Accountability 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) worlds.
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.
In recent years, there has been a growth in the need for transparency (humanities) with more and more pressure being put on corporations and businesses to be more accountable in their actions to society and the environment. AccountAbility (Institute of Social and Ethical AccountAbility)- an international non-profit membership organization, was established in 1996 to help promote accountability innovations for sustainable development.
History"Accountability" stems from late Latin accomptare (to account), a prefixed form of computare (to calculate), which in turn derived from putare (to reckon). 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."
Types of accountabilityBruce 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 accountabilityPolitical accountability is the accountability of the government, civil servants and politicians to the public and to legislative bodies such as congress or parliament.
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.
Administrative accountabilityInternal 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.
Judicial/legal accountabilityCourt action and judicial review are two mechanisms by which the public may address violations of law and constitution. Moreover, court actions also fill the gap of accountability between executive and legislature; if the executive fail or reluctant to exercise legitimate decision made by legislature, or vice versa, one can appeal through the court and the tribunal base on constitution or nalgas.
Professional accountabilityProfessional public servants, namely lawyers, doctors, engineers, and accountants, are also bound by professional codes and norms established in the light of public interest . Professionals are obliged to join correspondent professional societies and take oaths to be licensed.
Market accountabilityUnder 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.
Constituency relationsWithin 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.
Public/private overlapWith 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. http://www.competition-law.ox.ac.uk/members/profile.phtml?lecturer_code=daviesa
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. http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/ed_harriman/2007/09/blackwater_poisons_the_well.html
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. http://flickofthepen.blogspot.com
Social implicationsIn politics, and particularly in representative democracies, accountability is an important factor in securing legitimacy of public power. Accountability differs from transparency in that it only enables negative feedback after a decision or action, while transparency also enables negative feedback before or during a decision or action. 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 or democracy, 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.
Contemporary evolutionAccountability 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.
In Britain, accountability has been formally identified by Government since 1995 as one of the Seven Principles of Public Life: "Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office." The goal of accountability is at times in tension with the goal of leadership. A constituency may have short-term desires which are at odds with long-term interests. It has also been argued that accountability provides in certain situations an escape route for ministers to avoid the consequences of ministerial responsibility, which would require resignation.
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 asdfsdfasdfset their own accountability systems (for example, the ALPS, Accountability, Learning and Planning System of ActionAid)
- Campaign finance reform
- Committee on Standards in Public Life
- Freedom of information legislation
- Government Accountability Office
- Transparency International
- Worldwide Governance Indicators
- Sterling Harwood, "Accountability," in John K. Roth, ed., Ethics: Ready Reference (Salem Press, 1994), reprinted in Sterling Harwood, ed., Business as Ethical and Business as Usual (Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1996).
accountabilities in German: Verantwortung
accountabilities in French: Responsabilité
accountabilities in Lithuanian: Atskaitomybė
accountabilities in Japanese: 説明責任
accountabilities in Portuguese: Accountability