Accountability and Responsibility (2017)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics


Accountability and responsibility are related ideas that are central to political, constitutional, and institutional arrangements in Western liberal democracies. However, political elites in non-democratic systems are generally not held accountable by citizens through such arrangements, and accountability is primarily a means of securing the compliance of state functionaries to the will of these elites. In liberal democracies the terms "accountability" and "responsibility" are often used in common discourse as if they were synonyms, but they are not. The former is a concept that embodies a number of different types, with a common theme of answerability by an accountor to an accountee, usually—but not necessarily—in a hierarchical relationship designed to ensure compliance and control. Responsibility, on the other hand, speaks of the associated but different domain of individual moral choice, where often conflicting duties of obligation are experienced by those in official positions. Beginning in the 1980s, the so-called new public management movement, which brought major changes to many Western systems of public administration, sought to enhance the accountability of public bureaucrats, especially their answerability to their elected political superiors. The effects have been mixed and uncertain, often with unintended consequences, such as the reinforcement of risk aversion and blame shifting and gaming behavior. The quest for accountability is inherently a political process, in which "holding to account" may often depend much less on any forensic determination of specific culpability and much more on evidential and political disputation, where the search for the "truth" is highly—and increasingly—contestable.