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Title: Reflexive Watchdogs? How Supreme Audit Institutions Account for Themselves

Authors: Christopher Pollitt and Hilkka Summa

Journal: Public Administration

Number: Vol. 75, Issue 2 (1997)


This article takes up the distinction between incremental analysis and incremental politics as elaborated by Lindblom in his 1979 article. We argue that while rationalism as a mode of analysis has lost much of its prominence, rationalism as symbolic politics is still very much alive and might even be more present today than it was back when Lindblom wrote his famous 1959 article. The recent shift to new modes of governance whereby elected officials are increasingly delegating decision-making powers to independent bureaucracies – what Majone calls the ‘‘regulatory state’’ or what the British describe as ‘‘agencification’’ or quangoisation’’ – has created an important legitimacy deficit for those non-majoritarian institutions that exercise political authority without enjoying any direct link to the electoral process. In such a context – and in addition to growing public distrust towards partisan politics – rationalist politics is likely to become more rampant as independent bureaucracies lack the legitimacy to publicly recognize the fundamentally incrementalist – and thus values-laden – nature of their decision-making processes.

To develop these ideas, the article looks at the case of ‘‘supreme audit institutions’’. We argue that the synoptic model is a mean for SAIs to legitimize their shift from classical financial auditing to performance auditing. In comparison to other independent bureaucracies, they are particularly prone to rationalist politics not only because of their institutional independence, but also because of the tradition of financial auditing and the rise of new public management.