In ethics and governance, accountability is answerability, blameworthiness, liability, and the expectation of account-giving. As an aspect of governance, it has been central to discussions related to problems in the public sector, nonprofit and private (corporate) and individual contexts. 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 governance, accountability has expanded beyond the basic definition of "being called to account for one's actions". It is frequently described as an account-giving relationship between individuals, e.g. "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". Accountability cannot exist without proper accounting practices; in other words, an absence of accounting means an absence of accountability.
Accountability is an element of a RACI to indicate who is ultimately answerable for the correct and thorough completion of the deliverable or task, and the one who delegates the work to those responsible.
History and etymology
"Accountability" stems from late Latin accomptare (to account), a prefixed form of computare (to calculate), which in turn derived from putare (to reckon). While the word itself does not appear in English until its use in 13th century Norman England, the concept of account-giving has ancient roots in record keeping activities related to governance and money-lending systems that first developed in Ancient Egypt, Israel, Babylon, Greece, and later, Rome.
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. Leadership accountability cross cuts many of these distinctions.
Hirschman makes substantial contributions to accountability theory, positing exit or voice as pivotal accountability mechanisms. The relationship between the governor and governed (i.e., [autonomous (auto) - dependent (dep)], [auto-auto], [dep-dep], [dep-auto] ) functions such that the prospect of citizen exit can, not only disciplines ex ante, but also ex post if the state is dependent on the citizens. The literature connects this disposition of autonomy or dependence to its fiscal capacity. States that are most responsive adjust to exit or voice. Clark & Golder model the dynamics of Hirschman's theory and elaborate important aspects like those that operationalize loyalty as an active choice. Exit, voice, and loyalty will be expressed in different ways under differing regimes and given the relevant assumptions. All three of these sufficiently broad categories present ways and means of holding the state accountable.
Recall elections can be used to revoke the office of an elected official. 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 pass a vote of no confidence in the government.
Belsky et al. point out, whereas, under more democratic governance accountability is built into the institution of the state by a habit of regular elections, accountability in autocratic regimes relies on a selectorate; a group that legitimizes or delegitimizes the autocrats powers according to selectorate theory. The primary mechanism at a selectorate's disposal is deposition, which is a form of exit. Beyond that institutions can act as credible restraints on autocracy as well.
Researchers at the Overseas Development Institute found that empowering citizens in developing countries to be able to hold their domestic governments to account was incredibly complex in practice. However, by developing explicit processes that generate change from individuals, groups or communities (Theories of Change), and by fusing political economy analysis and outcome mapping tools, the complex state-citizen dynamics can be better understood. As such, more effective ways to achieve outcomes can hence be generated.
Researchers at the International Budget Partnership (IBP) found that civil society organizations play an important role in achieving accountability outcomes. The IBP case studies showed that CSOs can have an impact in a broad array of political and economic contexts. The researchers concluded that CSOs are most effective when they draw in a broad web of actors from across the accountability system, including the media, auditors, donors, the legislature, executive insiders, and political parties.
Within an organization, the principles and practices of ethical accountability aim to improve both the internal standard of individual and group conduct as well as external factors, such as sustainable economic and ecologic strategies. Also, ethical accountability plays a progressively important role in academic fields, such as laboratory experiments and field research. Debates around the practice of ethical accountability on the part of researchers in the social field – whether professional or others – have been thoroughly explored by Norma R.A. Romm in her work on Accountability in Social Research, including her book on New Racism: Revisiting Researcher Accountabilities, reviewed by Carole Truman in the journal Sociological Research Online. Here it is suggested that researcher accountability implies that researchers are cognizant of, and take some responsibility for, the potential impact of their ways of doing research – and of writing it up – on the social fields of which the research is part. That is, accountability is linked to considering carefully, and being open to challenge in relation to, one's choices concerning how research agendas are framed and the styles in which write-ups of research "results" are created.
Internal rules and norms as well as some independent commission are mechanisms to hold civil servants within the administration of government accountable. Within department or ministry, firstly, behavior is bound 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 interests. The accountability is defined as "an element which is part of a unique responsibility and which represents an obligation of an actor to achieve the goal, or to perform the procedure of a task, and the justification that it is done to someone else, under threat of sanction".
The traceability of actions performed on a system to a specific system entity (user, process, device). For example, the use of unique user identification and authentication supports accountability; the use of shared user IDs and passwords destroys accountability.
Individuals within organizations
Because many different individuals in large organizations contribute in many ways to the decisions and policies, it is difficult even in principle to identify who should be accountable for the results. This is what is known, following Thompson, as the problem of many hands. It creates a dilemma for accountability. If individuals are held accountable or responsible, individuals who could not have prevented the results are either unfairly punished, or they "take responsibility" in a symbolic ritual without suffering any consequences. If only organizations are held accountable, then all individuals in the organization are equally blameworthy or all are excused. Various solutions have been proposed. One is to broaden the criteria for individual responsibility so that individuals are held accountable for not anticipating failures in the organization. Another solution, recently proposed by Thompson, is to hold individuals accountable for the design of the organization, both retrospectively and prospectively.
Within this perspective, a particular agency of the government is accountable if voices are heard from agencies, groups or institutions outside the public sector representing citizens' interests from a particular constituency or field. 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 make the government representative and to ensure that voices from all constituencies are included in policy-making.
With the increase over the last several decades in public service provided by private entities, especially in Britain and the United States, some have called for increased political accountability mechanisms for 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 in the United Kingdom, and that this can compromise political accountability in those areas. She and others argue that some administrative law reform is necessary to address this accountability gap.
With respect to the public/private overlap in the United States, public concern over the contracting of government services (including military) and the resulting accountability gap has been highlighted recently following the shooting incident involving the Blackwater security firm in Iraq.
Accountability involves either the expectation or assumption of account-giving behavior. The study of account giving as a sociological act was articulated in a 1968 article on "Accounts" by Marvin Scott and Stanford Lyman, 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 democratically elected body to which organizations must account, global organizations from all sectors bodies are often criticized as having large accountability gaps. The Charter 99 for Global Democracy, spearheaded by the One World Trust, first proposed that cross-sector principles of accountability be researched and observed by institutions that affect people, independent of their legal status. One paradigmatic problem arising in the global context is that of institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund who are founded and supported by wealthy nations or individuals and provide grants and loans, to developing nations. Should those institutions be accountable to their founders and investors or to the persons and nations they lend money to? 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. The One World Trust Global Accountability Report, published in a first full cycle 2006 to 2008, is one attempt to measure the capability of global organizations to be accountable to their stakeholders.
Accountability in education
Student accountability is traditionally based on having school and classroom rules, combined with sanctions for infringement. As defined by National Council on Measurement in Education (NCME), accountability is "A program, often legislated, that attributes the responsibility for student learning to teachers, school administrators, and/or students. Test results typically are used to judge accountability, and often consequences are imposed for shortcomings."
In contrast, some educational establishments such as Sudbury schools believe that students are personally responsible for their acts, and that traditional schools do not permit students to choose their course of action fully; they do not permit students to embark on the course, once chosen; and they do not permit students to suffer the consequences of the course, once taken. Freedom of choice, freedom of action, freedom to bear the results of action are considered the three great freedoms that constitute personal responsibility. Sudbury schools claim that "'Ethics' is a course taught by life experience". They adduce that the essential ingredient for acquiring values—and for moral action is personal responsibility, that schools will become involved in the teaching of morals when they become communities of people who fully respect each other's right to make choices, and that the only way the schools can become meaningful purveyors of ethical values is if they provide students and adults with real-life experiences that are bearers of moral import. Students are given complete responsibility for their own education and the school is run by a direct democracy in which students and staff are equals.
Media and accountability
Econometric research has found that countries with greater press freedom tend to have less corruption. Greater political accountability and lower corruption were more likely where newspaper consumption was higher in data from roughly 100 countries and from different states in the US. A "poor fit between newspaper markets and political districts reduces press coverage of politics. ... Congressmen who are less covered by the local press work less for their constituencies: they are less likely to stand witness before congressional hearings ... . Federal spending is lower in areas where there is less press coverage of the local members of congress." This was supported by an analysis of the consequences of the closure of the Cincinnati Post in 2007. The following year, "fewer candidates ran for municipal office in the Kentucky suburbs most reliant on the Post, incumbents became more likely to win reelection, and voter turnout and campaign spending fell."
An analysis of the evolution of mass media in the US and Europe since World War II noted mixed results from the growth of the Internet: "The digital revolution has been good for freedom of expression [and] information [but] has had mixed effects on freedom of the press": It has disrupted traditional sources of funding, and new forms of Internet journalism have replaced only a tiny fraction of what's been lost. Various systems have been proposed for increasing the funds available for investigative journalism that allow individual citizens to direct small amounts of government funds to news outlets or investigative journalism projects of their choice.
To train people to conduct these kinds of investigations, Charles Lewis has proposed "the creation of a new multidisciplinary academic field called Accountability Studies. ... [S]tudents from widely different academic backgrounds are excited about the prospect of learning exactly how to investigate those in power and hold them accountable."
Accountability standards have been set up, and organizations can voluntarily commit to them. Standards apply in particular to the non-profit world and to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives. Accountability standards include:
- INGO Accountability Charter, signed by a large number of NGOs to "demonstrate their commitment to accountability and transparency"
- AccountAbility's AA1000 series. "principles-based standards to help organisations become more accountable, responsible and sustainable. They address issues affecting governance, business models and organizational strategy, as well as providing operational guidance on sustainability assurance and stakeholder engagement"
- Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) 2010 standards. A standard for humanitarian organizations to help them "design, implement, assess, improve and recognize accountable programmes"
In addition, some non-profit organizations set up their own commitments to accountability:
- Accountability, Learning and Planning System (ALPS) by ActionAid, a framework that sets out the key accountability requirements, guidelines, and processes.
Viktor Frankl, neurologist, psychiatrist, author, and founder of logotherapy and one of the key figures in existential therapy, in his book Man's Search for Meaning recommended "that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast (that has become a symbol of Liberty and Freedom) should be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast." Frankl stated: "Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness."
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- World Bank's Inspection Panel
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