What Is Accountability?

The term accountability has only recently become a key concept in discussions of governance and democratic government, though it has been in common use for several centuries.

Strictly speaking, accountability means that someone (X), who has been put in a position of responsibility (r) in relation to the interests of someone else (Y), is required to give an account (to Y) of how s/he has discharged the assigned duties, and that, concomitantly, Y is in a position to either punish or reward X’s conduct in relation to (r).

Such a meaning would seem both precise and uncontroversial. However, this is no longer the case in either common usage or in the specialized literature.

The term accountable originates from the Latin computare, literally, to count.

To be accountable required a person to produce “a count” of either the properties or money that had been left in his or her care.

This meaning has endured in all those forms of accountability that are exercised through financial bookkeeping or budgetary records.

But more discursive meanings of being accountable, in the sense of “giving an account,” also emerged early in the history of the term.

Family Resemblances: Accountability, Responsibility, Liability

Accountability as an abstract noun Opens in new window therefore refers to both the capacity of, and the obligation on, someone to produce an account.

Yet, it was not in political or legal discussions that accountability first developed as a term of art, or as a fully developed and self-standing concept.

In politics and administration, responsibility was the technical term that was preferred to indicate the duty that persons in public authority had to “respond” in their conduct and actions as public officials.

In law, liability was (and is) preferred to indicate that by doing a certain action (or entering into a certain contract), a person has put himself or herself under an obligation and is therefore answerable for the consequences following from that action (or from entering into that contract).

Thus, for a considerable time, accountability was part of a family of words in English that covered a number of interrelated meanings that had to do with issues of political representation, executive and administrative responsibility, and, more loosely, legal liability.

The relationships between and within these semantic fields, however, have lately been transformed, with accountability taking a life of its own.

Some Rough Distinctions

To understand the original applications of accountability, some distinctions may be in order. The first set of distinctions refers to the areas to which the idea of accountability may apply.

Normally, accountability is said to apply to positions of public office. These comprise both:

The chain of accountability is different in the two cases, and so is the form that accountability takes.

Political accountability

Political accountability is of a more inscrutable nature. In democracies Opens in new window, it depends, on the one hand, on the form and mechanisms of political representation, linking citizens to their legislators, and, on the other hand, on the formalized relationship between executive and legislative powers.

Both types of political accountability rely on a rather weak power of control because the position of the “agents” in those two relationships is comparatively stronger in either their knowledge or their ability to control the agenda.

Ultimately, legislators can be voted out of office by their constituencies, although governments can be brought down by parliaments (though this does not apply in presidential systems), but whether this is the result of the process of strict accountability for what legislators or governments do while in office, or of a more general political evaluation, subject to opinion’s trends, by the electorate, remains a moot point.

Administrative accountability

Administrative accountability is apparently more straightforward because it operates within a more definite hierarchical structure where there is a certain division of labor and competencies, and where both the content and the process of public decision making, and hence, the role played by individuals, can be examined in more detail.

There is another area of political administrative accountability that is concerned less with how well (or badly) public officials operate in the public interest, and more with whether they abuse their position of authority. Accountability is here concerned with reducing the opportunities for corruption, maladministration, or legal impropriety that come to people in positions of power.

Political and administrative institutions have a series of mechanisms and internal instruments for policing abuses of power, but ultimately, accountability relies on more traditional legal instruments and the operations of the legal system and the courts at large.

Much of the effectiveness of this kind of legal accountability depends on the nature of the legal system itself, as well as on the level of independence of the judiciary from political power.

The second set of distinctions regards the process of accountability. This is concerned with three different questions:

  1. who is accountable,
  2. to whom, and
  3. for what?

In the case of political accountability, where this operates as a general mechanism through which citizens hold their legislators accountable through the electoral process, the questions who and to whom would seem straightforward.

The answer to the question for what is less clear. Indeed, the relationship between the actions and decisions of politicians and their direct consequences is a matter of intense political contention.

Besides, no simple mechanism can be devised to hold politicians and governments accountable for the series of often-unrelated decisions that they take during the period they are in office.

The issue is somewhat simpler in the case of ministerial and administrative accountability because it may be easier to apportion responsibility and blame when dealing with more specific policy issues or administrative decisions, and when the chain of causes and effects can be more easily isolated from the context of other policies and decisions, and from the general circumstances of economic and social life.

Even so, ministerial and administrative accountability is often easier to deal with (at least conceptually) in cases of maladministration than when trying to establish how well or badly people in public office have operated—an issue that, is discussed in another post Opens in new window, has become increasingly central to the definition of public accountability.

When dealing with administrative responsibility, the questions of who is accountable, and to whom, are rather complex. They suffer, respectively, from the problems that come from “many hands” and “many eyes.”

It is indeed often difficult to identify with precision where responsibility lies in decisions taken about complex problems in complex organizations.

No single person would have been involved, and it is not easy to apportion either praise or blame if not in the most obvious instances.

The principle of ministerial responsibility, often invoked in many constitutional systems, would suggest that responsibility moves upward, and that some degree of knowledge and intervention by people higher in the decision-making hierarchy would put on them, rather than on their subordinates, the onus of responsibility and accountability.

This is, of course, the theory. The practice of modern governments rarely conforms to such a standard, relying on the obvious (and occasionally self-serving) justification that too many hands were involved and that higher officials should not take the blame for operational mishaps.

Moreover, it is often difficult to distinguish between political and administrative decisions, so that—as put forth by critics of the justifications adduced by the U.S. and the UK governments for the Iraq War—these combined failures tend to cover each other up, with no one ultimately being either accountable or taking the blame.

A similar problem arises when we consider accountability from the reverse perspective of the identification of the people “to whom” officials (particularly in the public administration) should be accountable.

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It would seem that, in the most immediate sense, public servants are directly accountable to politicians and the government of the day.

Yet, public servants’ accountability to their political “masters,” or to their superiors in the bureaucratic hierarchy, can only be justified as part of a longer chain making themselves ultimately accountable to the citizens and the public at large.

This longer chain becomes both evident and problematic when dealing with issues such as whistle-blowing, where the public interest is pitched against the duty of confidentiality in acts of government, and where “private” judgment is weighed against the role one has in the public chain of command and responsibility.

Furthermore, as the traditional hierarchy structure of government becomes more diffuse, the problem of “many eyes”—who the “principals” in the accountability relationship are—becomes more acute.

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