Accountability Systems, Brazil

  • Fernando FilgueirasEmail author
Living reference work entry



The concept of accountability has a normative assumption and dependence, which makes it less analytical and more evaluative (Bovens 2007). It comprises a kind of social relationship between an actor and a forum, whereby the actor has an obligation to explain and justify his conduct to the forum. In this sense, accountability involves a cycle, which goes through the process of accountability, justification, and judgment of the actor in the forum, in which this evaluation process takes into account the value added by public agents to the policies and actions of governments and public agencies.

Conceptually, accountability is the duty of public agents to be accountable to their principals, who, in a democratic regime, are citizens. In a democracy, accountability is an institutional mechanism by which citizens must influence and control their elected representatives, nonelected officials, and other power holders (Olsen 2017).

The governance debate views accountability as one of the fundamental principles for government and public administration structures to strengthen the publicity of their actions to citizens. The analysis of accountability can take place at the principle level, according to norms and values that organize the public sector. Or it may occur at the institutional level, according to the analysis of organizations, rules, and structures of agent behavior.

From the institutional perspective on accountability, it is fundamental to analyze the organizations, rules, and effects of their performance in government. In the case of accountability, there is usually not just one organization responsible for the performance of control and promotion of institutional learning. There is usually a set of organizations that implement checks and balances mechanisms and mutually control public organizations. In this way, it is necessary to think not only of a theoretical conception and principle of accountability but also of a conception that gives account of a complex set of organizations that are structured in the form of systems.

Accountability systems comprise this set of organizations that promote political and institutional control actions in accordance with checks and balances mechanisms and governance structures that promote public integrity.


The premise of the concept of accountability is that governments must be accountable to citizenship (Filgueiras 2016). The accountability systems is conceived as the set of agents responsible for monitoring and controlling bureaucratic organizations, achieving compliance, and implementing principal preferences. Within democratic political regimes, the agents are organizations that exercise control, delegated by principals which are citizenship and constituted powers. Conceptually, an issue is central to the discussion of accountability: the exercise of agency power based on democratic norms and values that ensure the legitimacy and publicity of action. Thus, within democracies, accountability institutions are shaped for the exercise of control and vigilance in order to ensure the legitimacy of the actions of governments and bureaucracies.

The theoretical challenge of this principal-agent approach in the study of accountability processes is the causal understanding and attribution of responsibility, the punishment of unauthorized agent behavior, and the reward for compliance in order to promote a learning process with the successes and failures and the improvement of the political order and the institutions of the public administration (Olsen 2017).

The problem with this perspective is that there is a presumption that the organizations responsible for control know the preferences of principals and act strictly on the attributes of delegation. Agents act on behalf of and are responsible for a principal. Agents and principals make decisions that affect each other and are often associated with noncooperative games. Agents have better knowledge and strategic information and are opportunistic and unreliable. Principals, on the other hand, define the success criteria and establish the control incentives to achieve the desired behavior of the agents. The main problem is to have agents acting in the strict delegation process, following the preferences of the principals.

Since the control function is an essential governance function in the policy cycle, its agency depends on the delegation that authorizes it to control the other bureaucratic agents of the state. Delegation allows policymakers to make better policies, benefiting from the division of labor and specialization (Lupia 2001). Delegation can be beneficial to governors, but it can also cause problems, since agents receiving the delegation may act against the interests of their principal. The strategy adopted by politicians, in this case, is to abdicate the delegation, rendering it ineffective. The agency’s expertise and capacity is crucial for delegation to occur because it reduces the information costs and presents measurable results (McCubbins et al. 1987).

The problem with the principal-agent theory is that it supposes an endogenous process of delegation, often-disregarding political contexts and exogenous processes. Empirical studies show that principals and agents do not always fulfill their institutional roles (Schillemans and Busuioc 2015). The analysis of accountability institutions must therefore be conceived in the political trajectory of its institutional building, so it is necessary to observe the behavior of the various bureaucratic agents responsible for accountability processes. Thus, the analysis should be circumscribed in this process of development of accountability institutions in the context of demands for accountability and their impacts on the democratic political order (Olsen 2017).

Accountability, therefore, involves a complex trajectory of institutional development associated with political processes of delegation. Accountability institutions carry out organizational control activities associated with a political perspective of legitimacy building. These institutions have the mission of establishing institutional control and learning that strengthen governance in the public sector.

Accountability Institutions in Brazil

The return of polyarchy conditions promoted a process of political openness, essential to the construction of democracy. Moreover, along with the return of elections, an incremental development process of state institutions, including accountability institutions, began. In Brazil, gradual conditions were established for the consolidation of the democratic regime, especially regarding the conditions of governability (Limongi 2006). Political competition, presence of opposition and clearer institutional rules promoted the development of accountability institutions, motivated by the fight against corruption and the expansion of checks and balances mechanisms (Melo et al. 2009).

The institutions of the accountability system must be autonomous and recognized by their operators as public authority for the supervision, control, correction, and punishment of illegal acts, in order to preserve the public interest. In this way, the system of accountability institutions implies a complex network, in which institutional competences are specific, but the actions of each institution depend on a process of sequencing and institutional cooperation with other institutions (Mainwaring 2003). In the case of Brazil, the extension of this network of institutions is quite broad, from the three republican powers to the media. Nevertheless, the core of this network is composed of four institutions: the Federal Audit Office, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Federal Police, and the Federal Comptroller’s Office. These organizations are responsible for supervising, controlling, correcting, and judicially prosecuting actions against public managers and politicians in cases of corruption, illegitimate acts, misuse or misconduct of the public interest (Aranha 2017).

The Federal Audit Office is an advisory body of the National Congress and was founded in 1891. The Federal Audit Office, as established by the Federal Constitution of 1988, exercises the external control of the public administration, through inspection actions and inform the National Congress of the correct exercise of the powers delegated to public agents. As time passed by, the Federal Audit Office has left its strictly legalistic competencies to assume performance auditing and public management control competencies (Speck 2000). This implied a critical turning point for the institution, because it meant, in addition to the expansion of its functions, the change of practices rooted in its administration. Another critical situation that represented a strong change for the Federal Audit Court was the Fiscal Responsibility Act, through which management and audit practices were added and regulated, requiring the institution to modernize its practices and invest in technology (Loureiro et al. 2009).

In the case of the Public Prosecutor Office, the establishment of its powers by the 1988 Constitution was also critical. The Federal Constitution established its functional and administrative autonomy, making it immune to political interests and more empowered to act on the public scene. As for functional autonomy, it is the Public Prosecutor’s Office’s competence to exercise a judicial function in the State, and it is its responsibility to defend public and diffuse interests. Also, it has to defend the democratic regime, as well as public and social patrimony. The Public Prosecutor Office has the jurisdictional function of the State, which includes government supervision, control, and punishment of management irregularities. Their competencies are broader. The Public Prosecutor’s Office is also in charge of accountability, for its typical powers include supervising and promoting legal proceedings against public managers and elected politicians. This resulted in institutional incrementalism marked by changes in practices, legislation, and competencies. However, the institutional incrementalism of the Public Prosecutor’s Office was added by strong political voluntarism of its members, whose socialization occurs by defending the social interest of an apathetic society against a corrupt state (Arantes 2011a).

The same happens with the Federal Police, whose function of judicial police of the Union include being responsible for criminal investigation into offenses against public and social order, into detriment of goods, services, and interests of the Union or its municipal entities and public companies, as well as other infractions with interstate or international repercussion and that require uniform repression. The Federal Police was created in 1944, at the end of the Brazil’s “Estado Novo,” as Federal Department of Public Security, but its functions were circumscribed to the Federal District. In 1945, it gained national assignments. Only after the Constitution of 1988 were its powers established as judicial police of the Union, being recognized as permanent body with organizational structure. The permanent character of the Federal Police means that, despite being subordinated to the Executive Branch, the Federal Police cannot be dissolved by the government. The Federal Police’s organizational structure implies that there must be rules for career promotion, police hierarchical definition, transparent rules for ascension, and organizational competence driven subdivisions. Accordingly, the staff of the Federal Police was expanded over time, as their budget grew. This is explained by the fact that the socialization of agents and delegates of the Federal Police has a strong component of reinforcing a repressive action against organized crime and corruption, associated with a strengthening of democracy (Arantes 2011b).

Finally, the creation of the Federal Comptroller’s Office in 2003 underlies a process of long incrementalism in the internal audit and control of the Brazilian public administration. Prior to the creation of the Federal Comptroller’s Office, the internal control system was decentralized to the various organs of public administration and coordinated by the Secretariat of Federal Audit Control, linked to the Ministry of Finance (Olivieri 2010). The Law 10,683/2003 established the Federal Comptroller’s Office, which assumed and centralized all internal control activities of the Federal Government, as well as initiatives to prevent and combat corruption with functional autonomy. Prior to the creation of the Federal Comptroller’s Office, the internal control of the Executive Branch was carried out by public administration bodies, in a decentralized and uncoordinated manner, and was not very effective when it came to auditing and auditing, as well as evaluating management practices. The Federal Comptroller’s Office represented an important innovation process in Brazil, not only for centralizing the internal control activity and institutionalizing its practice within the public administration but also for disseminating management practices and transparency. The Brazilian Federal Comptroller’s Office represents a process of functional conversion dictated by critical junctures of corruption scandals during the transition process from the Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s Government to Lula’s Government (Filgueiras 2018). Thus, the creation of the Federal Comptroller’s Office was meant to institutionalize control practice, as established by the Constitution of 1988, with incremental gain of institutional changes in the accountability system. The institutionalization of internal control has allowed public administration to have a greater capacity for control and public policies monitoring, advancing the process of accountability.

Strenghtening Governance in Brazil

The development of accountability institutions in Brazil implied a deep strengthening of governance processes. First, on the side of public integrity, the performance of accountability institutions has promoted the confrontation of corruption, penalizing politicians, bureaucrats, and businessmen involved in public scandals. Second, the strengthening of accountability institutions in Brazil has provided institutional learning, improving the conditions of organizations and the development of public service capacities.

The gains from the development of accountability institutions are also criticized. There are challenges regarding the unintended effects of accountability institutions, especially with respect to the red tape and paralysis effects of public sector bureaucracy.

In the dynamics of Brazilian democracy, accountability institutions have played a central role. Be it in the sense of exercising control of power, or in the sense of strengthening governance mechanisms, strengthening transparency, integrity, and promoting the quality of management.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Directorate for Research and Graduate StudiesNational School of Public AdministrationBrasíliaBrazil
  2. 2.Department of Political ScienceFederal University of Minas GeraisBelo HorizonteBrazil