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4 - By their own account: (Quantitative) Accountability, Numerical Reflexivity and the National Prosecuting Authority in South Africa

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 October 2015

Johanna Mugler
University of Bern, Switzerland
Richard Rottenburg
Martin Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg, Germany
Sally E. Merry
New York University
Sung-Joon Park
Martin Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg, Germany
Johanna Mugler
Universität Bern, Switzerland
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Accountability is a watchword firmly established in contemporary politics, policies and organizational life in many countries world-wide (UN 2007; Espeland and Vannebo 2007; Power 2008: XV). Presently there are calls for greater and more expansive forms of accountability; rarely do we hear of calls for less. In the simplest sense, accountability describes situations in which people, who have been entrusted with power and money, are required to explain and justify their decisions – in other words, when their resource allocation and their professional and ethical reasoning are scrutinized. It is, however, only rarely that accountability scholars highlight the concept's obscurity, vagueness and its ‘chameleon’-like character (except Sinclair 1995: 219; Boström and Garsten 2008: 5; Koppell 2005; Strathern 2000a). When, where, to whom and on what basis someone is made to be accountable can look very different, depending on the involved actors’ understandings of the concept.

It is often pointed out that expectations of how accountability should be produced are never static (Dowdle 2006). Heated debates around the ‘correct’ way to ensure that public officials work in the best interests of the public and remain trustworthy are nothing new (von Dornum 1997). Over the last ten to fifteen years, however, various scholars have noted that the rapid increase of quantitative forms of accountability in many governmental settings world-wide are radically shifting these debates (Power 1997; Shore and Wright 1999; Strathern 2000a; 2000b). When being accountable becomes more and more synonymous with using quantitative measures and creating supposedly ‘verifiable’ accounts, then, scholars argue, our understanding of how accountability can be defined and rendered becomes narrower. People will be less accepting and convinced by other forms and it becomes difficult for institutions to otherwise practice accountability, that is, without performance indicators, rankings, benchmarking and/or audits and more deliberative forms of account-giving (Espeland and Vannebo 2007: 40; Rottenburg 2000).

Although quantitative forms of accountability are in high demand because they appear to have the capacity to simplify complex social phenomena and make these more accessible to outsiders and lay people, critics point out that the increased transparency achieved through this ‘information reductionism’ is illusory and counterproductive (Tsoukas 1997: 829).

The World of Indicators
The Making of Governmental Knowledge through Quantification
, pp. 76 - 101
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2015

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