is a concept in ethics
with several meanings. It is often used synonymously with such concepts as answerability, enforcement, responsibility
, blameworthiness, liability
and other terms associated with the expectation of account-giving. As an aspect of governance
, it has been central to discussions related to problems in both the public and private (corporation
Accountability is defined as "A is accountable to B when A is obliged to inform B about A’s (past or future) actions and decisions, to justify them, and to suffer punishment in the case of eventual misconduct" .
In leadership roles, accountability is the acknowledgment and assumption of responsibility for actions, products, decisions, and policies including the administration, governance and implementation within the scope of the role or employment position and encompassing the obligation to report, explain and be answerable for resulting consequences.
"Accountability" stems from late Latin accomptare
(to account), a prefixed form of computare
(to calculate), which in turn derived from putare
The word is an extension of the terminology
used in the money lending systems that first developed in Ancient Greece
and later, Rome
. One would borrow money from a money lender, be that a local Temple
or Merchant, and would then be held responsible to their account with that party. Responsibility is also a close synonym
Perhaps the first written statement of accountability is in the Code of Hammurabi
, where Hammurabi
describes certain undesirable actions and their consequences. One example:
- "If a man uses violence on another man's wife to sleep with her, the man shall be killed, but the wife shall be blameless."
Other early examples can be found in the Bible
Types of accountability
Bruce Stone, O.P. Dwivedi, and Joseph G. Jabbra list 8 types of accountability, namely: moral, administrative, political, managerial, market, legal/judicial, constituency relation, and professional.
Political accountability is the accountability of the government
, civil servants
to the public and to legislative bodies such as congress
Elections are a direct way of holding politicians accountable to the public. In the lead up to an election, candidates and parties must campaign, explaining their position on matters of public interest. The electorate can also vote on a candidate's past record if he or she is seeking re-election. In some cases - for example the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia in Canada - voters also have the right to petition for a recall election between normal elections.
Generally, however, voters do not have any direct way of holding elected representatives to account during the term for which they have been elected. Additionally, some officials and legislators may be appointed rather than elected. Constitution, or statute, can empower a legislative body to hold their own members, the government, and government bodies to account. This can be through holding an internal or independent inquiry. Inquiries are usually held in response to an allegation of misconduct or corruption. The powers, procedures and sanctions vary from country to country. The legislature may have the power to impeach the individual, remove them, or suspend them from office for a period of time. The accused person might also decide to resign before trial. Impeachment in the United States has been used both for elected representatives and other civil offices, such as district court judges.
In parliamentary systems, the government relies on the support or parliament, which gives parliament power to hold the government to account. For example, some parliaments can motion for a vote of no confidence in the government.
Internal rules and norms as well as some independent commission are mechanisms to hold civil servant within the administration of government accountable. Within department or ministry, firstly, behavior is bounded by rules and regulations; secondly, civil servants are subordinates in a hierarchy and accountable to superiors. Nonetheless, there are independent “watchdog” units to scrutinize and hold departments accountable; legitimacy of these commissions is built upon their independence, as it avoids any conflicts of interest. Apart from internal checks, some “watchdog” units accept complaints from citizens, bridging government and society to hold civil servants accountable to citizens, but not merely governmental departments.
Under voices for decentralization and privatization of the government, services provided are nowadays more “customer-driven” and should aim to provide convenience and various choices to citizens; with this perspective, there are comparisons and competition between public and private services and this, ideally, improves quality of service. As mentioned by Bruce Stone, the standard of assessment for accountability is therefore “responsiveness of service providers to a body of ‘sovereign’ customers and produce quality service. Outsourcing service is one means to adopt market accountability. Government can choose among a shortlist of companies for outsourced service; within the contracting period, government can hold the company by rewriting contracts or by choosing another company.
Within this perspective, a particular agency or the government is accountable if voices from agencies, groups or institutions, which is outside the public sector and representing citizens’ interests in a particular constituency or field, are heard. Moreover, the government is obliged to empower members of agencies with political rights to run for elections and be elected; or, appoint them into the public sector as a way to hold the government representative and ensure voices from all constituencies are included in policy-making process.
With the increase over the last several decades in public service provision by private entities, especially in Britain and the United States, some have called for increased political accountability mechanisms to be applied to otherwise non-political entities. Legal scholar Anne Davies, for instance, argues that the line between public institutions and private entities like corporations is becoming blurred in certain areas of public service provision in the United Kingdom and that this can compromise political accountability in those areas. She and others argue that some administrative law reforms are necessary to address this accountability gap.
With respect to the public/private overlap in the United States, public concern over the contracting out of government (including military) services and the resulting accountability gap has been highlighted recently following the shooting incident involving the Blackwater security firm in Iraq.
It has been argued that in Canada the dominant bank industry players, in performing vital economic roles like lending to the government and managing the money and credit supply, are performing public and sometimes political functions without corresponding public and political accountability.
Accountability constrains the extent to which elected representatives and other office-holders can willfully deviate from their theoretical responsibilities, thus reducing corruption
. The relationship of the concept of accountability to related concepts like the rule of law
, however, still awaits further elucidation.
In a BBC documentary, the Misrepresentation of the People Act was proposed to make members of parliament in the UK more accountable.
Accountability involves either the expectation or assumption of account-giving behavior. The study of account giving as a sociological act was recently articulated in a 1968 article on "Accounts" by Marvin Scott and Stanford Lyman and Stephen Soroka , although it can be traced as well to J.L. Austin
's 1956 essay "A Plea for Excuses," in which he used excuse-making as an example of speech acts
Communications scholars have extended this work through the examination of strategic uses of excuses, justifications, rationalizations, apologies and other forms of account giving behavior by individuals and corporations, and Philip Tetlock and his colleagues have applied experimental design techniques to explore how individuals behave under various scenarios and situations that demand accountability.
Recently, accountability has become an important topic in the discussion about the legitimacy of international institutions. Because there is no global democracy to which organizations must account, global administrative bodies are often criticized as having large accountability gaps. One paradigmatic problem arising in the global context is that of institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF who are founded and supported by wealthy nations and provide aid, in the form of grants and loans, to developing nations. Should those institutions be accountable to their founders and investors or to the persons and nations they help? In the debate over global justice and its distributional consequences, Cosmopolitans tend to advocate greater accountability to the disregarded interests of traditionally marginalized populations and developing nations. On the other hand, those in the Nationalism and Society of States traditions deny the tenets of moral universalism and argue that beneficiaries of global development initiatives have no substantive entitlement to call international institutions to account.
Accountability is becoming an increasingly important issue for the non-profit world. Several NGOs signed the "accountability charter" in 2005. In the Humanitarian field, initiatives such as the HAPI (Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International) appeared. Individual NGOs have set their own accountability systems (for example, the ALPS, Accountability, Learning and Planning System of ActionAid)