Accountability Essay

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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.


  1. Bovens, Mark. “Two Concepts  of Accountability: Accountability as a Virtue and as a Mechanism.” West European  Politics, v.33 (2010).
  2. Hunt, “The  Principle of Complementarity: Freedom  of Information, Public Accountability and Whistleblowing.” In Open  Government in a Theoretical  and Practical Context, Richard  A. Chapman and Michael Hunt,  eds. Aldershot,  UK: Ashgate, 2006.
  3. Luban, David, Alan Strudler, and David Wasserman. “Moral Responsibility  in the Age of Bureaucracy.” Michigan  Law  Review,  90 (1992).
  4. Mulgan, Richard. “Accountability: An Ever-Expanding Concept?” Public Administration, v.78/3 (2000).
  5. Schedler, Andreas. “Conceptualizing Accountability.” In The Self-Restraining State: Power and Accountability in New  Democracies,  Andreas Schedler, Larry Diamond, and Marc  Plattner, eds. London:  Lynne Rienner,  1999.
  6. Seidman, Gary I. “The Origins  of Accountability: Everything  I Know About the Sovereign’s Immunity, I Learned From King Henry  ” St. Louis  University Law  Journal, v.49/2 (2005).
  7. Tavits, Margit. “Clarity of Responsibility and Corruption.” American  Journal of Political Science, v.51 (2007).
  8. Thompson, Dennis. “The Problem  of Many  ” In Restoring  Responsibility: Ethics in Government, Business and Healthcare.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  9. Williams, Christopher. Leadership Accountability in a Globalizing World.  London:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

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