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Accountability, according to Webster’s dictionary, refers both to “the quality or state of being accountable” and to “the obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.”
From those points of view, accountability can be an end in itself as a representation of democratic values and also as a way toward more organizational efficiency. Given the power that politicians and civil servants receive through laws and regulations they bring into practice, the resources they control, and the organizations they manage, accountability represents the way to ensure an appropriate use of that power in accordance with public interests. The concept includes a certainty about who is accountable to whom as well as for what. Moreover, it is necessary to specify that civil servants, the organizations in which they work, and the policy-making politicians are accountable for their decisions and their implementation.
In a broad sense, accountability refers to the responsibility of persons and organizations for their actions. This means that accountability is external in relation to a particular authority, involving social interaction and exchange that might be linked to institutionalized sanctions as well as to authority rights. Both a rights holder and the agents or agencies responsible for fulfilling those authority rights (duty bearers) socially interact with each other by acting or desisting from particular actions.
Thus, accountability means responsiveness by the “duty bearers” to the concerns of the rights holders on one side and the claims of the rights holders for the articulation of their needs and rights on the other side. This requires clarity about who is accountable to whom and for what.
Some authors distinguish between vertical and horizontal accountability relationships. Vertical accountability refers to the direct relationship between citizens and their representatives and is related to periodical elections, and it is also a particular function of political parties, public opinion, the media, and civil society engagement. Horizontal accountability refers to the relations through which state institutions hold each other to account on behalf of the citizens. This is, for example, the case with the relationships between citizens and the executive, the legislature, the courts, and special agencies of restraint. Some of these entities are entrusted only with a public mandate to hold other state agencies to account and are thus indirectly acting on behalf of the citizens. The specific institutions serving to ensure such a horizontal accountability include the national constitutions; the legislative and the judicial branches, and special agencies or organizations such as ombudsmen/public protectors; auditors-general; independent electoral commissions; independent central banks; independent revenue authorities; anticorruption agencies; the media; and civil society organizations.
Responsiveness refers to the way in which duty bearers with a pro-right-holders mandate—public or private—perceive the needs and respond to the demands of particular social groups. Accountability also refers to the ways of ensuring that the power given to politicians and public servants through laws and regulations, the resources they control, and the organizations they manage is used appropriately and in accordance with the public interest.
Several mechanisms are used to strengthen accountability, such as formal reporting requirements or external scrutiny (e.g., independent auditors, ombudsmen, etc.). Moreover, in democratic political systems, accountability—as represented by the accountability of ministers to parliament and the parliament to voters— represents an objective in itself and at the same time also strengthens accountability in general. Some member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development strengthen accountability through a greater focus on accountability for performance as opposed to limiting accountability to regularity of decisions.
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