Ensuring accountability in collaborative governance – challenges and solutions

28 May 2021 | Published by Magnus Paulsen Hansen, Signe Elmer Christensen & Peter Triantafillou

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Collaboration is useful to address complex social problems, such as longterm unemployment. However, collaboration across organisational boundaries can also cause new and fuzzy accountability lines. This means that it can be hampered by excessive accountability demands, and that placing responsibility when collaborative actions go wrong might be difficult. On this background, the overall aim of the TROPICO Work Package 8: Effects of Collaboration for Legitimacy and Accountability is to assess the impact of collaborative governance practices on democratic legitimacy and public accountability.  

To better understand the accountability challenges linked to collaboration, we conducted a systematic literature review of the ways in which accountability and legitimacy are affected under conditions of collaborative governance. We found that the debate was divided into two large camps: one insisting on assessing collaboration in terms of traditional legal and political requirements; and another focusing more on providing accounts to various stakeholders without necessarily holding formal sanctioning power. A first step to assess the accountability of collaborations is thus to decide on which basic normative criteria to apply.

Moreover, to understand more in depth how collaboration and accountability requirements are related in practice, we and our academic partners undertook a comparative case study of accountability relations in long-term unemployment policy and services in five European countries – Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, the Netherlands, and Scotland.





Case study


The municipality of Courtrai in Flanders is working with the Temporary Working Experience (TWE) programme. TWE contracts are a particular activation instrument, founded at the federal level targeting people in social assistance. TWE aims to be holistic and offers unemployed people a trajectory that aims to reduce their distance to the regular labour market. The collaboration for the service delivery of the TWE-trajectory is complex and involves different private and public organizations on multiple policy levels.


In the municipality of Furesø, the initiative of the Cohesive citizen plans (CCP) aims to strengthen collaboration and, hereby, improve services towards citizens with complex problems. It entails increased collaboration and coordination between the different administrations involved within and outside of the municipality that are often imbued with different legal corpora and administrative and professional logics, as well as between the municipality and the citizen.


The focus of this study is on the case of ‘work practices’, a service targeted at people out of employment for a long time or with no earlier working experience. Finding the best individual solution in such a system depends on the close collaboration of actors engaged in planning and implementing the service – from the individual caseworkers and group facilitators to the service coordinators.


The Municipality of Helmond is experimenting with innovative integrated approaches for people with disability and distance from the labour market suffering from more than one problem (i.e., health and social problems). The Helmond pilot project tries to provide integrated assistance to clients by introducing multidisciplinary teams that are assisted by an online platform for the coordination of their services.

Scotland (UK)

Fair Start Scotland (FSS) is the Scottish Government’s voluntary employment support programme, aiming to help people with complex and enduring health needs improve their employment opportunities. The study focuses specifically on a contract called the Forth Valley around the city of Falkirk that delivers the services in collaboration with two additional cities, the health services and several third sector and private companies delivering services.


The case studies show that there are highly complex accountability networks and a mix of accountability types at different levels of government, and also a wide array of public and private actors. Our study therefore fits with an image of ‘multiple and fuzzy accountabilities’ as they are scattered around so many actors and levels of government that it is difficult to locate a centre.

However, this multiplicity plays out quite differently in each case and often it is not the number or fuzziness of accountability relations that provide the greatest challenges. Rather, particular tensions, certain practices, resources or institutions (or lack thereof) pose challenges to accountability. Moreover, the informal networks and practices often ensure that actors involved are accountable to each other – despite the fuzziness and tensions.

Based on the case studies, we identified five key accountability challenges. These apply here to collaboration around long-term unemployment services, but important effects have also been documented in other policy fields. The challenges we have identified are important to all participants in the collaboration, as well as to the very functioning and legitimacy of the services.

How could policymakers and public managers handle these challenges? Below, we provide some recommendations:


Challenge 1

Quantifiable indicators not capturing what is relevant in the practices they were supposed to evaluate and improve.

For instance, in the Estonian case, an expectation of measurable results and impact constricted the circle of clients suitable to the service and left out clients with durable social problems.



Challenge 2

Standardized (sometimes ICT-based) accounts may lead to reductionist understandings not capturing the complexity of the citizens’ case.

In the Scottish case, for example, the information required by the systems for registration and communication failed to accurately reflect some of the more qualitative experiences of service providers and clients.



Challenge 3

Superficial and sometimes ambiguous role of local politicians in the collaborations may have negative effects.

For instance, in the Danish case, politicians were, on the one hand concerned with meeting key performance indicators towards the administration, but, on the other hand, were using another format of accounts to the public, through narratives about individual citizens.



Challenge 4

Ambiguity of the citizens’ role in collaborations – as both accountee and account-holder.

Formally, the client is a stakeholder whose personal needs should be taken into and, thus, an account holder. However, in practice this role is quite limited. As a result, the progress of the client’s individual plan depends on his or her own effort.

For instance, in the Belgian case, the accounts given by the workplace to the public welfare centre mainly concern the progress made by the client in terms of working attitudes and competencies. No direct accounts were given about the guidance and support offered by the workplace.



Challenge 5

Sharing data between the involved actors and organisations.

The Dutch case study concerns a local attempt to build an integrated digital platform, but it is still confronted with outstanding issues concerning the protection of personal data (GDPR). It is thus likely that cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral collaborations targeting citizens with complex problems and needs will have to find alternative, and perhaps more traditional, ways of sharing knowledge and data among each other in order not to collide with legal accountability to the right to privacy.




Our research suggests that collaboration often adds new accountability expectations and relations to existing ones. On top of legal and political requirements, there are managerial performance accounts, professional accounts, and social accounts to and from citizens with which the service is produced. They are relevant and often necessary, but they may also create conflicts and obstruct collaboration. It is therefore important that the collaborating actors are willing to engage in dialogue and compromise when conflict arise, and they should try to agree on which accounts are necessary, when and with what implications.

To read more about this research, see our two research reports: D8.1 – Networks of account-giving in long-term unemployment collaborations in five countries; and D8.2 – Long-term Unemployment Collaborations in Five Countries: Challenges and Lessons Learned.