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In ethics and governance, accountability is answerability, blameworthiness, liability, and the expectation of account-giving.[1] 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,[2] 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".[3][4] 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".[5] Accountability cannot exist without proper accounting practices; in other words, an absence of accounting means an absence of accountability.

History and etymology[edit]

"Accountability" stems from late Latin accomptare (to account), a prefixed form of computare (to calculate), which in turn derived from putare (to reckon).[6] While the word itself does not appear in English until its use in 13th century Norman England,[7][8] 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,[9] Israel,[10] Babylon,[11] Greece,[12] and later, Rome.[13]


Political accountability is when a politician makes choices on behalf of the people and the people have the ability to reward or sanction the politician.[14] In representative democracies citizens delegate power to elected officials through periodic elections in order to represent or act in their interest.[14] The challenge then becomes why would rulers with such power, who presumably have divergent interests from the people, act in the best interest of the people?[15] Citizens can rely on rewards or sanctions to threaten or reward politicians who might otherwise act antithetical to the people's interest.[15] Accountability occurs when citizens only vote to re-elect representatives who act in their interests, and if representatives then select policies that will help them be re-elected.[15] "Governments are 'accountable' if voters can discern whether governments are acting in their interest and sanction them appropriately,  so that those incumbents who act in the best interest of the citizens win reelection and those who do not lose them."[15]

Representatives can be held accountable through two mechanisms: electoral replacement and rational anticipation.[16] In electoral replacement citizens vote to replace representatives who are out of step with their interests. Rational anticipation requires that representatives anticipate the consequences of being out of step with their constituency and then govern in accordance with citizens' wishes to avoid negative consequences.[16] Accountability can still be achieved even if citizens are not perfectly knowledgeable about representative's actions as long as representatives believe that they will be held accountable by citizens they will still act in accordance with the citizens' interests.[17]


Electoral accountability refers to citizens using the vote to sanction or reward politicians, but other forms of political accountability do exist.[15]

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.


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 [18] 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.



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,[19] including her book on New Racism: Revisiting Researcher Accountabilities, reviewed by Carole Truman in the journal Sociological Research Online.[20] 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".[21]


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[edit]

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.[22] 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.[23]

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.

Public/private overlap[edit]

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.[24]

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.[25]

In education[edit]

Student accountability is traditionally based on hang 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."[26]

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.[27][28][29][30][31][32]

Media and accountability[edit]

Econometric research has found that countries with greater press freedom tend to have less corruption.[33] 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.[34] 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."[35] 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."[36]

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.[37] 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."[38]


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"[39]
  • 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"[40]
  • Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) 2010 standards. A standard for humanitarian organizations to help them "design, implement, assess, improve and recognize accountable programmes"[41]

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.[42]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dykstra, Clarence A. (February 1938). "The Quest for Responsibility". American Political Science Review. 33 (1): 1–25. doi:10.2307/1949761. JSTOR 1949761.
  2. ^ Williams, Reyes(2006) Leadership accountability in a globalizing world. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
  3. ^ Mulgan, Richard (2000). "'Accountability': An Ever-Expanding Concept?". Public Administration. 78 (3): 555–573. doi:10.1111/1467-9299.00218.
  4. ^ Sinclair, Amanda (1995). "The Chameleon of Accountability: Forms and Discourses". Accounting, Organizations and Society. 20 (2/3): 219–237. doi:10.1016/0361-3682(93)E0003-Y.
  5. ^ Schedler, Andreas (1999). "Conceptualizing Accountability". In Andreas Schedler; Larry Diamond; Marc F. Plattner (eds.). The Self-Restraining State: Power and Accountability in New Democracies. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers. pp. 13–28. ISBN 978-1-55587-773-6.
  6. ^ Oxford English Dictionary 2nd Ed.
  7. ^ Dubnick, Melvin (1998). "Clarifying Accountability: An Ethical Theory Framework". In Charles Sampford; Noel Preston; C. A. Bois (eds.). Public Sector Ethics: Finding And Implementing Values. Leichhardt, NSW, Australia: The Federation Press/Routledge. pp. 68–8l.
  8. ^ Seidman, Gary I (Winter 2005). "The Origins of Accountability: Everything I Know About the Sovereign's Immunity, I Learned from King Henry III". St. Louis University Law Journal. 49 (2): 393–480.
  9. ^ Ezzamel, Mahmoud (December 1997). "Accounting, Control and Accountability: Preliminary Evidence from Ancient Egypt". Critical Perspectives on Accounting. 8 (6): 563–601. doi:10.1006/cpac.1997.0123.
  10. ^ Walzer, Michael (1994). "The Legal Codes of Ancient Israel". In Ian Shapiro (ed.). the Rule of Law. NY: New York University Press. pp. 101–119.
  11. ^ Urch, Edwin J. (July 1929). "The Law Code of Hammurabi". American Bar Association Journal. 15 (7): 437–441.
  12. ^ Roberts, Jennifer T. (1982). Accountability in Athenian Government. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.
  13. ^ Plescia, Joseph (January 2001). "Judicial Accountability and Immunity in Roman Law". American Journal of Legal History. 45 (1): 51–70. doi:10.2307/3185349. JSTOR 3185349.
  14. ^ a b Fearon, James (1999). Electoral Accountability and the Control of Politicians: Selecting Good Types versus Sanctioning Poor Performance. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
  15. ^ a b c d e Przeworski, Adam. Stokes, Susan Carol. Manin, Bernard. (2003). Democracy, accountability, and representation. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521641531. OCLC 58400209.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  16. ^ a b Stimson, James A.; MacKuen, Michael B.; Erikson, Robert S. "Dynamic Representation". American Political Science Review. 98 (3): 543–565.
  17. ^ Arnold, R. Douglas. (1990). The logic of congressional action. Yale University Press. ISBN 0300056591. OCLC 472546186.
  18. ^ Besley, Timothy and Masayuki Kudamatsu. 2007. “Making Autocracy Work.” Working paper.
  19. ^ Romm, Norma R.A. (2001). Accountability in Social Research. New York: Klower Academic. ISBN 978-0-306-46564-2.
  20. ^ Truman, Carole (2010). "Review of New Racism: Revisiting Researcher Accountabilities". Sociological Research Online. Retrieved 27 August 2012.
  21. ^ Feltus C. (2011). Aligning Access Rights to Governance Needs with the Responsibility MetaModel (ReMMo) in the Frame of Enterprise Architecture. Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 July 2014.
  22. ^ Thompson, Dennis (2005). “The Problem of Many Hands” in Restoring Responsibility: Ethics in Government, Business and Healthcare. Cambridge University Press. pp. 33-49. ISBN 978-0521547222
  23. ^ Thompson, Dennis F. (2014). "Responsibility for Failures of Government: The Problem of Many Hands," American Review of Public Administration 44 (3): 259–273.
  24. ^ "oxford law - the faculty and its members : anne davies". Retrieved 26 August 2009.
  25. ^ Harriman, Ed (28 September 2007). "Blackwater poisons the well". London: Retrieved 26 August 2009.
  26. ^ National Council on Measurement in Education Archived 22 July 2017 at the Wayback Machine
  27. ^ Greenberg, D. (1992), Education in America - A View from Sudbury Valley, "'Ethics' is a Course Taught By Life Experience." Retrieved, 24 October 2009.
  28. ^ Greenberg, D. (1987) The Sudbury Valley School Experience "Back to Basics - Moral basics." Archived 11 May 2011 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved, 24 October 2009.
  29. ^ Feldman, J. (2001) "The Moral Behavior of Children and Adolescents at a Democratic School." Pdf. __This study examined moral discourse, reflection, and development in a school community with a process similar to that described by Lawrence Kohlberg. Data were drawn from an extensive set of field notes made in an ethnographic study at Sudbury Valley School (an ungraded, democratically structured school in Framingham, MA), where students, ranging in age from 4 to 19, are free to choose their own activities and companions. Vignettes were analyzed using grounded theory approach to qualitative analysis, and themes were developed from an analysis of observations of meetings. Each theme describes a participation level that students assume in the process and that provide opportunities for them to develop and deepen understanding of the balance of personal rights and responsibilities within a community. The study adds to the understanding of education and child development by describing a school that differs significantly in its practice from the wider educational community and by validating Kohlberg's thesis about developing moral reasoning. Retrieved, 24 October 2009.
  30. ^ The Sudbury Valley School (1970), "Law and Order: Foundations of Discipline" The Crisis in American Education — An Analysis and a Proposal.(p. 49-55). Retrieved, 24 October 2009.
  31. ^ Greenberg, D. (1992) "Democracy Must be Experienced to be Learned!" Education in America — A View from Sudbury Valley. Retrieved, 24 October 2009.
  32. ^ Reiss, S. (2010), Whatever Happened to Personal Responsibility? Retrieved August 18, 2010.
  33. ^ Brunetti, Aymo; Weder, Beatrice (2003), "A free press is bad news for corruption", Journal of Public Economics, 87 (7–8): 1801–1824, doi:10.1016/s0047-2727(01)00186-4
  34. ^ Adserà, Alícia; Boix, Carles; Payne, Mark (2000), "Are You Being Served?: Political Accountability and Quality of Government" (PDF), Working Paper, Inter-American Development Bank Research Department (438), retrieved 17 August 2014 and Adserà, Alícia; Boix, Carles; Payne, Mark (2003), "Are You Being Served? Political Accountability and Quality of Government" (PDF), Journal of Law, Economics, & Organization, 19 (2): 445–490, doi:10.1093/jleo/19.2.445, retrieved 31 August 2014
  35. ^ Snyder, James M.; Strömberg, David (2010), "Press Coverage and Political Accountability", Journal of Political Economy, 118 (2): 355–408, CiteSeerX, doi:10.1086/652903
  36. ^ Schulhofer-Wohl, Sam; Garrido, Miguel (2013), "Do Newspapers Matter? Short-Run and Long-Run Evidence from the Closure of The Cincinnati Post", Journal of Media Economics, 26 (2): 60–81, CiteSeerX, doi:10.1080/08997764.2013.785553
  37. ^ Starr, Paul (2012), "An Unexpected Crisis: The News Media in Post-industrial Democracies" (PDF), International Journal of Press/Politics, 17 (2): 234–242, doi:10.1177/1940161211434422, retrieved 31 August 2014, Since 2000, the newspaper industry alone has lost an estimated “$1.6 billion in annual reporting and editing capacity... or roughly 30 per cent,” but the new non-profit money coming into journalism has made up less than one-tenth that amount.
  38. ^ Lewis, Charles (2014), 935 Lies, Public Affairs, pp. 236–237, ISBN 978-1-61039-117-7
  39. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 17 May 2013. Retrieved 28 July 2013.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  40. ^ Website: "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 8 September 2013. Retrieved 28 July 2013.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  41. ^ Webpage: "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 3 July 2013. Retrieved 28 July 2013.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  42. ^ ActionAid (2005). ALPS - Accountability, Learning, and Planning System.


  • Bovens, Mark. The Quest for Responsibility: Accountability and Citizenship in Complex Organisations (Cambridge University Press, 1998).
  • Mastop, Rosja. "Characterising Responsibility in Organisational Structures: The Problem of Many Hands" in Deontic Logic in Computer Science, eds. G. Governatori and G. Sartor (Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 2010). pp. 274–287. ISBN 978-3-540-70524-6
  • Thompson, Dennis F. "Responsibility for Failures of Government: The Problem of Many Hands," American Review of Public Administration 44:3 (2014), 259-273.
  • Thompson, Dennis F. "The Responsibility of Advisers" in Restoring Responsibility: Ethics in Government, Business and Healthcare (Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 33–49. ISBN 978-0521547222

Further reading[edit]

  • Mark Bovens, "Two concepts of accountability: accountability as a virtue and as a mechanism," West European Politics 33 (2010), 946–967.
  • 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).
  • David Luban, Alan Strudler, and David Wasserman, "Moral Responsibility in the Age of Bureaucracy," Michigan Law Review 90 (1992), 2348-2392.
  • Romm, Norma RA (2001) Accountability in Social Research. New York: Springer. [1]
  • Dennis Thompson, "The Responsibility of Advisers" in Restoring Responsibility: Ethics in Government, Business and Healthcare (Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 33–49. ISBN 978-0521547222
  • Williams, Christopher (2006) Leadership accountability in a globalizing world. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Painter-Morland Mollie, Ghislain Deslandes, (2015), "Authentic leading as relational accountability: Facing up to the conflicting expectations of media leaders", Leadership, online available April 2, DOI:1742715015578307.

External links[edit]