The Illusion of Accountability



The Illusion of Accountability

Kirkland, Justin H. and Jeffrey J. Harden. 2022. The Illusion of Accountability: Transparency and Representation in American Legislatures. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Supplementary Files


Does open governance strengthen democracy? In The Illusion of Accountability, Justin H. Kirkland and Jeffrey J. Harden contend that it does not. Leveraging a wealth of data from decades of legislative politics in the American states, Kirkland and Harden assess the causes and consequences of "open meetings laws," which require public access to meetings and proceedings in state legislatures. They trace the roots of these laws back to the founding constitutions of some states and analyze the waves of adoptions and legislative exemptions to open meetings that occurred in the latter half of the twentieth century. They explain that these shifting positions on the reforms reflected the tension between legislators' ability to negotiate with one another in the pursuit of policymaking goals and their accountability to constituents as elected representatives.

The authors then investigate the effects of these transparency laws on a host of politically consequential outcomes both inside and outside the legislature, such as policy productivity, responsiveness to public opinion, and citizen approval of the legislature. They consistently find that, contrary to what their theory of accountability would expect, open meetings do not influence legislators' behavior or citizens' capacity to alter that behavior. Instead, the authors uncover a link between transparent legislatures and an expanded system of organized interests. Ultimately, Kirkland and Harden conclude that transparency reform only creates the illusion of accountability in state government. It exists in principle with the stated goal of bringing citizens closer to their representatives. But the public does not sufficiently fulfill its democratic obligation to capitalize on this improved access, permitting unrepresentative interests to fill the void.