Spotlight On Accountability I: The Meaning Of Accountability

This brief is part of a series that takes ‘accountability’ to its roots by explaining fundamental aspects of the concept, and provides a guide on how to assess accountability mechanisms for effectiveness.
Spotlight On Accountability I: The Meaning Of Accountability

Accountability is one of those golden concepts that no one can be against…However, its evocative powers make it also a very elusive concept because it can mean many different things to different people
- Mark Bovens[1]

Accountability: the big picture

South Africa could be said to be going through an accountability crisis. In the post-1994 era alone, South Africa has been faced with inter alia: Mbeki-era AIDS denialism; the arms deal scandal; the decimation and looting of state-owned enterprises[2]; the weakening of functioning government institutions[3]; gross violations of procurement policies[4]; the capture of the state resources to enrich private interests[5]; deficits in public health systems directly responsible for human tragedies[6]; and the failure to meet basic socio-economic rights, giving rise to service delivery protests and obstructing millions from living a life in accordance with their right to basic human dignity.

In short, the systems in place to prevent responsible officials from engaging in misconduct have failed. More so, and frustratingly for the South African public, it appears that the people responsible for preventing misconduct and who have failed to meet this duty are not facing any meaningful repercussions. There is a failure to hold those responsible to account.

Accountability has become a buzzword in conversations about corruption, state capture, and malfeasance in public administration. However, it is used as a catch-all, without nuance. Does it refer to bureaucrats facing employment sanctions for not meeting performance targets? Or to members of political parties being subject to disciplinary processes within party structures? Does it refer to the public voting out ineffective political leaders? Approaching accountability without clarity as to its meaning is bound to result in frustration, particularly when there isn’t consensus on what we seek to achieve through it. A clear picture is required.

The time is ripe to refresh our understanding of accountability. This brief series will take accountability to its roots, in two parts. This first brief will sketch out some broad outlines of the meaning of accountability and its evolution, drawing on certain details to provide colour and texture to our grasp of this concept.

With this understanding in mind, the second brief in this series will consider how accountability can be taken from theory to practice by discussing accountability mechanisms and how these can be evaluated. What is needed is a conceptual framework for pragmatic decision-making. The third brief will look at various categories of accountability and how these can be integrated to form a cohesive accountability strategy.

The aim of this brief series is to present a sense of structure and coherence in thinking about on this important concept. This is with a view to enabling critical engagement with government and other leaders on questions of how to improve public accountability, and in so doing, deepen democracy.

Why accountability?

Before delving into definitions, it bears asking – why should we care about accountability (and public accountability in particular) at all?

There are many reasons. Firstly, accountability is essential in any functioning democracy. In that sense, the alternative to accountability is impunity. The drafters of the South African Constitution recognised how fundamental accountability is to democracy by expressly including it in the founding provisions.[7] Accountability is therefore deeply entrenched in the democratic enterprise.

Apart from this, however, it has benefits for society in general, such as:

  • Improving the practice of good corporate governance;
  • Improving the management of public finances;
  • Reducing costs associated with investigating misconduct and misappropriation of public funds; and
  • The achievement of optimal performance and improvement of delivery of quality services to citizens.[8]

The above are at least some of the answer to the question of “why should we care about accountability?”. But to take a step back, one question that needs to be addressed is – “what is accountability?”

Accountability defined

There is no shortage of scholarly literature on the meaning of “accountability”. This brief series will not attempt to traverse the many academic discussions of this topic, but rather provide a high-level overview of some of the most prominent points. This is with the aim of finding a functional definition that adds structure to how we think about accountability.

The first point to note is that the meaning of “accountability” has evolved over the past few decades. Input from scholars from various disciplines[9] has influenced this process, all in an attempt to describe the essential characteristics of a nebulous concept.

To use an analogy: if the concept of accountability were to be painted on a canvas, the forms described could remain more or less the same, but be depicted in many styles. It is possible for these different understandings to exist at the same time, all in service of the same basic concept. In this brief, then, I will firstly set out the minimum conceptual core of accountability, before using broad brushstrokes to overlay this with detail as to the expanded sense that the term can also include.

Minimum Conceptual Core

For present purposes, I will refer to a definition that can be reduced to constituent elements, each a step in the accountability process:

Accountability is the implicit or explicit expectation that one may be called on to justify one’s beliefs and actions to others, and the extent to which a person’s behaviours are observed and evaluated by others, with important rewards and punishments contingent upon those evaluations”.[10]

This definition therefore contemplates three steps: accounting, evaluation; and reward/punishment. It largely accords with Richard Mulgan’s description of accountability, which notes the following features of “being called to account” for one’s actions:

  • It is external, in that it is given to another person or body outside the person or body being held accountable;
  • It involves social interaction and exchange in that one side (that calling for the account) seeks answers and rectification while the other side (that being held accountable) responds and accepts sanctions;
  • It implies rights of authority – in that those calling for an account are asserting rights of superior authority over those who are accountable, including the right to demand answers and to impose sanctions.[11]

Thus, Mulgan adds two other elements to the consideration: externality and authority. In this view, then, internal self-evaluation does not constitute accountability, nor does review by peers who cannot issue rewards or sanctions.

Bovens, Goodin and Schillemans, when describing a “minimal conceptual consensus” between various academic fields concerning accountability, touch on many of the same aspects as Mulgan, with the addition of the element of retrospectivity: accountability is performed after the action being evaluated is being taken.[12]

From the above, it is possible to synthesise six elements as forming the minimum conceptual core of accountability: accounting, externality, retrospectivity, evaluation, authority (alternatively, hierarchy), and reward/punishment.

These six elements provide a basis for understanding accountability. However, one could not be blamed for having a sense that this is not yet the full picture – that there is something more.

Expansion beyond the Minimum Conceptual Core

An intuitive sense that accountability is more than just a process of giving account to an authority with the power to issue consequential rewards or punishments accords with Mulgan’s view that the traditional understanding of “accountability” has expanded. But to him, it has done so in more ways than one.[13]

Firstly, accountability now commonly refers to the sense of individual responsibility and concern for the public interest expected from public servants (‘professional’ and ‘personal’ accountability). Thus, when members of the public call for accountability, it is not necessarily the mechanistic “accounting” that they seek. It may be that they want officials to take responsibility for their actions. In this sense, the demand for accountability may well be satisfied even without sanction being applied by a higher authority. An example would be where an official displays genuine contrition for wrongful conduct and voluntarily steps down from his or her position. This could be what the drafters of the Constitution envisioned through their inclusion of “responsiveness” in section 1(d).

Second, accountability has expanded to describe a feature of the various institutional checks and balances by which democracies seek to control the actions of government. It is linked with the extent to which they are induced to do so through processes of authoritative exchange and control. This is the sense in which accountability becomes necessary for meaningful democracy. This is discussed in further detail below.

Third, it is applied to the public discussion between citizens on which democracies depend (“accountability as dialogue”) even where there is no suggestion of any authority or subordination between the parties involved in the accountability relationship. In this sense, transparency and openness become key values of accountability.

What Accountability Is Not

Having considered the minimum conceptual core and the expanded meanings attributed to accountability, the rough edges of one’s understanding of accountability can be refined by distinguishing the concept from what it isn’t. In this regard, Bovens provides a helpful account.[14] According to him:

  • Accountability is not the drafting of citizen charters and protocols for implementing quality control systems and benchmarks. This is because they lack a relationship to a forum (or an external forum) that exercises powers of sanction.
  • Transparency, on its own is not enough to constitute accountability. A public body could not be said to be accountable merely because it publishes reports, for instance.
  • Accountability is not fully constituted by responsiveness and participation, such as in the form of representative deliberation.
  • It should also be distinguished from “controllability”, which is a broader concept that includes both prospective and retrospective mechanisms of directing behaviour.

Accountability: virtue or mechanism?

The last question about the basic meaning of accountability that will be explored here is whether it is a virtue or a mechanism. Put differently, is accountability a means to an end, or an end in itself?

As a virtue, Bovens, Schillemans and Goodin note that it can be understood as “‘responsiveness’, a ‘sense of responsibility’ or a willingness to act in a transparent, fair, compliant and equitable way”. It is thus concerned with the behaviour of individual actors.

On the other hand, accountability can also be understood as a social, political or administrative mechanism – an “institutional relation or arrangement in which an agent can be held to account by another agent or institution”. Rather than being concerned with how individuals behave, it is concerned with the “ways in which…institutional arrangements govern the behaviour of public agents” – and how these agents are held responsible once the procedure has been followed.

In the South African context, particularly in the wake of state capture revelations, it can be argued that calls for accountability refer to both these meanings. The State Capture Commission is, in one sense, intended to engender a sense of “responsiveness”, as it calls upon various individuals to account for their role in either aiding or thwarting malfeasance. The public has been able to witness accounts from the likes of Angelo Agrizzi, who admitted his role in corruption arising from tenders awarded to Bosasa.

However, the Commission itself is a mechanism, in the sense that it is an institution that is used to hold office bearers of other public institutions to account. Its utility as a mechanism is, however, limited because it lacks the ability to impose sanctions.[15] That authority is held by other public institutions, such as the National Prosecuting Authority, and ultimately, the courts. It can therefore be viewed as a component in a greater accountability structure.

At a 2013 HSF Roundtable, Alex van den Heever discussed accountability frameworks, which consider accountability as a mechanism.[16] These are systems that “limit and restrict arbitrary discretion to make certain decisions and do certain things”. His analysis of these frameworks will be discussed in the second brief in the series.

Public Accountability

The preceding description of accountability can, in general, be applied equally to private and public organisations. But there are considerations that are peculiar to public accountability, giving it its unique character.

Public accountability is “accountability in, and about, the public domain”.[17] This implies a measure of openness about accountability proceedings, such as making information concerning the matter – as well as the eventual decision and reasons for it – available to the public.

Further, the subject of the accountability proceedings will have some impact on the public generally. For example: even though the collapse in the share price of the Steinhoff group of companies is in essence, a private matter concerning its shareholders, it has a broad impact on the public generally, due to the significant investments in the company made by various financial investment vehicles. It also raises concerns about the strength of corporate governance in South Africa which affects the country’s ability to attract foreign investment. Parliament is therefore justified in investigating the conditions that precipitated the company’s share price collapse.

The importance of public accountability lies in its provision of “a democratic means to monitor and control government conduct, for preventing the development of concentrations of power, and to enhance the learning capacity and effectiveness of public administration”.[18]

Accountability depicted

The aim of this brief has been twofold: firstly, to emphasise that the concept has meaning that is constantly undergoing revision and refinement. This process has been and is currently taking place in a number of fields of study, each contributing their own mid-tones to what could otherwise be a monochromatic image.

Second, I have sought to show how the minimum conceptual core described above is useful to shape our understanding of the essential aspects of accountability. To continue the theme, it can be likened to the verdacciounderpainting upon which further detail, such as the expanded sense of accountability, is layered.

With this picture in mind, we can then proceed to considering how to take accountability from theory to action. This will be explored further in the second brief in the series.

Cherese Thakur
Legal Researcher

[1]Mark Bovens “Public Accountability: A framework for the analysis and assessment of accountability arrangements in the public domain”. Unpublished paper for Connex, Belfast 22-23 September 2005. Last accessed at on 22 August 2019.

[2] Such as Eskom, South African Airways, Passenger Rail Authority of South Africa, Denel, and the like.

[3] Such as the South African Revenue Service.

[4] Including the South African Social Security Agency grants debacle.

[5] Including the Estina Dairy Farm and Bosasa scandals.

[6] Including the Life Esidimeni tragedy.

[7] Section 1(d) of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 (Constitution) provides that “[t]he Republic of South Africa is one, sovereign, democratic state founded on the following values:

(d) Universal adult suffrage, a national common voters roll, regular elections and a multi-party system of democratic government, to ensure accountability, responsiveness and openness.

[8] Edwin OkeyIjeoma and Antony MatembaSambumbu “A framework for improving public accountability in South Africa” Journal of Public Administration (2013) 48(2) 282 at 282 and 283.

[9] Including political science, public administration, international relations, social psychology, constitutional law, and business administration. See Bovens, Schillemans, and GoodinOxford Handbook of Public Accountability (2014) Oxford University Press.

[10] Y Han and MA Demircioglu “Accountability, Politics, and Power” (2016) in A Farazmand (ed.) Global Encyclopedia of Public Administration, Public Policy, and Governance (2018) Springer International Publishing.

[11]R Mulgan “Accountability: An ever-expanding concept?” Australian National University Public Policy Program Discussion Paper No. 72 (2000).

[12]The concept of project premortems is an attempt to subvert the retrospective aspect of accountability to avert potential poor outcomes.

[13] Ibid.

[14] M Bovens op cit note 1.

[15]The Terms of Reference empowers the Commission to “inquire into, make findings, report on and make recommendations” concerning corruption and state capture. See section 1 of Proc 3 GG 41403 of 25 January 2018.

[16] See Helen Suzman Foundation “Quarterly Roundtable Series: Accountability” June 2012, accessed at on 22 August 2019.

[17] Mark Bovens, Thomas Schillemans and Robert E. Goodin op cit note 9.

[18]M Bovens op cit note 1.