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Accountability in local democracy: in or between elections?

Norsk Statsvitenskapelig Tidsskrift, 32 (1), 2016, p 59 - 81


Jo Saglie, Marte Slagsvold Winsvold, Sara Blåka


Accountability in local democracy: in or between elections? Elections, when the electorate can penalize or support their representatives, are usually understood as the key mechanisms of political accountability. We argue that direct contact between politicians and citizens, in which politicians have to explain and justify their actions, is also a mechanism of accountability. Using qualitative interviews with politicians, administrative leaders and journalists in twelve Norwegian municipalities, we explore the extent to which the conditions for accountability are fulfilled. In Norwegian local democracy, citizens and politicians both value consensus-building. This may blur the responsibility for decisions and make voting less suitable as a mechanism of accountability. However, direct contact between citizens and politicians also involves some challenges. Accommodating citizens’ demands may conflict with fulfilling election pledges, and undermine the election as an accountability mechanism. Direct citizen involvement may be limited and skewed, in this way reducing the quality of accountability. Citizens may be poorly informed about local politics, and so both accountability mechanisms are weakened. Nevertheless, our interviews indicate that direct contact between citizens and representatives is a significant accountability mechanism – making representation and accountability continuous processes.