Accountability and Ethics

  • Kristin Reichborn-KjennerudEmail author
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Civil Servant Formal System Public Administration Public Organization Supervisory Board 
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Accountability is a concept that no one can be against. It conveys an image of transparency and trustworthiness. It is increasingly used in political discourse and policy documents. The concept has many meanings and is partly overlapping with other concepts such as “responsibility.”

This chapter will first elaborate on why accountability is important. Subsequently different meanings of the concept will be presented. Lastly how the different meanings of accountability relate to the quality of government will be discussed.

Why “Accountability” Is an Important Concept

People’s natural inclination is to favor their own kind, whether it be family, friends, business associates, or other individuals or organizations that they have a close relation to. Modern democratic rule, on the contrary, has ethical universalism as an ideal. In this context it is necessary to move away from particularism and favoritism (Mungiu-Pippidi 2013). Many argue that accountability and control are a prerequisite for a functioning democracy. In a parliamentary system, the parliament controls the government. In a presidential system, the congress controls the president. The typical division of branches is into a legislature, an executive, and a judiciary. The intent is to prevent the concentration of power and provide for checks and balances. To safeguard that powerholders do not abuse of their powers, formal systems of laws, rules, and external and internal control have been established.

With democratic rule demands increase for better quality in government. Better administrative capacities come about when the public administration works efficiently and effectively. Systems of accountability are one key to securing good quality in government.

Different “Meanings” of Accountability

Accountability is considered to be important. Mechanisms of accountability are usually incorporated in formal systems of accountability. Every public and private organization has systems of internal control and management to reduce risk and prevent misuse of their organization. In addition there are external controls such as supervisory boards and Supreme Audit Institutions as well as regional and city auditors that control public organizations. Often, nevertheless, power relations and informal mechanisms of accountability are decisive in what sanctions are actually applied. In many contexts this means that the formal systems are overrun or are used only symbolically.

The concept of accountability can be used in diverse ways. Five of the most important meanings of accountability will be presented in the following.

Accountability does not only mean “accountability to formal systems” as described above. Another meaning of the concept can be “responsibility.” “Responsibility” entails civil servants acting responsibly and ethically as a person. During World War II, this distinction was debated. Civil servants had acted unethically, but at the same time, followed rules and orders within the reigning bureaucracy that applied at the time. The accused civil servants would claim that they should not be held accountable, but at the same time, they had behaved irresponsibly (Mulgan 2000).

The second main distinction in meaning is between accountability to formal systems and accountability as a social mechanism. Accountability as a social mechanism is associated with the process of being called “to account” to some authority for one’s actions. The framework is a descriptive model of who is obliged to explain and to justify his or her conduct to whom (called a forum). The forum can interrogate the actor and question the adequacy of the information or the legitimacy of the actor’s conduct. The forum will pose questions and pass judgment, and the actor may face sanctions and consequences (Bovens 2005).

A third type of accountability is related to civil servants’ ethics and concern for the public interest (public ethos). With public ethos professionals working in public organizations are loyal to their workplace, over other networks such as political parties, their family and friends, and criminal organizations such as the mafia or business affiliates. This mind-set will influence the efficiency and effectiveness of the public administration. Formal systems of control are not sufficient to secure well-performing public organizations because formal systems always can be manipulated. When civil servants work in the publics’ best interest, they will produce better results.

The fourth main distinction is between accountability to formal systems and responsiveness to citizens. In reaction to a perceived lack of trust in government, there is an urge in many Western democracies for public agencies to be more responsive to citizens. More attention is payed to the role of nongovernmental organizations, interest groups, and customers or clients as relevant “stakeholders.” There are demands for citizens to have a larger say in public service provision and for the public organizations to be more open and transparent. Public agencies and managers should be responsive to the public at large or to civil interest groups, charities, and associations of clients. The rise of the Internet has given a new dimension to this form of accountability (Bovens 2005). These five meanings of accountability are summed up in Table 1 below.
Table 1

Different meanings of accountability

Accountability to formal systems

Responsibility as a person

Accountability as public ethos

Accountability as a social mechanism

Responsiveness to citizens

In the following I will elaborate on the concept “quality of government.” Subsequently I will relate the concept “quality of government” to the different meanings of accountability presented in Table 1.

The Quality of Government

Quality in government represents the payoff the taxpayers get from what they put in. In this meaning of the concept, “quality of government” equals good government performance. Government performance is the government administration’s ability to deliver products and services economically, efficiently, and effectively to its citizens. These tasks are mediated through professionals in (or for) public organizations.

Low-quality government institutions have tremendous negative effects on the health and wealth of societies (Bo Rothstein 2011). One of the interesting questions as regards organizations in general, and public organizations in particular, is therefore to what extent it would be possible to change the systems and culture in organizations so that they perform better. If low-performing public administrations would improve with increased quality outputs as a result, people’s lives and quality of life indicators would improve. This could solve many of the world’s problems, both in developing and more developed countries.

There has been accumulative steering and control in the public sector as a consequence of increased devolution and autonomy of state entities. These reforms came with New Public Management (NPM) reforms from the 1980s and 1990s. The price to pay for these reforms is more control and demands for more reporting and documentation (Christensen and Lægreid 2011). To be more concrete, this can both encompass external control such as audits, investigations, and evaluations and internal management and control systems (Reichborn-Kjennerud 2013). Examples of these kinds of systems can be management of objectives and results, lean production, business process re-engineering, total quality management, the Committee of Sponsoring Organizations of the Treadway Commission (COSO) framework, and self-assessments.

Delivering better services through stricter control of professionals is what NPM measures promise. At the same time, professionals themselves claim that this control produces adverse effects and reduces their performance. Fukuyama’s solution is thus to trust the professions more; his argument being that controlling them through measuring outcomes is impossible in practice. Instead the capacity and autonomy of the professions need to be enhanced (Fukuyama 2014). Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, professor at the Hertie School of Governance on the other hand, argues that the road to a better quality in government goes through combatting corruption, which could entail the strengthening of administrative controls (Mungiu-Pippidi 2006). Bo Rothstein is also preoccupied with accountability and argues that impartiality in the exercise of power is essential to enhancing the quality of government (Rothstein and Teorell 2008).

How well control systems function is nevertheless difficult to assess because organizations not only encompass formal systems and procedures, but also culture. Control systems may have difficulty in accounting for these cultural biases. We can speak of systems and culture on different levels. There is the supranational level, the national level (macro-level), the organizational level (meso-level) which is infused with professional cultures, and the local level (microlevel). Culture will guide practice in how systems are used, and different practices can be more or less effective in different contexts.

How the Different Meanings of Accountability Is Linked to the Quality of Government

More Controls as a Consequence of NPM

The extent to which the quality of government will increase with NMP systems depends on how these systems are used. NPM systems come instead of, but more often in addition to, controls already existing in the government administration. This entails that the pressure from control and time used to satisfy control systems increase (Power 1997; Hood 1991).

With NPM civil servants ideally get more freedom to make dispositions locally. This may increase the risk of corrupt activity in some contexts because individual employees hold more powers and get better possibilities to misuse those powers. Interfaces with the private sector increase. Civil servants’ public ethos therefore needs to be strong for such systems to function according to their initial intentions.

With NPM social mechanisms of accountability change because more attention is given to the users of public services. NPM techniques mimic private sector systems. Users are considered to be customers instead of clients. The users must therefore inform themselves on alternative products and services presented to them and make a choice. On the other hand, NPM systems reduce the politicians’ power over public organizations. When agencies get more autonomy, ministries or politicians can no longer give direct instruction. Often they instead operate as owners that elect a board. Their powers are thus reduced to electing or throwing the board. The politicians’ powers are increasingly reduced the more private the chosen solutions are, for example, when public tasks are organized in fully or partly public-owned companies.

With NPM residents of a country are treated as consumers of products and services. Residents are nevertheless not only customers. They are also citizens. They can make their voice heard both in elections, through advocacy and lobbying and through protest movements such as “Occupy Wall Street,” that has been a global protest movement against what has been perceived as an injust financial system. There has been increasing demands for responsiveness in public service delivery. This has put formal administrative and control systems under pressure. Often the formal systems are too rigid to open up for real participation from citizens organized in, for example, neighborhood organizations or as interest groups.

Trust in Professions

Trust in government is measured by the OECD “trust in government” index ( Transparency International measures the level of corruption in different countries in their “corruption perceptions” index ( These indexes reflect to what extent citizens trust powerholders in their countries and their administrative apparatus. In many countries few citizens pay taxes because they expect the money to disappear into the pockets of public officials and their families and network. In many countries public positions are also distributed based on demonstration of loyalty to other networks such as family and political parties. These informal systems override the principle of meritocracy of a professional bureaucracy and cause the public administrations to work poorly. When practices of corruption and mismanagement are widespread, this decreases trust and the use of formal systems. Informal systems and patrimonial structures are instead where the real power lies.

In these sorts of systems, people employed in the public administration feel responsibility toward their networks rather than their workplace. When nobody within the public system abides by the formal system, individual employees neither feel obliged to do so. When nobody is held formally to account for breaking formal rules or when there are no consequences to breaking these rules, the informal systems and rules continue to prevail.

In bureaucracies where formal systems prevail over informal systems, citizens can expect to be treated equally irrespective of their background and status. Public ethos suffers in systems where informal systems override formal systems. When a majority of civil servants primarily are loyal to their own personal networks over their place of work, public interest is not safeguarded, and resources are not used in the publics’ best interest.

Formal systems are still not always sufficient to secure public administration to function efficiently and effectively. The NPM trend is grounded in discontent with slow and poorly working bureaucracies. Many of these new NPM systems are designed to place responsibility and give incentives for obtaining results.

Believers in NPM have been accused of lacking in trust of professionals and reducing their autonomy, their aim being to improve service provision to users. Measures to increase competition, place responsibility more clearly, and increase administrative controls over professionals have been used to better the responsiveness to users.

The Strengthening of Administrative Controls

With NPM measures there has been a proliferation in formal systems of control. The rise of auditing has its roots in political demands for accountability and control. Whether this rise in administrative controls will enhance the quality of government depends on several factors. Some researchers claim that the effect of audit and supervision is purely symbolic and serves merely to produce assurance and a false feeling of security (Power 1997). Others have demonstrated that this control is effective in specific countries and contexts (Reichborn-Kjennerud and Johnsen 2015).

Several researchers point to deficiencies of performance management systems. Often these systems are not actually used or they distort employees’ behavior in a manner that does not enhance the overall performance of the organization. When employees learn how the systems work, they understand how to manipulate them. This may produce suboptimal results instead of employees taking an overall responsibility for the functioning of their organization.

Many NPM systems place responsibility and demand results. If results are not obtained, this should produce sanctions and consequences. If administrative systems function suboptimally and do not take all important aspects into account, this may nevertheless be fatal to the performance of an organization. Often therefore such systems are implemented partially and are adapted to the existing context (Christensen and Lægreid 2011).

There may be many reasons for the implementation of NPM systems, one reason being that it will make the organization stand out as modern or organizations that experience challenges with existing systems want to try new ways of organizing. Repeated criticisms for lack of responsiveness to users can, for example, trigger politicians to organize for more competition from the private sector in public service provision.

Impartiality in the Exercise of Power

A well-functioning bureaucracy is characterized by stable political rules and rights. For impartiality in the exercise of power to take place, these need to be applied impartially to all citizens. Written laws are nevertheless universal statements. Civil servants working in the public administration manage these rules. Rules cannot be applied precisely in every situation. Therefore civil servants must use discretion in unique cases (Rothstein 2011). Whether this impartiality enhances the quality of government will depend on the culture and practice in specific public administrations.

For discretion to be applied in a good way, responsibility and a certain public ethos are important. To some extent and in some situations, the principle of impartiality can nevertheless come in conflict with concerns for responsiveness. One example of situations where these principles may come in conflict is area-based initiatives (ABI). These are temporary organizations put up to improve certain geographical areas in cities. The ideal in these initiatives is often to improve the living conditions of those living there. These ABIs are often set up with the intention of being responsive to residents’ suggestions and needs. Participation from residents nevertheless often comes in conflict with the formal administrative system that must pay attention to principles of impartiality. This tends to impair real participation from citizens and hamper responsiveness. Ideals of co-creation from citizens in public service provision thus seem to be difficult to implement in practice. In cases like these, accountability, as a social mechanism, takes on a deliberative dimension. The public administration is held to account through the media instead of through formal channels. Citizens make their voices heard through social media and in debates. They are protesting against decisions that affect their area, in ways that are unfortunate to them. In cases where local residents protest against decisions that affect them, certain principles of democracy may therefore conflict with principles of impartiality in the exercise of power.

Systems and Culture on Different Levels

Formal accountability systems, administrative routines, and controls are enhancing the quality of government only when they are used according to intentions. How systems are used will depend on culture. Practice will differ depending on national cultures, but also within a nation where there are big differences in cultures and practices. Between organizations and even within organizations, across different departments populated by civil servants with different kinds of education, experience, gender and ages, practice will differ.

How civil servants, with their different background and cultures, perceive the world will differ. What they consider to be responsible conduct, public ethos, integrity, and how they relate to norms that may affect how they practice their work will therefore vary.

In countries where access to the Internet is not widespread, debates in the radio may be the better way to hold powerholders to account. In high-trust countries, the Supreme Audit Institution and the parliament can play a role. In countries where the people do not trust the public institutions, NGOs and social media can be good instruments to use.

Different Forms of Accountability and the Quality of Government: Implications

In this chapter I have discussed how different meanings of accountability are linked to the quality of government. The discussion revealed several dilemmas. To what extent the systems function depends on how they are used by civil servants and by citizens. Systems are used differently depending on administrative cultures. Ideally these systems open up for increased accountability, responsiveness to citizens, and competition, but the cost is often an increased burden of administration. How this plays out in concrete settings will impact on the quality of government.

Civil servants must exercise discretion in decisionmaking. That they have a public ethos and a sense of personal responsibility is therefore important. In general what systems of accountability will work efficiently and effectively, and how they will affect the quality of government will depend on existing systems and culture in concrete contexts. No system can be universally applied.

Upholding impartial systems and at the same time being responsive to citizens are challenging. Responsiveness to citizens often conflict with rules of political and administrative accountability. This is a dilemma. Rules cannot be applied too rigidly, and attention must be payed to how they apply in different context. How this is solved in practice will affect the quality of government.

Abiding by rules of formal accountability and at the same time emphasizing organizational learning and innovation in the public sector, through co-creation and other novel methods, are also difficult. How public organizations succeed in combining these different meanings and practices of accountability will be decisive for the quality of government in their countries.

There are mechanisms of accountability in every context. The question is whether mechanisms of accountability are formal or informal. In countries and cultures where informal systems prevail over formal systems, powerholders are not effectively held to account through the formal systems. In these cultures civil servants are loyal to personal networks rather than their place of work. The consequence is that citizens are not treated equally by the government, and some stakeholders are favored over others. Among other things recruitment to the public administration is often based on favoritism and is not meritocratic. This affects the quality of government negatively.

Having formal systems in place is no guarantee of an effectively working system. Ministries, control agencies, and anticorruption bodies are assumed to be morally above corruption. But they also have the most discretionary power and most opportunities to act corruptly. New democracies rarely attain fair governance. Most often they fail to impose normative constraints on predatory elite behavior. In order to place effective checks on officials, thereby creating real accountability, there must exist, at the grassroots level, an active and enlightened citizenry (Mungiu-Pippidi 2013).

Also, for good governance to prevail, the belief in the superiority of ethical universalism over particularism as a mode of governance must be present in a majority of active public opinion, including a fraction of the elite. Research has shown that four factors must be present to secure a civil society that can foster real accountability: a prevailing societal norm of ethical universalism, widespread collective action, a dense network of voluntary organizations, and participation and political engagement of the people (Mungiu-Pippidi 2013).

In a society dominated by particularism, it is more convenient for individuals to strive to become part of the privileged group than to try to change the rules of the game. At the same time, there must be some sort of critical mass that favors ethical universalism in a society. Individuals must therefore be mobilized to wanting change. Civil society movements that start out loosely organized need to become more institutionalized and specialized (Mungiu-Pippidi 2013).

Internet access is closely associated with control of corruption. Opening an Internet cafe in every village may be more effective than establishing anticorruption agencies (Mungiu-Pippidi 2013).

Through the Internet and other means, sustainable collective-action networks must be built until society reaches a reasonable level of normative constraints. This is to secure that corruption fighters do not remain isolated and exceptional (Mungiu-Pippidi 2013).



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© Springer International Publishing AG 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Public ManagementThe Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied SciencesOsloNorway