use of the forum metaphor in his accountability model. The forum metaphor has emerged as a fundamental component in accountability’s status as a ‘cultural keyword’, reflecting its extension into the political rhetoric and everyday language of our time. People do not imagine value in governance directly, through observation. They construct it through metaphorical language and, when it comes to how the underlying decision-making processes are described, Bovens’s work is at the fore. Contra Bovens, we argue that his relational perspective could be taken much further. We advocate instead a far broader and more fundamental engagement with the idea of relational accountability. Expanding the metaphors, we point to two other accountability spaces: ‘agora,’ a primordial accountability space and ‘bazaar’, an emergent accountability space rooted in ground-level exchange between different actors. Assertions about ‘unaccountability,’ we argue, very often reflect a failure to appreciate the fundamentally relational nature of accountability: those who use such assertions as bases for action aimed at making situations, processes or people ‘more accountable’ in fact seek to assert or impose a certain form of relationship – one that is hierarchical and monopolistic – and reflect therefore a drive to power and domination.

in HL Paanakker, A Masters and L Huberts (eds) (2020) Quality of Governance: Values and Violations, London: Palgrave Macmillan.