First Monday

Public eyes: Direct accountability in an information age by Albert Jacob Meijer


The Internet creates interesting opportunities for citizens to call public organizations to account. Government Web sites provide information and facilitate debates on public sector performance. An explorative study in the Netherlands indicates that citizens make little use of the opportunities to call public organizations to account. Openness, however, does have a direct effect: ‘public eyes’ stimulate government organizations to score better on performance indicators and comply with formal rules.



Direct accountability: Chances and risks
Quality Cards in education
Monitor of waiting lists in health care
Risk maps
Conclusions: ‘Public eyes’ on government organizations





The Internet is often said to bring closer a direct democracy. Most publications focus on the ‘input–side’ of democracy: through digital referenda and Internet debates citizens would be able to indicate what they want from government. The Internet, however, also creates interesting opportunities on the ‘output–side’ of democracy. It creates opportunities for citizens to call public organizations to account.

Accountability is a key aspect of government. In political theory it is often stressed that there can be no power without accountability. Key forms of accountability are hierarchical, professional, legal, and political accountability. Modern governments, however, increasingly deal with dynamic, informal and non–institutionalized forms of accountability (Mulgan, 2000).

The growing importance of the Internet adds a new dimension to these new forms of accountability. The Internet enables citizens to get direct information about the functioning of government organizations and the actions of politicians and civil servants. Citizens can interact directly with politicians and civil servants and ask them to explain and justify their actions. One can argue that the Internet creates opportunities for direct accountability to citizens.

These opportunities for public accountability through the Internet have been mentioned for some time (Raab, 1997; Meijer, 2003) but the use of these opportunities remains blank. In this paper I will address the following question: What are the effects of direct accountability — through the Internet — in the public sector? I will use the results of an explorative study of three sectors in the Netherlands — education, health care and disaster management — to answer to this question.



Direct accountability: Chances and risks

In its most fundamental sense accountability refers to answerability to someone for expected performance (Romzek and Ingraham, 2000). Accountability involves an actor with a duty to render an account and another actor with the power to judge and impose sanctions (White and Hollingworth, 1999). Theories of public accountability mostly focus on formal, institutionalized and often hierarchical forms of accountability. These forms of accountability concern core institutions with legal tasks and powers that play a key role in providing checks and balances for democratic governments. To explain the concept of direct accountability, I will compare this to ‘traditional’ forms of accountability.

A first difference between direct accountability and traditional forms of accountability is that there are no or few formal rules for information provision. Institutionalized forms of accountability consist of rules for the provision of information. Governments have to provide parliament, ombudsmen, auditors and judges with the information they require. Apart from freedom of information clauses, citizens usually do not have a formal right to information about the performance of government organizations.

Another striking aspect of direct accountability is that there is no format for debate. Political and legal forms of accountability have explicit rules for debating the performance of government. These rules usually entail opportunities for government officials to explain and justify actions. There is no standard format for public debate for direct accountability. Much of the debate takes place in the media or in (informal) meetings between citizens and representatives of public organizations.

A third difference between direct accountability and traditional forms of accountability is that there are no formal sanctions. Parliament can demand that a minister steps down and judges can fine government organizations or force them to take another decision. Citizens can use ‘exit’ and ‘voice’ as sanctions (Hirschman, 1970). They can choose to leave the organization — for example: choose to go to another school — or complain (publicly) about performance.

Direct accountability should not be regarded as a replacement for traditional forms of accountability but rather as an addition. Historically, new forms of accountability have been added to the political–administrative system with the growing complexity of government. Direct accountability seems to be a contemporary answer to the present complexity of government. This brings about the question whether this new form of accountability does indeed improve the effectiveness and legitimacy of government.

Proponents of direct accountability stress that a better informed citizenry holds for a strong democracy (Barber, 1984). Informal accountability arrangements can increase the confidence of citizens in the achievements of public organizations when governments can show policy outputs. Direct accountability can increase the detection of failures and, therefore, improve the effectiveness of government (Brin, 1998).

Critics of direct accountability emphasize the risk of ‘penetration’ (Power, 1999): public organizations may not so much try to perform well as to score high on accountability standards. This may lead to a ‘performance paradox’: indicators are no longer an adequate measure for performance. Another risk is that the costs of accountability — gathering and publishing information, debating performance — will go up dramatically.

The literature indicates that direct accountability creates both chances and risks for the effectiveness and legitimacy of government organizations. Through empirical research I have investigated what the effects of direct accountability are in three policy sectors in the Netherlands. Does direct accountability through the Internet improve the effectiveness and legitimacy of government? Or does rather the opposite happen and is effectiveness and legitimacy decreased?



Quality Cards in education

Until 1997 the quality of high school education in the Netherlands was monitored by the national School Inspection Service (in Dutch: Onderwijsinspectie). Inspectors of the School Inspection Service visited schools regularly and reported on the results of these inspections to the schools and to the Minister of Education. These results were not made public and were not accessible to citizens. The reports only played a role in the relation between school inspector and schools.

In 1997 a Dutch journalist requested access to databases that contained summaries of these inspection reports. The Minister of Education denied this access, arguing that publicizing the reports would hamper the relation of trust between school inspectors and schools. School management might not be as open about what was going on at their schools. However, a judge concluded that these arguments weighed less than the argument that citizens had the right to access government information.

The minister was ordered to grant access to the results of school inspection and the journalist used these results to compare the quality of schools and compare schools in different respects. From then on this newspaper — Trouw ( — published articles on the quality of schools every year and it also opened a Web site so that citizens could view this information all year around.

This increased openness led to drastic changes in the School Inspection Service. The agency decided that it would also publish the results of school inspections itself. Inspecting the quality of schools is no longer seen as the only task of the inspection service. The School Inspection Service redefined its task and stated that one of its tasks was to provide citizens with independent and reliable information about the quality of schools. The School Inspection opened a Web site ( and first published quantitative information concerning the quality of schools — the so–called Quality Cards ( — in 1998.

The newspaper does not make public the number of hits on their Web site; the School Inspection Service indicated that they get about 40 visitors daily and this number is still growing. They also get about 200 questions a month through the info–mail facility on their Web site. Neither the School Inspection Service nor the newspaper had information on the character of the visitors to the Web site and the use of the information. Do parents use the information to choose a school?

Research indicates that information on the quality of school is not very important in the choice for a school. Sources of information that are used for the choice of schools are presented in the following table [ 1]:

Table 1: Information used in school choice.

Basis for school choice Percentage
Visits to schools79
Advice given by primary school54
Information provided by other parents38
Written information34
Articles in newspapers6
Quantitative information on the Internet5
School Web sites1
Other information17
No information2

In theory, an alternative form of use might be that parents use the quantitative information to discuss the quality of education with teachers and school management. In practice, parents rarely ask school management questions on the basis of Quality Cards.

The information about school performance is used by various other stakeholders. Teachers and school management view Quality Cards on the Internet to evaluate how their schools are doing compared to other schools in the region. Rankings are important and a high ranking is celebrated. In this respect, the Dutch are not a special case. Empirical research in England indicates that English teachers and school management also find rankings important [ 2].

An important stakeholder is the media. Local media use Quality Cards to write articles on the quality of schools in their region. What is the best school in the region? And what is the worst? These articles tend to highlight extreme features and generally do not contain a balanced evaluation of the performance of schools. Negative publicity can damage the reputation of schools and therefore have an (indirect) impact on school choices.

Although Quality Cards have little (direct) influence on school choices, the information on the Internet does have an impact on school policies. Schools try to improve their rankings. In some cases, this leads to improvements and stimulates school management to make an effort to improve the output of the school. However, Quality Cards also stimulate forms of strategic behavior. Schools are no longer lenient in their selection of students; do not implement measures that might improve the quality of education but do not result in a higher ranking; and, might even give students higher grades to improve their ranking.



Monitor of waiting lists in health care

For some years, in the Netherlands there has been a debate about waiting lists in hospital health care. The Minister of Health has tried to shorten these waiting list but — because of the complex division of roles and responsibilities — this has not been easy. One of the things that made it difficult for the minister to develop a policy to shorten waiting lists was that there was no information available. Citizens complained that they had to wait long but it was not possible to analyze this problem.

In the mid–nineties the minister asked the National Association of Hospitals (in Dutch: Nederlandse Vereniging van Ziekenhuizen) to set up a database with information on waiting lists. Hospitals were not eager to cooperate but when the minister threatened to cut their finances the hospitals had little choice and supplied information to the database. In May 2000, the National Association of Hospitals made the information public, through its Web site ( At the start this Web site received little public attention and thus few hits.

Again, just like in the case of Quality Cards in education, a newspaper played an important role in creating more openness in this policy sector. Journalists of the newspaper Algemeen Dagblad approached the National Association of Hospitals to ask whether they could get the database with information on waiting lists. The newspaper also put information on a Web site. In contract with the site for the National Association of Hospitals, this Web site received a lot of attention since articles on waiting lists in Algemeen Dagblad made references to it.

At the moment, the Waiting Lists Monitors of both the National Association of Hospitals and of the newspaper attract many hits. The newspaper could not provide exact information on the number of hits but receives 30 to 40 e–mails every week. The National Association of Hospitals gets 30,000 hits a month. Neither the National Association of Hospitals nor Algemeen Dagblad have information on the identity of visitors to their Web sites and the use of this information.

Do patients use the information to look for a hospital with a shorter waiting list? The answers to this question is contradictory. Various hospitals have received many more patients when Waiting List Monitors had indicated that their lists were relatively short. However, in view of the total number of patients the effect is limited. This finding is in line with findings in the United States that indicate that effects of openness on the choice for hospitals are limited (van Everdingen, 2003). Reasons for these limitations are presented in Table 2.

Table 2: Why patients do not use information on waiting lists to choose a hospital.

Patients choose a hospital in their neighborhood
Patients go to a specialist they know
Patients follow the advice of general physician in choosing a hospital
Many patients are not able to make a choice between hospitals
An overload of information makes choosing a hospital difficult
Patients are loyal to a specific hospital
Hospitals do not facilitate switching: medical files are often not sent to other hospitals
Some hospitals put patients from their areas first on waiting lists
Quality is more important to patients than waiting time

There is an alternative — but theoretical — use of Waiting List Monitors. Some patients could use this information to express their unhappiness with a given hospital’s performance. In reality, this does not happen: hospitals receive little feedback concerning Waiting List Monitors. However, Algemeen Dagblad receives a great deal of feedback especially if patients discover that they have to wait longer than indicated on the Waiting List Monitor.

In contrast with the public, other stakeholders make extensive use of Waiting List Monitors. For example, health insurance companies use information on waiting list for signing ‘production agreements’ with hospitals: what level of care will they deliver to patients insured with a specific company? Insurance companies also use this information to help patients locating a hospital that can provide required care quickly.

Media are as important to hospitals as they are to schools. Media follow developments in waiting lists closely since this issue is heavily debated in the Netherlands. Interestingly, hospitals do not fear that the number of patients they attract will decrease from negative publicity since they all have too many patients. They fear, however, that their reputation will be damaged by negative publicity. Hospitals stressed that preventing this sort of damage is important to them.

Accountability to stakeholders stimulates hospitals to perform better or — put more cynically — score better on Waiting List Monitors. Some hospitals react to publicity about waiting lists by redesigning business processes and creating more capacity. Hospitals, however, also exhibit strategic behavior. Well–known forms of strategic behavior in health care are creaming — selecting patients that can be helped easily — and dumping — refusing patients that need complicated care. Public relations management is also of growing importance: negative publicity is often not countered by measures to improve performance but by publicity putting a given hospital in a fovorable light.



Risk maps

In 2000 a fireworks factory exploded in Enschede (the Netherlands); eighteen people were killed. An important public complaint was that many citizens did not even know there was a fireworks factory in their neighborhood. Since then, local governmental agencies and elements of the national government have paid much more attention to disaster management and risk communication. The Internet plays an important role in the communication of risks: there are several risk maps on the Internet that citizens can use to look up risks in their area.

Risk maps were not created initially for risk communication. In the beginning, these maps were created by provinces — first Friesland, later Limburg, Utrecht and others — to facilitate cooperation between various public organizations involved in disaster management. After the disaster in Enschede, all of the Dutch provinces decided to make this sort of information public through their Web sites since, they argued, citizens had a right to know. Risk maps display sources of risks (factories, airports, gas pipes) and targets (schools, hospitals, shopping centers).

Cities also publish risk maps on the Internet. An interesting case is the city of Eindhoven. The risk map of this city does not only display sources and targets of risks but also shows the results of inspections of hazardous facilities. The risk map indicates the results of these inspections. For example, additional safety facilities may need to be created. In other cases, a specific company may respond to an inspection and create new safety facilities. If a factory has implemented safety measures, this information is provided on the Web site.

Risk maps do not receive as many hits as Quality Cards and Waiting List Monitors. The risk map of the province of Friesland receives approximately 1,500 hits per month, the map in Utrecht less. The city of Eindhoven received many hits when the Web site was just made public, but the number of hits decreased to 700 to 1,000 hits per month. An important difference between the risk maps and information about schools and hospitals is that risk maps are not used for choosing a service provider. Risk maps are purely informational, and seem to have less individual impact compared to information on the performance of schools and hospitals.

A variety of government agencies have not studied the exact uses by the public of risk maps. They receive few e–mail reactions. Hence, there is an impression is that citizens are curious about risks in their neighborhood but do not use this information to interact with specific agencies. Theoretically, one could argue that this information influences decisions about where to live, but in reality there is no evidence for this specific use of risk maps.

Other stakeholders use risk maps for various objectives. Real estate agents use risk maps to value houses; urban planning agencies use risk maps for spatial planning; and, companies use risk maps to see if there are risks in the immediate environment. Surprisingly, risk maps hardly used by the media. Corporations fear media attention but risk maps have not generated negative publicity in the media.

Risk maps influence corporate behavior. Before risk maps, many companies would secure a permit to store large amounts of a variety of chemicals but use this permit to store only a limited amount. Since risk maps indicate risks associated with the maximum quantity allowed by a permit, many corporations changed their permits because they feared reactions from neighbors or the media.

In Eindhoven, the compliance of corporations to recommendations by inspectors has increased significantly from 11 percent before a risk map was published to 85 percent. Companies fear media attention. Anticipating media attention, they comply with recommendations by inspectors.

In contrast with schools and hospitals, risk maps do not seem to lead to forms of strategic behavior and a performance paradox. Risk maps only stimulate companies and local authorities to comply with legal standards and fulfill their duties. One could argue, though, that local authorities make information public to avoid blame in a disaster. Citizens cannot accuse governmental agencies of misinformation relative to risks.




In many respects the findings in these different sectors are similar. There are some differences between education and health care on one hand and disaster management on the other. In education and health care, citizens make a choice between service providers, in disaster management they do not. When comparing the three sectors the following observations can be highlighted:

Crises create openness
In all three sectors we saw that crises created more openness in the sector. In education, the crisis was created by a journalist — a ‘policy enterpreneur’ (Kingdon, 1984) — who forced the School Inspection Service to make its reports public. This led to drastic changes in the functioning of this service. In health care, the crisis was of a political nature: there was a strong push form members of parliament and media to shorten waiting lists in health care. This issue dominated debates and demanded a solution. Openness was one answer to this crisis. The crisis in disaster management was a physical crisis: eighteen people died when a fireworks factory exploded. This crisis forced authorities to be more open about risks.

Poor information
Quality Cards and the Waiting List Monitor both provide ‘poor information’ concerning the performance of public organizations. Opponents of openness argue that this information is harmful: public organizations strive to score better on a limited amount of indicators; it is questionable whether this results in quality improvement. Public information on schools and hospitals might result in a performance paradox: higher scores on indicators but less quality. Proponents will argue that meager information is just a first step in a process of increasing transparency. Recent developments in the Netherlands indeed indicate that the transparency in both sectors is still increasing: richer information about the performance of schools and hospitals is now provided to the public.

Internet: transparency, not interactivity
The use of the Internet is important for increasing spatial and analytical transparency. People do not have to go to city hall or other public offices to view information but can access this information when and where they want. Furthermore, Web applications facilitate analysis of information. It is easy for citizens to see which school scores best, which hospital has the shortest waiting list and where the risks are and who they affect. Furthermore, the Internet reduces the costs of making information available to the public. The Internet is hardly used for interactivity. In these three sectors there were no opportunities for digital debates and exchanges of opinion.

Citizens as consumers
The opportunities that are created for evaluating the performance of public organizations seem to focus on the role of citizens as consumers. The Internet is mainly used to facilitate ‘choice’ and creates few opportunities for ‘voice.’ Quality Cards support citizens in choosing a school but the Internet is not used to stimulate debate between School Inspection Services, schools and citizens on the quality of these schools. Waiting List Monitors enable citizens to choose a hospital with a short waiting list but does not provide for a discussion on health care. Risk maps display risks but do not enable citizens to discuss these risks. Citizens are regarded as consumers that can make a choice and not as ‘citoyens’ that are involved in public affairs.

Citizens make little use of the Internet
In all three sectors the information was accessed by citizens — but hardly used. In disaster management, risk maps were not used to pressure companies and governments to reduce risks and improve safety. In education and health care, citizens made little use of digital information to influence their choices for schools and hospitals and did not question to any extent school performance. This Web–based information enables accountability to citizens but the opportunities are hardly used. One could argue that Dutch citizens will eventually learn how to utilize this information. However, experiences in countries with a longer tradition — mainly Anglo–Saxon countries — seems to counteract this argument.

Other stakeholders are relevant
In the three sectors various stakeholders were identified that use information on the Internet to assess the performance of public organizations. In education, directors and employees were important and, in health care, insurance companies are important. These stakeholders posses crucial resources (finances and personnel). Withholding these resources can severely affect public sector organizations. This observation highlights the importance of not exclusively focusing on citizens. The effects of increased transparency can only properly be understood by taking into account all relevant stakeholders.

Media play central role
Government organizations — and also corporations — fear negative publicity. Public organizations regard media as the most important stakeholder. The Internet does not seem to undermine the mediacracy: it strengthens it. Local news media are important especially to public organizations in the three sectors investigated. The prime driver for change in education, health care and disaster management is not pressure by citizens but rather reputation management. Organizations anticipate media attention and try to avoid negative publicity. Hospitals use public relations as a means to counter negative publicity; schools are generally smaller and often seem to lack the resources for public relations management.



Conclusions: ‘Public eyes’ on government organizations

What are the effects of direct accountability — through the Internet — in the public sector? The general effect is that openness stimulates organizations to score better on performance indicators and comply with formal rules. Generally, organizations do not react to signals given by citizens but are aware of the public. The public observes and stimulates positive behavior.

The effects of reactions to digital openness, the drive for better scores on performance indicators and compliance with formal rules are not yet clear. In disaster management, there are no drawbacks: openness stimulates companies and governments to improve risk management. In education and health care, organizations are stimulated to improve their performance but they also show strategic behavior. This behavior might lead to higher scores but does not always improve the effectiveness of these organizations. The risk of a performance paradox is great. One may even fear a McDonaldization (Ritzer, 1993) of the public sector: an exclusive focus on those aspects that can be measured.

The legitimacy of government is not affected strongly by direct accountability. However, the findings in this study support the impact of negative publicity in the media. However, information on the Internet provides an alternative to the media for citizens and other stakeholders. In all three policy sectors, both positive and negative scores are published. For the media, there is a risk in merely focusing on the negative, exposing malfunctioning public organizations.

In all three sectors, opportunities for direct accountability focused on access to information. The Internet was not used for debates between stakeholders and public organizations. This lack of communication increases the risk of a ‘performance paradox’: public organizations only try to score well on performance indicators without critically understanding the meaning of these scores. There is a need for debate, for a rational and critical discourse on political matters (Habermas, 1989). Without additional facilities for public debate, direct accountability may not increase the effectiveness and legitimacy of the public sector. Effective and legitimate public organizations do not only need to feel that they are being watched; they need to talk to those watching them. Transparency needs to be accompanied by a stakeholder dialogue with the public sector. End of article


About the author

Albert Meijer is an associate professor at the Utrecht School of Governance in the Netherlands. His research focuses on accountability and electronic government. Recent publications are available at



The author would like to thank Paul ‘t Hart and Mirko Noordegraaf for their comments on previous versions of this paper.



1. Based on Vogels (2002), p. 40.

2. Hilhorst (2001), p. 84.



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Editorial history

Paper received 10 March 2005; accepted 28 March 2005.
HTML markup: Susan Bochenski and Edward J. Valauskas; Editor: Edward J. Valauskas.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2005, First Monday

Copyright ©2005, Albert Jacob Meijer

‘Public eyes’: Direct accountability in an information age by Albert Jacob Meijer
First Monday, volume 10, number 4 (April 2005),