Independence and Political Accountability

Political accountability is a necessary condition for good governance. In simple terms, there is political accountability when a citizen can reward with re-election an incumbent that provides an efficient use of public funds. Similarly, political accountability exists when a citizen can punish by ousting from power an unsatisfactory incumbent. It is crucial to note that political accountability is the main incentive that a government has to fulfil the needs and demands of the population.

In order for incumbents to be held responsible, the citizens must know which areas of government are controlled by each incumbent. If responsibilities are not assigned in a clear way, a citizen can hardly turn her dissatisfaction into votes and the link between bad management and electoral punishment dramatically weakens.

The clear allocation of responsibilities is in practice complicated by the different degrees of decentralization that a country might feature. In the particular case of Spain, this has become an enormous problem due to the Autonomous Communities system that was created during the post-Franco transition. This system has been characterized by a constant ebb and flow of responsibilities and power from the regions to the centre. Thus, a citizen finds herself in an overlapping maze of different administrative levels. Which level is ultimately responsible for what policy is extremely difficult to find out due to the unwillingness of the centre to fully transfer authority and adequate funding over any issue.
To give an example, the authority over education is, in principle, fully transferred to the regions. This should make the voting decision quite simple: if a Catalan citizen is happy with the education that her offspring is offered, she should happily vote for the Catalan incumbent. Otherwise, she should vote against him. Reality, however, turns out to be much more hazy. There is still a Ministry of Education in Madrid which proposes laws in Parliament, pushes for several education reforms and, every now and then, berates and admonishes the regional education system. Moreover, at any point in time, the Constitutional Court can come up with decisions that force changes in the local administration of education. Given this complicated landscape, how is the citizen supposed to figure out who is ultimately responsible for our troubled education system? Who should be held accountable?

This structural confusion is exacerbated by the constant political practice of shipping all blame to levels of government above or below. Recently, the central government has been insistent in its claim that the out-of-control deficit is due to regional finances. Similarly, the Catalan regional government has often blamed the central government for troubles of its own making. These political tactics are possible thanks to the extremely confusing structure of public administration in Spain, which lends credibility to the self-absolving claims of the different incumbents. Lost in this sad circus, citizens are kept in a constant situation of political disability.

This lack of political accountability detracts from good governance. An incumbent that does not feel the need to justify and explain his specific public management decisions within his allotted set of well-defined responsibilities has no incentive for good delivery save for his own altruism and moral fibre. It is obvious to see that the latter are not always stellar. Indeed, the possibility and practice of constantly blaming other levels of government for everything that goes wrong has helped to create a frivolous political class that mostly spends its days in empty political posturing, when not in outright rent seeking.

Recently, the news in Catalonia has been dominated by an intense debate surrounding the issue of independence. Most of the debate pertains to the immediate economic advantages or disadvantages that would result from independence. In my opinion, this debate skirts around one of the most important advantages: in an independent nation, the Catalan citizen would be governed by an ultimately accountable executive. The political stunting that has resulted from the capacity to blame Madrid for everything would cease. A mature democratic nation must be able to hold its government accountable.

Independence in itself, however, would only eliminate the most frequent excuse used to evade political responsibility. It would be crucial that Catalan society takes this opportunity to build new political structures that foster transparency and accountability and avoid entrenchment. If the current political structure is to be allowed to endure, independence might not be worth the effort.

Gerard Padró i Miquel

Gerard Padró i Miquel is a Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and co-director of the research programme in Governance, Accountability and Political Economy of the International Growth Centre. He obtained his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2005. He is a research fellow at the NBER (Cambridge, MA) and a research affiliate at the CEPR (London). He was an assistant professor at Stanford University and his research focuses on the fields of economic development and political economy.
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