in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics
The accountability of governments to their citizens is usually framed within a relationship of principal and agent in which the government, as agent, is obliged to answer to the citizens as agents. It is also commonly located within a structure of representative democracy where political leaders are elected by, and answerable to, the voters. However, these two theoretical frames do not adequately capture the relations of government to their citizens or the parameters of government accountability.Governments increasingly operate through non-hierarchical networks that are not subject to the vertical accountability assumed in principal-agent theory. Instead, networks offer alternative, informal accountability mechanisms based on horizontal relationships. These are evident, for example, in the responsiveness of professionals to their clients and the mutual accountability of network members to one another. These mechanisms have a sufficient share in the characteristics normally associated with accountability, including the obligations to inform, discuss, and accept consequences, for them to count as mechanisms of accountability in the usual sense. Redefinition of accountability, for instance to exclude the requirement of answering to another person or body, while understandable, is not essential.Accountability mechanisms also function without the support of effective democratic elections. For instance, formal institutions of horizontal accountability, such as courts and anti-corruption agencies, can operate in non-democratic regimes and are better seen as conditions of representative democracy rather than as consequences. Partially democratic or authoritarian regimes also exhibit various forms of social accountability in which civil society organizations call governments directly to account without recourse to state-based agencies of accountability. Large authoritarian regimes can encourage limited accountability processes as a means of bringing public pressure to bear on recalcitrant cadres. To be effective, however, all such measures require at least some legally robust support from government institutions.