The Ambiguous Virtues of Accountability
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Journal of Democracy 15.4 (2004) 47-60

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The Ambiguous Virtues of Accountability

When Terry Karl and I hit upon the concept of accountability as the key to the broadest and most widely applicable definition of "modern representative political democracy," our effort in 1991 met with a surprising amount of indifference or even hostility.1 In the last ten years, however, there has been a veritable explosion of scholarly concern with the notion of political accountability, not to mention such cognate concepts as "corporate social accountability," "communitarian responsiveness," and "individual moral responsibility."

Generically speaking, political accountability is a relationship between two sets of persons or (more often) organizations in which the former agree to keep the latter informed, to offer them explanations for decisions made, and to submit to any predetermined sanctions that they may impose. The latter, meanwhile, are subject to the command of the former, must provide required information, explain obedience or disobedience to the commands thereof, and accept the consequences for things done or left undone. Accountability, in short, implies an exchange of responsibilities and potential sanctions between rulers and citizens, made all the more complicated by the fact that a varied and competitive set of representatives typically interposes between the two. Needless to say, there are many caveats, loose linkages, and role reversals in this relationship, so that its product is almost always contested. Information can be selective and skewed; explanations can be deflected to other actors; sanctions are rarely applied and can be simply ignored.

All stable political regimes probably have some predictable form of accountability to some type of constituency. Sultanistic autocracies have their coteries and cadres. Military dictatorships have their juntas [End Page 47] and deals among the different armed services. Even absolute monarchs are supposed to be accountable to God—not to mention more earthly dynastic and marital concerns. What democracy has that these do not is citizens—a constituency covering the entire country and populated (these days) by virtually all adults minus resident foreigners. Moreover, in terms of political accountability, each citizen has the same rights and obligations, that is, to be informed (with limited exceptions) about official actions, to hear justifications for them, to judge how well or poorly they are carried out, and to act accordingly—electorally or otherwise.

The Seven Items of the Quality-of-Democracy Scale
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Table 1
The Seven Items of the Quality-of-Democracy Scale

What makes the role of citizens increasingly complex is that they have had to rely more heavily than ever on specialized representatives, that is, on agents who in turn act as principals when it comes to ensuring that elected or appointed rulers are held accountable. As if this were not complex enough, these very same agents-cum-principals may have ruled in the past and probably aspire to rule again in the future. Meanwhile, citizens go from being principals to being agents when they are obliged to conform to official decisions that they may have opposed or did not even know about.

However complex it may be, political accountability must be institutionalized if it is to work effectively. This means that it has to be embedded in a mutually understood and preestablished set of rules. Some of these may be formalized in constitutions, legal codes, or sworn oaths, but political accountability is not the same as legal, financial, or ethical accountability. Rulers can be investigated and held to account for actions that did not break the law or result in illicit personal enrichment or violate common mores. They may have simply made bad political choices that failed to produce their intended effect or cost vastly more than initially announced. And rulers can even be held accountable for acts of omission as well as commission in somewhat the [End Page 48] same way citizens can, provided that the rules were made by previously established consent.

Finally, it should be noted that the process of political accountability still goes on even when incumbents win, as most often they do. The exchanges of information, justification, and judgment that make up the ordinary cycle of accountability are less...