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date: 24 March 2017

Accountability and Responsibility

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

The words accountability and responsibility are often used as if they were synonymous. They are not, though both concepts are contestable as to their real meaning, and various interpretations can be found, including different types, or sources, of accountability—for example, political, administrative, legal, and professional. Generically, accountability is better understood as a synonym for organizational and political control: subordinates provide true or false accounts (stories, reports, fabrications, lies, and so on) of their actions to superiors in the first instance, and governors to the governed in the second. Accountability is essentially about answerability to relevant others for the ways in which discretionary power and authority are exercised, in political and organizational contexts. Popular demands that governmental agents be held accountable when things go wrong are seldom satisfied, because the quest for accountability is usually a matter for political disputation and reputation-protection rather than forensic determination.

Responsibility also has different meanings in common discourse. One principal usage is close to the idea of accountability (as above), and so lines of hierarchical responsibility are often depicted in organization charts and such. However, responsibility means much more than this. It is better understood as individual or collective agency—that is, individuals or groups intentionally or unintentionally cause particular effects or outcomes, and in so doing, they are willing to acknowledge to others that they have done so. While accountability is often a matter of simply ensuring that systems are under control and operate as intended, questions of responsibility, by contrast, focus on issues of individual and collective moral choice among or between different and sometimes conflicting obligations.

There is a relationship between the ideas of accountability and responsibility, as the former can be understood as a necessary but insufficient condition of the latter: public officials’ willingness to be fully accountable is an integral component of their willingness to act responsibly, but acting responsibly means much more than merely being accountable. Too great an emphasis on the need to be accountable can supplant or diminish an individual’s or a group’s sense of responsibility, by discouraging self-reflection while encouraging blame-shifting: “I was only following orders.” As a consequence, people and organizations can be held fully accountable for their actions, after the event, and may be willingly accountable for them, even though such actions may be judged by others to be in gross violation of widely held moral standards and social norms. In sum, the idea of individual and collective responsibility is of a higher philosophical order than that of accountability.