About the project

The project “Reputation Matters in the Regulatory State” aims to study and redefine core foundational assumptions of the regulatory state literature. The project studies how reputational considerations shape defining features of non-majoritarian regulators (such as their credibility), their legitimising strategies as well as crucial aspects pertaining to their accountability. It does so in two interlocking tracks.

Module 1 explicitly focuses on the relationship between regulatory independence and credibility.

Arm’s length governance and regulatory independence have become the cornerstone normative and institutional design principles of the regulatory state. Regulatory credibility is premised on agency insulation from politics: independent bodies alone, operating at arm’s length from traditional controls, can secure credible regulation. This has had fundamental systemic implications in practice: the independent agency model has become the defining model for organising regulation across jurisdictions. It is the standard, default recommendation of international organisations and international consultants alike for organising regulation.

Conflicting Demands

At the same time, to attain a reputation for competence, agencies need to interact and respond to expectations from their multiple (political and stakeholder) audiences.

Questions we seek to answer in this module are:

How do regulatory organisations manage conflicting expectations of insulation and responsiveness? How do they balance the simultaneous demands of responsiveness to their multiple (political) audience expectations with demands of operating at arm’s length? And with what implications for their credibility?

Tipping Points?

Are there tipping points beyond which independence has opposite effects—regulatory insulation/alienation and a loss of credibility?

"Can regulatory insulation have de-legitimising effects?"

If so, under what circumstances? Is there a “sweet spot” or Goldilocks effect in the relationship between the two? How can we design regulatory institutions so as to strike the “right” balance between institutional environmental embedding, so as to secure a supportive (political and stakeholder) “ecological niche”, while simultaneously operating independently/at arm’s length?

Module 2 studies empirically how reputation shapes the accountability behaviour of regulatory actors, both account-holders and account-givers, and their interactions.

Accountability is a fundamental principle of public administration and a key concern of modern governance. The rise of regulatory public bodies, exercising increasingly salient tasks while operating at arm’s length from traditional controls,

is said to give rise to fundamental systemic challenges in this respect. The two sub-projects within this module are focused on unpacking key aspects of public sector accountability and understanding the role of organisational reputational considerations in this respect. Each of the two projects focuses on one of the key parties in any accountability relationship and tackles unexplained aspects of their behaviour.

Account-givers: Accountability-Seeking?

Project 1 focuses on the account-givers and practices of voluntary accountability. An increasing number of public sector bodies/regulatory agencies (such as food safety agencies or pharmaceutical regulators etc.), are found to actively seek to give account, above and beyond their formal obligations in this regard. They are reported to pro-actively provide information, to sollicit accountability and to have initiated a whole set of accountability practices and mechanisms toward third parties, stakeholders or other institutional actors on a voluntary basis, in the absence of any formal obligation to render account. In fact, a whole range of private and public actors are self-regulating their accountability.

"What drives voluntary accountability practices?"

Such behaviour is counter-intuitive and remains largely unexplained, despite its fundamental governance implications.

For instance, in the field of AI, in response to growing concerns about its fundamental societal and good governance implications, efforts at accountability and transparency are primarily initiated and driven by private/industry actors. What are the drivers of these accountability-seeking behaviours? And what are their implications for public sector accountability more broadly? Can these efforts be harnessed to secure good governance? See project outline here.

Account-holders: Drifting off?

Project 2 focuses on the account-holders (or accountability forums)—those who are meant to hold to account—to act as checks on power and punish misconduct i.e., bodies such as executive actors, EU/national parliaments, audit bodies, ombudsmen, courts. Despite their central role in accountability, the behaviour and motivations of such actors are severely under-studied and under-theorised.

"Are the watchmen we entrust with guarding good governance and the health of our public institutions conscientious in carrying out their account-holding responsibilities?"

Or to the contrary, are they asleep “at the wheel”? Empirical insights indicate that the “appetite” for accountability can vary significantly among account-holders, and neglect of accountability roles is reported for a host of such bodies.

A variety of political or bureaucratic account-holders (such as MPs, MEPs, bureaucratic superiors or management board representatives) are found to fail to take interest in accountability processes, to scrutinise the performance of their agents, or to sanction agent misbehaviour despite explicit responsibilities in this regard.

The project aims to gain an in-depth understanding of account-holders’ incentives and motivations, explain variations in account-holders’ interest and intensity of oversight, and develop more accurate theoretical predictions with respect to account-holders’ behaviour in accountability. See project outline here.