Accountability Essay

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In political science, the term accountability refers to an actor’s acknowledgment and assumption of responsibilities specific to a role—including the responsibility to report and justify the consequences of actions taken within the scope of the role—and the existence of sanctions for failing to meet these responsibilities. A is therefore accountable to B when “A is obliged to inform B about A’s (past and future) actions and decisions, to justify them, and to suffer punishment in the case of eventual misconduct,” as political scientist Andreas Schedler noted in his 1999 article “Conceptualizing Accountability.”

The concept of accountability thus entails monitoring of behavior, justification of behavior, and enforcement of good behavior. The monitoring and justification aspects of accountability constitute what is often referred to as answerability. Answerability involves the ability to ask actors about (1) what they have done and (2) why they have done so. In other words, there is an informational dimension as well as an argumentative dimension to answerability. Both dimensions of answerability require accurate information and are improved by transparency of actions.

Accountability requires not only answerability for behavior but also enforcement of good behavior. To have accountability as well as answerability, there must also be institutions for enforcing good behavior that fulfills official responsibilities. Without some way of punishing bad behavior, government agents that shirk their responsibilities cannot be held to account.

Political, public, or governmental accountability is the ability of citizens, societal actors, or other state actors to hold government officials and agents responsible for their actions in their official capacities. Successful institutions of governmental accountability specify the official duties of government agents, establish a sense of obligation in government agents to fulfill their responsibilities, and create incentives that motivate government officials to act in the public interest, punishing them when they pursue their own private interests at the expense of the public interest and rewarding them to make pursuing the public interest in their own interests as well. Political accountability is, in essence, about the need and the ability to restrain the power of government.

Some define political accountability to include only relationships in which public officials have a legal obligation to answer to those holding them accountable, and those holding public officials accountable have a legal right to impose sanctions. Others note that actors are empowered by either formal institutions or informal rules to sanction and reward government agents for their activities or performance.

Theories Of Accountability

Models of accountability are derived from two main bodies of theoretical literature: principal-agent theory and theories of moral responsibility. While the models highlight different factors in the process of holding actors accountable, they are not necessarily incompatible with each other.

Principal-agent models of accountability posit relationships in which the principal (such as an employer or a voter) selects an agent (an employee, for example, or a local official) to choose actions that benefit the principal’s interest. The relationship between the principal and agent is conceptualized as a contractual relationship between two autonomous actors. Mutually agreed terms of the contract determine the responsibilities for which the principal holds the agent accountable. Whether the principal can actually hold the agent accountable depends on whether the principal has ways of enforcing the contract.

Scholars have applied agency theory to model the conditions under which government agents might increase accountability by making their actions more observable to constituents: the implications of accountability as an equilibrium state, as well as a set of mechanisms used when accountability as an equilibrium fails and the consequences of successfully functioning sanctioning mechanisms when citizens have incorrect information.

In contrast to principal-agent models of accountability that focus on issues of contract choice, information asymmetries, and mechanisms for dismissing and punishing agents, theories of moral responsibility and group solidarity focus on the ways in which groups and communities establish duties and obligations for their members. Expectations and standards established by the group determine the responsibilities for which groups hold members accountable. Moral responsibility models of accountability focus on internal feelings of obligation and duty that groups inculcate in their members. Accountability in these models conceptualizes actors as fulfilling their responsibilities in part because they feel duty-bound to do so. In addition to the negative social sanctions that groups can apply to discourage misbehavior, theories of moral responsibility also highlight positive external and internal rewards for fulfilling responsibilities, such as group expressions of gratitude to individuals, the awarding of social and moral standing, and internal feelings of pride and identification within individuals.

Types Of Accountability

One way to distinguish between different types of political or governmental accountability is to look at the different things that government is held accountable for doing. For what kind of behavior are government actors being held accountable? Performance accountability, for example, refers to the ability of citizens, first, to observe whether the government is implementing its policies effectively and efficiently, and, second, to hold them to account for their behavior. Policy-making accountability, on the other hand, refers to the ability of citizens to ensure that government policies are representative and reflect the preferences of the population.

A distinction can be made also between accountability for something and accountability to someone. Government accountability in a democratic system, for example, can either be conceptualized as the responsibility of government officials for representing majority preferences and implementing the government’s policies effectively, or conceptualized as the responsibility of government officials to answer for its behavior to citizens.

Accountability also can be typologies in terms of who holds government actors accountable. In vertical accountability, citizens and societal actors such as civic groups, voluntary associations, and mass media seek to hold the government officials above them accountable. In horizontal accountability, agencies and offices within the state, such as auditing agencies, oversight commissions, or the legislative branch, oversee other branches or offices within government. A relatively new body of literature also discusses external accountability, or the role of international institutions in helping to hold national governments accountable for their performance and representation of public interests. Organizations such as the European Union, for example, can establish institutions that help eastern European countries to consolidate democracy and build rule of law by insulating parts of a new democracy’s weakly institutionalized legal system from domestic political interest groups.

Scholarly attention to the accountability of powerful, international nongovernmental political actors such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund also has been increasing. These organizations command vast political and economic resources and have an enormous influence on the policies and actions of governments that receive resources from them. Their accountability remains, however, a matter of both academic and political debate. Within this debate are questions such as whether these organizations are or should be accountable to the governments that provide funding for their projects, to the governments that receive funding for development, or to the citizens of recipient countries whom these projects are intended to help.

Instruments And Mechanisms Of Accountability

Principal-agent and moral responsibility models of governmental accountability identify several necessary functions for an effective system of accountability. Systems of governmental accountability should include instruments or mechanisms for all parties to agree upon and acknowledge the official responsibilities of government actors. It may also be important for these instruments to establish feelings of duty and obligation among government officials. Systems of government accountability should also include ways for obtaining accurate information about the behavior and performance of government actors, as well as ways of rewarding and punishing their behavior.

Political systems vary widely in the type and strength of the institutions they have for ensuring governmental accountability. Institutions that are created to contribute to governmental accountability may not operate successfully or may function for purposes other than accountability. Elections, for example, are often considered a key element of accountability in democratic systems. Yet they may function as opportunities for citizens to choose a “good type” of political leader who feels morally responsible for fulfilling official duties, one who will act on behalf of voters regardless of incentives for reelection. Moreover, instruments and mechanisms for establishing obligation, providing information, and punishing misbehavior can contribute to systems of governmental accountability without being sufficient for ensuring accountability.

Bureaucratic Institutions Of Accountability

One category of institutions that contribute to accountability are bureaucratic or administrative institutions, such as performance targets and auditing offices, that enable one set of government actors to monitor and sanction another set. Institutions such as bureaucratic performance reviews at fixed intervals are formal, top-down mechanisms involving hierarchical authority. “Modern officialdom” is characterized by the “supervision of lower offices by the higher ones.” Bureaucratic institutions of meritocratic selection and promotion, training programs, and selective recruitment from particular universities or elite social groups also can lead to informal bureaucratic norms emphasizing loyalty and collective identity, which help to foster a sense of duty among bureaucrats to put collective goals above individual ones.

Other administrative and bureaucratic institutions of accountability include institutions of horizontal accountability, which consist of state institutions that oversee and sanction public agencies and other branches of the government. One classic example of horizontal accountability is the check sand-balances relationship between legislative, executive, and judiciary branches of government, which are supposed to constrain and monitor each other. Other examples include auditing agencies, anticorruption commissions, ombudsmen, central banks, and personnel departments. As part of the government itself, however, these institutions can find it difficult to establish legally authorized or actual autonomous oversight and sanctioning abilities.

Democratic Mechanisms Of Accountability

Another category of institutions that contribute to government accountability involve an active role by citizens themselves. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, John Stuart Mill and other political philosophers came to the conclusion that representative democracy could provide “accountable and feasible government.” In a democracy, citizens would be capable of and responsible for “controlling the business of government.” In democratic models, citizens—rather than higher-level officials—become the “principals” supervising local officials. Democratic mechanisms and instruments of accountability include elections, constitutions and legislatures, and corporatism and other arrangements for incorporating citizen participation and oversight in the policy-making and policy implementation processes, and civil society institutions such as protections for free press and voluntary associations.


Elections that are free and fair enable citizens to elect officials they believe to be responsive and responsible. People who want to be officials have to communicate their positions and objectives to the public. An informed public can then sanction them for failing to meet their responsibilities and obligations by voting them out of office.

Although elections can in theory serve as an important mechanism for accountability, there is a difference between the existence of electoral democracy and a government that is actually accountable for the policies that it produces and implements. While a minimalist definition of electoral democracy simply requires competitive elections with broad suffrage where institutionalized political parties take turns in office, an accountable democratic government is closer to what Robert Dahl calls a “polyarchy”—an electoral democracy that also guarantees the existence of alternative information sources and civil liberties. These additional institutions ensure the ability of voters to obtain accurate information about official behavior and to sanction them appropriately.

Elections also have a number of shortcomings if used as the primary or only mechanism for accountability to citizens. They occur infrequently, so voters have little control over elected officials between elections. Voters can only vote entire parties or candidates out of office instead of exercising more finely tuned sanctions on party or candidate behavior or decisions on a specific issue.

Constitutions And Legislatures

Even in consolidated democracies, bureaucratic officials are unelected and cannot be held accountable to voters through elections. Constitutions can authorize legislatures to hold unelected civil servants accountable by holding hearings and organizing investigations.

Corporatism And Citizen Oversight Of Bureaucracy

Institutions such as public hearings, advisory councils, and consultation committees increase transparency of information to citizens and incorporate citizen participation and oversight over the making of bureaucratic regulations and administrative statutes. An ombudsman can provide information to voters or negotiate with the bureaucracy on behalf of citizens who register complaints about the behavior of bureaucrats.

It is often assumed that consolidated democracies with competitive elections are enough to ensure high levels of policy-making accountability, but because of the ambiguities that always exist in laws and statutes, much policy making is often done in practice by the bureaucrats who are responsible for implementing the policy. As a result, policy-making accountability requires institutions that require bureaucrats to consult with citizens and interest groups who have relevant interests or special expertise such as corporatism before issuing administrative statutes to resolve gaps and ambiguities in legislation. Building these kinds of institutions to ensure policymaking accountability in new democracies such as countries in eastern Europe can often be far more difficult than setting up national elections and political parties.

This view, however, is controversial. In the past, the working assumption has been that the bureaucracy needs to be apolitical and professional in order to ensure a degree of state autonomy. Shielded from political considerations, bureaucrats should be able to implement policies and laws impersonally, fairly, and efficiently.

Civil Society Institutions

Free press and citizen organizations also help to inform the public about the behavior of government actors and to sanction government actors for misconduct through influencing public opinion and voting. As providers of information, a free press and active civil society act as institutions that assist citizens in holding government actors accountable, but because government actors are legally obliged to answer to citizens rather than these societal actors, civil society organizations and the press are not necessarily considered agents of accountability.

Decentralization And Democratic Accountability

Theories of decentralization posit that decentralization of fiscal, administrative, and political authority can increase democratic accountability. Local governments are thought to be more likely than higher levels to have better information about what citizens need and want. Decentralizing authority to local governments also should make it clear to citizens whom they should hold responsible for performance and economic development. Local autonomy over taxation and expenditures also may allow citizens to sanction local governments for poor fiscal performance and public goods provision. Local governments who have to compete for tax revenues from firms and individuals who move to the localities that provide the best policies and public services cannot afford to misuse public funds or run deficits that force them to raise taxes.

On the other hand, decentralization also can have negative effects on other outcomes that may be important to governmental performance and representativeness. Decentralization can result in the hijacking of local government by local elites. Local governments may not have sufficient resources or expertise to resolve complex problems that have causes external to the locality.

Moreover, decentralization in practice often reduces overall government accountability by obscuring how responsibilities are actually allocated among different levels of government and making government authority more complex.

Formal Judicial Or Legal Accountability

In systems with rule of law, these institutions include constitutional tribunals that rule on the constitutionality of government actions and legislation. Court action and judicial review are also mechanisms that citizens can use to hold the government accountable.

Informal Institutions Of Accountability

In nondemocratic or transitional systems where formal institutions of accountability are weak, citizens may still be able to hold government officials accountable through informal institutions of accountability. Officials in these systems may not fear elections or sanctions from higher levels of the state, but they can become enmeshed in social obligations established by solidary communities such as ethnic groups, religious organizations, or nationalist movements.

Solidary groups, based on shared moral standards and obligations rather than simply shared interests, can offer moral standing as an incentive to officials for performing well and providing public goods and services responsibly. Their activities also can offer forums for government officials to publicize their good behavior and public praise for this behavior as a reward. Higher moral standing can be an important source of soft power for government officials. In contrast to formal institutions of accountability such as elections and performance contracts, which are officially authorized for the purpose of holding officials accountable, the norms and obligations provided by solidary groups that help to establish a sense of obligation, transmit information about the behavior of public officials, and sanction misbehavior are informal in the sense that they evolved or were created to maintain the solidarity of a social group. They are not officially authorized or intended to enable citizens to hold government officials accountable, but do so nevertheless.

Empirical Implications

Systems and institutions of accountability can have important effects on other significant political, economic, and social outcomes. Effective institutions of accountability can help to constrain corruption and the extent to which officials can deviate from the responsibilities of their office. Political systems with governmental accountability may experience more legitimacy, trust in government, and voluntary compliance from citizens with state demands such as tax collection and military draft. Institutions of accountability have been found to make financial crises less likely and affect economic output.


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