Accountability can be studied as reputation management in which an agency seeks to maintain a good standing in the eyes of an external audience. However, some parts of the audience might be more important to the agency than others, and thus, the agency will seek to hold a good reputation in particular vis-à-vis them. If it prioritizes upholding a good reputation among some rather than others, this could entail a differentiation as to whom it feels accountable.
How, then, can we study which relationships matter to an agency? While we could assess dependencies and patterns of delegation, we should consider what external demands are being visibly responded to by the agency. This does not mean examining actual stakeholder-agency interactions, but rather the structures for interaction that the agency itself seeks to highlight to gain legitimacy among select audiences. Rather than responsiveness to external audiences, it is the conscious display of responsiveness that matters.
Access instruments – tools for consulting stakeholders – are visible indicators of how an agency would like to prioritize the dialogue with external organizations. While actual patterns of interaction may deviate from the formal design, the key issue here is how the agency seeks to portray this interaction. Who does the agency seek to please through making (perhaps symbolic) changes to a and highly visible structure such as the consultation process design? While open consultations and public meetings could be used as a catch-all tactic for gaining legitimacy by claiming openness and transparency, closed consultations and stakeholder bodies are more exclusive tools that could be used to respond to select audiences. This paper will trace the development of an EU agency’s access instruments over time. By examining changes and particularly the self-presentation of changes, I seek to identify whether the agency is selectively responding to its audience.