Accountability

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The term accountability has enjoyed a remarkable rise in popularity since the early 2000s. As the term carries significant political weight, efforts to define it have tended to be reflective of socio-economic as well as political interests. In order to employ accountability across ideological divides, associating the concept to empirical indicators and relating it to contemporary political issues can allow for a more meaningful, interpretive use.

Conceptually, accountability can be understood as multi-dimensional, subject to political interests, time-sensitive and dependent on social factors. Simply stated, it is not a static or linear concept. Accountability is a key requirement of good governance and as such, a defining factor of another political term. A clear understanding of accountability can provide insights into the functioning of political systems and how well these succeed at attaining democratic objectives and ideals.

Democratic deficits, weak accountability structures and unrepresentative political systems often lead to bottlenecks for citizen participation in the public sphere: there are accountability issues to address. To find effective channels of voice through which to tackle such issues can turn out to be an elusive goal.

In an effort to delineate where accountability issues arise and have bearing upon the responsiveness of the political structures and processes in place, it is useful to distinguish four broad areas.

First, political accountability comes into view. It consists of the formal checks and balances within the nation state. Elected individuals in public office are expected and required by constitutional law to carry out specific tasks on behalf of citizens. The state provides an account of its actions, and consults citizens prior to taking action in order to enforce rights and responsibilities.

Social accountability focuses on citizen action aimed at holding the state to account using strategies such as social mobilization, press reports and legal action. Typically it addresses issues such as citizen security, judicial autonomy and access to justice, electoral fraud, and government corruption.

Managerial accountability relates to internal processes entrusted public officials as well as officials in the public service are required to adhere to. It focuses on financial accounting, reporting, evaluation and auditing within state institutions, usually linked to performance frameworks.

Corporate accountability, while rarely addressed in public discourse, is perhaps the area in greatest need of being reconciled with democratic processes and public concerns over governance. Although corporate social responsibility as a good practice within the private sector has gained relevance in recent years, due to its largely voluntary nature the concept remains difficult to introduce and monitor through democratic mechanisms. Lobby groups and activists, especially in support of environmental issues and social welfare and justice play an important role in opening up corporate accountability issues for public debate.

Once it has been established where accountability in society takes place and why it matters, it is instructive to understand that the mechanisms of political accountability can be both horizontal and vertical. Whereas vertical accountability tends to be equated with election processes and representation in a nation-state, horizontal accountability is driven by civil society. On the other hand, the lines between the two axes are blurred, notably when accountability starts to project itself globally: on issues such as human rights, sustainable development or from a political theory standpoint, multitude (understood as the ensemble of democratic forms, struggles, passions and grievances opposed to armed globalization and the politics of empire).

Once the limitations of state-centered, the oftentimes superficial opportunities for accountability are recognized and transcended, citizen concerns and actions can hope to succeed in sparking off genuine change, thereby globalizing the accountability agenda. Presently, democratic deficits, weak accountability structures and representation mechanisms continue to lead to bottlenecks for citizen participation in the public sphere. In both developed and under-developed countries, sub-optimal distributions of public goods and services persist, in particular at the level of political accountability in instances where the public sector fails to effectively and responsibly deliver services to citizens.

Such failure is often debilitating and reduces people’s capacities, motivations and opportunities to work collectively as civil and political actors. Empowering coalitions and movements for public voice, which are designed to insist upon accountability of leaders, institutions, processes and allocation entitlement and opportunities in society, could prove to be a critical step to positively deepen and socially entrench accountability, at all political levels.

Finally, it is worthwhile to monitor and report on trends in accountability. There are a growing number of benchmark reports and indicators which can be instrumental in holding societies accountable to increasing their accountability levels and standards. Featuring most prominently is Transparency International’s (TI) Global Corruption Report, an annual thematic assessment and country rankings of the state of corruption around the world. Of similar relevance is the Global Integrity Report. It also presents country assessments, country rankings and reports on the mechanisms in place to prevent abuses of power and promote public integrity. Finally the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders offers yearly country trends on how the press and journalists fare in opening cracks in the walls that enclose them and creating space for public information, voice and by extension, political accountability.

[DRAFT DEFINITION - 07.19.10]

Sources

• Making Accountability Count, Newell, P. and Wheeler, J.: IDS Policy Briefing, Issue 33, 2006 http://www.ids.ac.uk/index.cfm?objectid=67290CBD-5056-8171-7BB9FEB1115FB429 • Brigaldino, Glenn, Accountability unlimited, Book review of “Reinventing accountability“ by Anne Marie Goetz and Rob Jenkins, in: D+C 03/2007, http:// www.inwent.org/ez/articles/056733/index.en.shtml • Democracy on the Defensive: An interview with Michael Hardt, co-Author of Empire and Multitude, in: Newtopiamagazine 9&10, 2005 http://newtopiamagazine.org/node/2327 •The 2010 Global Corruption Report: http://www.transparency.org/publications/gcr •The Global Integrity Report: http://report.globalintegrity.org • Press Freedom Index 2009: http://en.rsf.org/spip.php? page=classement&id_rubrique=1001

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Author: Glenn Brigaldino