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Accountability is a concept in ethics with several meanings. It is often used synonymously with such concepts as answerability, 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.

At its root, accountability involves either the expectation or assumption of account-giving behavior. The study of account giving as a sociological act was first explicitly articulated in a 1968 article on "Accounts" by Marvin Scott and Stanford Lyman, [1] although it can be traced as well to J.L. Austin's 1956 essay "A Plea for Excuses," [2] 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[3]: "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.[4]

In other states, in particular outside the Anglo-American world, the concept of accountability is less familiar. Recently, accountability has become an important topos in the discussion about the legitimacy of international institutions.[5]

In another view, accountability is a simple word that, at its root, means: "the willingness to stand up and be counted -- as part of a process, activity or game." In this sense, then, accountability is less something I'm held to, or something done to me; rather, it is a word reflecting personal choice and willingness to contribute to an expressed or implied outcome.

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).[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 Israel,[9] Babylon,[10] Egypt,[11] Greece,[12] and later, Rome.[13]


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.[14] Leadership accountability cross cuts many of these distinctions.

Ethical accountability

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 CD Romm in her work on Accountability in Social Research,[15] including her book on New Racism: Revisiting Researcher Accountabilities, reviewed by Carole Truman in the journal Sociological Research Online.[16] Here it is suggested that researcher accountability implies that researchers are cognisant 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.

Administrative accountability

Internal 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 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.

Individual accountability in 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[17]. 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. But 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 failing to anticipate failures in the organization. Another recently proposed by Thompson is to hold individuals accountable for the design of the organization, both retrospectively and prospectively[18].

Political accountability

Political accountability is the accountability of the government, civil servants and politicians to the public and to legislative bodies such as a congress or a parliament.

In a few cases, 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.

Researchers at the Overseas Development Institute found that empowering citizens in developing countries to be able to hold their domestic government's 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. [19]

Public/private overlap

With 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.[20]

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.[21]

Contemporary evolution

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[22] and Stephen Soroka [citation needed], although it can be traced as well to J. L. Austin's 1956 essay "A Plea for Excuses,"[23] 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.[24] 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,[25] 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 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. The One World Trust Global Accountability Report, published in a first full cycle 2006 to 2008,[26] is one attempt to measure the capability of global organizations to be accountable to their stakeholders.

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 set their own accountability systems (for example, the ALPS, Accountability, Learning and Planning System of ActionAid)

Accountability in education

Student accountability is traditionally based on having school and classroom rules, combined with sanctions for infringement.

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]

Proposed symbolism

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."[33][34]


  • Accountability in Research

See also

References & Bibliography

  1. Scott MB, Lyman SM. Accounts. Am Sociol Rev. 1968 Feb;33(1):46-62.
  2. Austin, J.L. 1956-7. A plea for excuses. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society. Reprinted in J.O. Urmson & G.J. Warnock, eds., 1979, J.L. Austin: Philosophical Papers, 3rd edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 175-204.
  3. Standards in Public Life: First Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life (1995) Cm2850 page 14 text accessed at [1] June 12, 2006
  4. Public service Committee, Second report, Ministerial Accountability and Responsibility, Session 1995-6, HC 313.
  5. R.W. Grant and R.O. Keohane, Accountability and Abuses of Power in World Politics, 99 American Political Science Review (2005) 29-43.
  6. Oxford English Dictionary 2nd Ed.
  7. Dubnick, Melvin (1998). "Clarifying Accountability: An Ethical Theory Framework" Charles Sampford, Noel Preston and C. A. Bois Public Sector Ethics: Finding And Implementing Values, 68–8l, Leichhardt, NSW, Australia: The Federation Press/Routledge.
  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. Walzer, Michael (1994). "The Legal Codes of Ancient Israel" Ian Shapiro the Rule of Law, 101–119, NY: New York University Press.
  10. Urch, Edwin J. (July 1929). The Law Code of Hammurabi. American Bar Association Journal 15 (7): 437–441.
  11. Ezzamel, Mahmoud (December 1997). Accounting, Control and Accountability: Preliminary Evidence from Ancient Egypt. Critical Perspectives on Accounting 8 (6): 563–601.
  12. Roberts, Jennnifer 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.
  14. Jabbra, J. G. and Dwivedi, 0. P. (eds.), Public Service Accountability: A Comparative Perspective, Kumarian Press, Hartford, CT, 1989, ISBN 0-7837-7581-4
  15. Romm, Norma R.A. (2001). Accountability in Social Research, New York: Klower Academic.
  16. Truman, Carole Review of New Racism: Revisiting Researcher Accountabilities. Sociological Research Online. URL accessed on 27 August 2012.
  17. Thompson, Dennis (2005). “The Responsibility of Advisers” in Restoring Responsibility: Ethics in Government, Business and Healthcare. Cambridge University Press. pp. 33-49. ISBN:978-0521547222
  18. Thompson, Dennis F (2012). “Designing Responsibility: The Problem of Many Hands in Complex Organizations,” in The Design Turn in Applied Ethics, eds. Jeroen van den Hoven, Seumas Miller and Thomas Pogge. Cambridge University Press.
  19. Tembo, F., March 2012, Citizen voice and state accountability: towards theories of change that embrace contextual dynamics Overseas Development Institute, retrieved 23rd March 2012
  20. oxford law - the faculty and its members : anne davies. URL accessed on 2009-08-26.
  21. includeonly>Harriman, Ed. "Blackwater poisons the well",, 2007-09-28. Retrieved on 2009-08-26.
  22. Scott, Marvin B., Lyman, Stanford M. (February 1968). Accounts. American Sociological Review 33 (1): 46–62.
  23. Austin, J.L. 1956-7. A plea for excuses. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society. Reprinted in J. O. Urmson & G. J. Warnock, eds., 1979, J. L. Austin: Philosophical Papers, 3rd edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 175-204.
  24. Grant, Ruth W., Keohane, Robert O. (2005). Accountability and Abuses of Power in World Politics. American Political Science Review 99 (1): 29–43.
  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." 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. Frankl, Viktor Emil (1956) Man's Search for Meaning, p. 209-210.
  34. Warnock, C. (2005) "Statue of Responsibility," DAILY HERALD. Retrieved 24 October 2009.
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