Accountability, Politics, and Power

  • Yousueng HanEmail author
  • Mehmet Akif DemirciogluEmail author
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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 behaviors are observed and evaluated by others, with important rewards and punishments contingent upon those evaluations.


The activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power; activities within an organization that are aimed at improving someone’s status or position


The ability to do something or act in a particular way; the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events


This paper explains the relationships among the concepts of accountability, politics, and power. More specifically, this paper will conceptualize and define accountability, frame accountability in terms of typologies, discuss the relationship between accountability and politics, and provide insights into the relationships among accountability, politics, and power. First, this paper provides major definition of accountability by discipline and explain well-known accountability frameworks. There are many definitions of accountability. However, it is important to discuss the topic based on the selected major definitions by area to induce coherent interpretation of accountability, politics, and power. Additionally, providing multiple definitions of accountability reduces uncertainties about the implications of accountability.

Second, this paper will discuss how, although at first glance these terms may seem unrelated to each other, these terms are in fact closely related to and affect each other. Changing accountability or accountability mechanisms involves politics and changing the distribution of power. Similarly, changing power relationships in organizations or societies involves changing the accountability of actors. All these processes involve politics. For instance, democratic accountability refers to a distribution of power among society, politicians, and stakeholders, while bureaucratic accountability refers to the accumulation of power within a bureaucracy. In order to shift structures of accountability, actors (primarily politicians) use politics or political behavior to convince other groups to make changes in power structures.

What Is Accountability?

Conceptualizing and Defining Accountability

Accountability can be defined differently based on social, cultural, or institutional conditions (Dubnick and George Frederickson 2011). Definitions of accountability can be understood according to some standards such as whether it focuses on individual or organizational level and whether it concerns public domain or not.

First of all, accountability can be defined with focusing on individual level. Individual level of analysis has been firstly offered by social psychology area. Lerner and Tetlock (1999) defined the individual accountability as “implicit or explicit expectation that one may be called on to justify one's beliefs, feelings, and actions to others” (255). According to the definition, an evaluation need not occur by the existence of evaluation system, but the possibility for an evaluation to occur must be present. Therefore, this approach to define the individual accountability reflects the psychological state on how individuals understand accountability requirements and environment in the macro–micro accountability framework rather. Based on extensive review on psychological research, Lerner and Tetlock (1999) confirmed that the simplest dimension of the individual accountability include empirically distinguishable four sub-manipulations (255): (a) mere presence of another (participants expect that another will observe their performance), (b) identifiability (participants expect that what they say or do in a study will be linked to them personally), (c) evaluation (participants expect that their performance will be assessed by another according to some normative ground rules and with some implied consequences), and (d) reason-giving (participants expect that they must give reasons for what they say or do). This accountability definition focusing on individual level in social relationship has been widely accepted to organizational behavior and human resource management area. For example, Ferris et al. (1995) defined the accountability as “the extent to which a person’s behaviors are observed and evaluated by others, with important rewards and punishments contingent upon those evaluations” (187). In fact, the definition was one of the first that addressed accountability in the organizational context

Second, for understanding accountability phenomenon in “public” domain, several public administration scholars have tried to define and frame the “public” accountability concept. For example, public accountability could involve “the means by which public agencies and their workers manage the diverse expectations generated within and outside the organization” (Romzek and Dubnick 1987, p. 228). The public agencies should establish various accountability instruments to respond to expectations from legal entities, citizen, top executives, or organizational members. Therefore, diverse formal instruments to make public agencies accountable, for example, performance measurement or performance-informed budgeting system, could be understood as one of the diverse accountabilities (e.g., Moynihan and Ingraham 2003; Gilmour and Lewis 2006b; Yang 2011). To give shape to the meaning of the public accountability, the multidimensional components of the accountability have been disclosed. Koppell (2005) argued that the public accountability conceptually consisted of five dimensions (p. 96): “transparency (revelation of information), liability (consequences for performance), responsibility (conformity of rule), responsiveness (fulfillment of expectation), and controllability (controlled as principal desires).” This conceptualization emphasized that the dimensions of transparency and liability are foundation building up other three dimensions.

On the other hand, accountability has been used interchangeably with other similar concepts although holding different conceptual implications. For example, responsibility is most closely related to accountability, so that the two terms have been used often jointly and/or interchangeably in practice and research. But, conceptually, responsibility is clearly distinct from accountability (Schlenker et al. 1994), and scholars generally have recognized that they are separate constructs. Schlenker et al. (1994) disclosed empirically that responsibility is a component or factor within a broader concept of accountability. Responsibility connotes personal causal influence on an event or an internal sense of duty, but it does not subsume the existence of audience to observe individual that is crucial factor of accountability concept. Additionally, the responsibility concept does not cover evaluation expectation. Responsibility is an internal path while the felt accountability is the external, social, and public process foreseeability (Cummings and Anton 1990). The responsibility is “a necessary component of the process of holding individuals accountable for their conduct” (Schlenker et al. 1994, p. 634). Whether individual is responsible to only self or becomes accountable to salient external audience is a separate issue, so that the two concepts result in different employee outcomes. On the one hand, answerability, fidelity, amenability, obedience, and obligation, each also has been frequently used interchangeably with accountability. However, each is linked to different forms of account-giving mechanisms (Dubnick 2002).

Framing Accountability in Typologies and Power Relationship

Public accountability literature reveals that many efforts exist to frame the dynamic and complicated phenomena of public accountability. The typology of public accountability has been developed from as few as two types (e.g., horizontal and vertical accountability) to as many as 12 types (Lindberg 2013). Overall, accountability has been normatively recognized as a good thing because it was assumed to bring meaningful positive qualities such as legitimacy to organizations (Dubnick and Frederickson 2009). Dubnick and Frederickson (2009) have classified accountability as three general types – input, process, and outcome – and as six particular types – control, integrity, ethical behavior, legitimacy, performance, and justice. For example, accountability solutions for performance and performance measurement are assumed to improve performance. Likewise, accountability in organizations can be expected to increase ethical behavior, organizational justice, and the legitimacy of organizations and individuals.

In this regard, the term “power” comes to play an important role and becomes an interesting phenomenon within accountability typologies and dimensions. However, despite promising research integrating accountability and power, scholars have not made efforts to analyze these topics together. Power refers to the ability, capability, or influence to accomplish an action or change the behavior of others. Based on Dubnick and Frederickson (2009)’s typology, accountability can increase the legitimacy of public organizations and public managers. When a public organization becomes more legitimate in the eyes of stakeholders and has a higher performance, organizational leaders will have more power compared with managers in organizations that perform poorly or lack organizational justice and ethical behavior.

Behn (2001) sorted accountability into four types – accountability for power, performance, justice, and finance. These four types of accountability can increase trust, democratic behavior, collective responsibility, and the effectiveness of management. The accountability of power can reduce the abuse of power by government employees, which is crucial for democratic societies. Behn (2001) states, “Why do we worry about accountability in government? Because we fear that public officials – elected officials, appointed executives, or civil servants – will abuse power. And many public officials do have a lot of power. They award contracts worth millions or billions of dollars to some but not to others. They decide to grant benefits to some and not others. They decide to prosecute some and not others. They decide to convict some and not the others…Thus, as citizens, we seek to constrain the behavior of public officials, to limit their discretion, to prevent them from abusing their power” (Behn 2001, p. 9). Behn (2001) also suggests, “When we are worried about the abuse of power (for either finances or fairness), we do need individual accountability. After all, it is the individual person – the human agent – not the collective organization, that abuses power” (Behn 2001, p. 67). According to Behn, power is a crucial dimension of accountability. Thus, studies of accountability should include discussions of power, as both concepts affect one another and different accountability mechanisms may establish different power structures.

One seminal article by Romzek and Dubnick (1987) has been widely used as a foundation to frame and understand the complex nature of public accountability (Table 1). They divided accountability into four types – political, bureaucratic, legal, and professional – by the standards of control source and control degree.
Table 1

Types of accountability systems


Source of agency control



Degree of control over agency actions


1. Bureaucratic

2. Legal


3. Professional

4. Political

Note: Source: Romzek and Dubnick (1987)

Table 1 has several different implications. First, bureaucratic accountability concerns managing expectations from those at the top of bureaucratic hierarchy and the expectations occurring between superiors and subordinates in the bureaucracy. Higher-level bureaucrats will impose sanctions on public employees if they violate a rule, so the source of agency control is bureaucratic. This implies that bureaucracy is a powerful source of accountability compared to legal, professional, and political sources. Second, legal accountability is used as a mechanism to manage expectations from outside parties such as Congress or courts in the position to impose and oversee laws, policy mandates, and contractual obligations, namely; the expectation is characterized as formal and horizontal. Thus, the legal source has more power than other sources in terms of accountability systems. Third, professional accountability requires managing expectations of professionalism as public organizations rely on skilled and expert employees. Such officials request that managers trust them to do the best job possible and are held accountable for the job done by being rewarded or sanctioned. The control is placed in the hands of the relevant public employees. Outside professional associations may indirectly influence the mechanism, but the nature of the control is inside the organization. As a result, professional control mechanisms have more power compared to other sources. Fourth, political accountability includes managing the expectations of elected officials, interest groups, and/or the general public. It concerns being responsive to or satisfying their demands/needs, so politicians have more power compared to other sources in this type of accountability system.

Lindberg (2013) divided accountability into 12 types using the standards of control source, control strength, and control direction. Table 2 shows these types (see the article for detailed explanation). Each accountability type indicates different power mechanisms. For instance, a business type of accountability occurs when the source of control is internal, strength of control is high, and the nature of relationship is upward-vertical. In this accountability type, the business has more power to control than other sources such as Client–Patron and Patron–Client. A political type of accountability characterizes the downward, external, and low strength of control, while the legal type of accountability occurs in with horizontal, external, and high strength of control.
Table 2

Types of accountability

Source of control

Strength of control














Peer Professional










Note: Source Lindberg (2013)

Accountability can be divided into types according to whether it reflects formal or informal mechanisms. Formal aspects of accountability concern laws, performance measures, reporting relationships, stipulated rewards, or contractual terms, while informal aspects of accountability focus on informal norms such as verbal agreements, shared culture, trust of a leader, etc. (Klingner et al. 2002; Romzek et al. 2014). The attitudes of individuals can be influenced by the attitudes of, behaviors of, and communications with others. Individuals adhere to the unspoken rules of conduct in an organization as well as the formal rules. If they defect on verbal agreements or fail to adhere to informal norms including trust, they can be punished informally. This mechanism results in behavior accountable to such informal expectations, leading to performance. For framing other specific contexts of accountability, other scholars have used the concept of social accountability (e.g., Brinkerhoff and Wetterberg 2015), referring to citizen empowerment to make public officials accountable or the concept of voluntary accountability (e.g., Karsten 2015), i.e., that people will willingly submit themselves to scrutiny even when it is not required. In this regard, these statements are consistent with Behn’s (2001) claims that “we do need individual accountability” and that social and voluntary accountability systems are very helpful for reducing the excessive power of individuals.

Accountability as a Process

Accountability has also been understood as an evolving process consisting of three steps: information provision, discussion, and consequence between accountability actors and accountability forums (e.g., Day and Klein 1987, p. 5; Mulgan 2003, p. 9). These stages are interconnected, and any one stage cannot be disregarded in understanding accountability. For example, the reporting requirement of Congress is one accountability tool affecting agency performance. However, Congress should assess the performance information provided from the executive branch, and Congress can impose sanctions on agencies based on the evaluation results.

Generally, the process is sequential, so that after an accountability actor provides performance information for the forum and the information is evaluated and discussed, the forum assigns rewards or sanctions. However, the process need not necessarily be sequential, and steps can be omitted. However, it is desirable to consider all three steps of the accountability process rather than focusing specifically on one or two stages in order to better capture the dynamic nature of accountability phenomena. For example, looking at the accountability system of information requirements on agency performance, we have to be able to examine how intensively Congress evaluates the information submitted from agencies and how intensively Congress imposes sanctions as a result of bad performance. Brandsma and Schillemans (2013) applied a model of the accountability process consisting of three components – “information provision,” “discussion,” and “consequence” – to measure the accountability deficits of the European Union (EU) comitology. They concluded that the system worked generally well in terms of the three processes.

Behn (2001)’s classification of accountability – accountability for power, performance, justice, and finance – focuses on both the process and the outcome. Traditional public administration overemphasizes accountability procedures involving finances and justices. However, the importance of accountability as a process has diminished with the New Public Management (NPM) movement. Behn (2001) has criticized NPM’s premise. According to Behn, accountability as a process is always important, and public organizations should not overlook this concept. Meanwhile, politicians or bureaucrats dealing with accountability as a process can increase their power. For instance, Pfeffer (1992) states that formal authority, controlling resources (e.g., budgets and finance), and information access (e.g., performance information) create power. Elected and appointed officials who can control these processes by holding formal authority, controlling resources, and accessing information potentially have more power than other employees. This may cause a potential abuse of power on the part of bureaucrats and politicians, so they need to be careful about exercising power. They also need to be accountable to stakeholders. For instance, employees have to be treated fairly, and organizational justice should be at the top of a public organization’s agenda. Additionally, organizational processes (e.g., budgeting and hiring employees) need to be transparent.

Accountability and Politics: Political Accountability

Finally, political accountability is an interesting concept in which politics and accountability overlap. This section discusses how accountability is manifested in political situations within various contexts. Political accountability is central to the democratic control imposed on public administration systems (cell 4 at Table 1). Public administrators are representatives of the general public, elected officials, agency heads, agency clients, interest groups, and future generations. Democratic representatives work with public funds, including taxes, and are accountable to be responsive in their policy programs and to the demands of their constituents, such as clients and the general public. If the government is held accountable to the citizens paying taxes to the government in a democratic society, then the government will be able to receive positive support from the citizens. However, a public bureaucracy can be controlled by interest groups and subcommittees of Congress rather than by the general public.

The government requires performance reporting from nonelected delegated agencies, such as the US central bank. Congress can control the executive branch by legislating political appointments to some positions. For example, Gilmour and Lewis (2006a) found that federal programs administered by senior executives performed better than those administered by political appointees requiring Senate confirmation. The political appointees influenced the performance, and the programs run by political appointees received lower performance grades. This implies that allowing less political intervention and granting more authority to agencies are required to improve organizational performance. Furlong (1998) disclosed that Congress and the President’s control were more influential on bureaucratic policy making than the media or the courts, while Golden (1998) found that competing interest groups were more influential on the rule-making process of unelected branches of government. Wood and Waterman (1991) found that political appointee system symbolizing shared power by the president and congress among various political control instruments are most influential to bureaucratic outputs. Namely, the studies reflect how the executive branch was responsive to bureaucratic control to ensure democratic accountability.

Despite diverse political efforts to control bureaucracy, there are obstacles that can curb the impact of political control. According to the argument of West (2005 and 2006), because of organizational complexity such as horizontal coordination and vertical coordination, the presidential control of the executive branch can decrease. Because of the moral hazard problem that bureaucrats (agents) can work by using information asymmetry against the intentions of the elected officials (principals), the impact of political control on the bureaucracy can be alleviated. For example, the Office of Management and Budget (OPM) established by the president in order to promote executive leadership was politicized for someone else’s interest rather than for the president.

Thus, political accountability has different interpretations. On the one hand, the power given to elected officials is consistent with democratic theories simply because since politicians are elected, citizens are the main principles. On the other hand, the power given to politicians can cause too much politicization and less effective management. Giving power to bureaucrats may increase the efficiency and effectiveness of management because they are the experts at the job. However, giving too much power to bureaucrats may create a democratic problem because bureaucrats may not listen to elected officials. Pfeffer states, “problems of performance and effectiveness are problems of power and politics – power imbalances, powerlessness, and the inability of some groups to get their ideas or suggestions taken seriously” (Pfeffer 1992, p. 334). A good balance is needed in which effective powers are allocated each actor so that the system continues to be democratic without politicization or undermining management. In other words, power should include both representativeness and effectiveness. Public organizations need to be particularly careful about exercising power, particularly when it comes to political power.


This paper has provided information about accountability, politics, and power. Accountability has been defined and types of accountabilities are explained. There are a variety of accountability actors involved in the accountability relationships in a public organization. Accountability relationships can be horizontal or vertical and strong or less strong. Public accountability is a complex and dynamic phenomenon, as it can be understood as adding diverse concepts to the term “accountability” – for example, public, democratic, political, social, voluntary, informal, professional, self, organizational, fairness, process, finance, and so on. Terms such as answerability, responsiveness, transparency, responsibility, controllability, liability, or integrity have been also used to describe accountability. This chapter particularly aims to find connections and interactions among these concepts. Because accountability and politics involve many actors, influence, and dependent relationships, the issue of power becomes inevitable and needs to be explored. Depending on the type of accountability or political structure, power structures and power usage may be different: “Power is used more frequently under conditions of moderate interdependence. With little or no interdependence, there is little or no need to develop power or exercise influence. By the same token, when interdependence is great, people have incentives to work together, forge common goals, and coordinate their activities. If they ignore these incentives, then their organization or group is likely to fail” (Pfeffer 1992, p. 38).



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Public and Environmental AffairsIndiana UniversityBloomingtonUSA