Responsible Government. The Essence of Public Accountability

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2015

9 Pages



The study stems out of the growing concern among key governance stakeholders such as citizens, civil societies, political parties, international development organizations among other actors on the need to ensure accountability of public officials and improved public service delivery. The paper employs historical method to reveal the essence and domains of the concept of public accountability. The study traces the roots of the word and provides the justification for “accountor” and “accountee” behavior and relationship. Finally, the study outlines the importance of the concept in modern day politics

Public, accountability, accountor, accountee, behavior, relationship, actors, domains, state, politics


In the “Distribution of Offices”, Aristotle (384-322 B.C) clearly observed that:

(...) But above all every state should be so administered and so regulated by law that its magistrates cannot possibly make money...For the people do not take any great offense at being kept out of government-indeed they are rather pleased than otherwise at having leisure for their private business-but what irritates them is to think that their rulers are stealing the public money; then they are doubly annoyed; for they lose both honor and profit. (Aristotle translated by Benjamin Jowett 1999: 151).

Omodera, in her study on the “Genesis of accountability and its impact on accounting” argued that although accountability is often not well understood due to improper understanding of the concept, most people know how important the concept is. In emphasizing the importance of the concept of accountability, like Aristotle, Kautilya made the following observations:

"Just as it is impossible to know when a fish moving in water is drinking it, so it is impossible to find out when government servants in charge of undertakings misappropriate money. He further opined that "it is possible to know even the path of birds flying in the sky but not the ways of government servants who hide their (dishonest) income."[1]

The Concept of Accountability

Accountability is often used in both public and private discourses, in public and private administration literature and in most policy literature and practices. Recently, the concept has become one of the important elements of good governance. However, the term has equally developed into such an elusive, "chameleon" word making it difficult to find a single definition. (Day and Klein 1987:3; Gray and Jenkins 1985: 138; Glynn and Murphy 1996:123; Bovens 2006:5 Demirag and Khadaroo 2008: 474).

Bovens argues that accountability is a form of relationship that exist between an actor and a forum in which the actor has an obligation to explain and to justify his or her conduct, and the forum can pose questions and pass judgment, which may result in the actor facing some consequences. (Bovens 2006:9). In the same vein, the International Professional Institute in the United Kingdom has observed that:

Holding someone accountable for something is to explain or justify the acts, omissions, risks and dependencies for which one is responsible to people with a legitimate interest (...) To ensure accountability, acts, omissions, risks and dependencies need to be accounted for. (The UK International Professional Institute of Accountability 1999:8)

Day and Klein in their discussion on: “Accountabilities: five public services” (1987:5) shared the view that one could not be accountable to anyone, unless one had the responsibility for doing something. Day and Klein argue that whenever one accepts a responsibility to act on behalf of another person or group of persons, accountability relationship is established.

One of the most comprehensive explanations of the accountability concept is offered by Lindberg (2009): Lindberg argued that accountability involved five key elements. 1. An agent or institution that is to be held accountable. (A for agent). 2. The domain of accountability. (D for domain) 3. The principal i.e., to whom one renders account to (P for principal). 4. The principal has the right to authorize the agent to explain or justify his/her actions according to the domain of accountability. 5. The principal has the right to impose sanctions on the agent if he/she fails to deliver the terms agreed by both parties (Agent and the principal). (Lindberg 2009:16).

The above discussions provide us with a foundational explanation and dimensions of accountability relationships in terms of who is accountable, (accountee) to whom is accountability be rendered to, (accountor), the rights of the principal to question the actions of the agent, and the consequences thereof in case of non-performance or breach of agreed terms by the agent. This is generally termed as dimensions of accountability. Lindberg´s conceptual explanation also provides us with what Gray and Jenkins call "code of accountability" i.e.; the system of signals, meanings and customs which binds the parties in a stewardship relation and governs the liability of the steward to present an account of his stewardship. (Gray and Jenkins 1985:140).


[1] This is quoted from Sihag S. Babir publication on “Kautilya´s writings on the Scope and Methodology of Accounting, Organizational Design and the Role of Ethics in ancient India.

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Responsible Government. The Essence of Public Accountability
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accountability, public officials, public service, public accountability, responsible government, responsibility
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Samuel Asamoah (Author), 2015, Responsible Government. The Essence of Public Accountability, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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