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Accountability and Responsibility

Summary and Keywords

Accountability and responsibility are related ideas that are central to political, constitutional, and institutional arrangements in Western liberal democracies. However, political elites in non-democratic systems are generally not held accountable by citizens through such arrangements, and accountability is primarily a means of securing the compliance of state functionaries to the will of these elites. In liberal democracies the terms “accountability” and “responsibility” are often used in common discourse as if they were synonyms, but they are not. The former is a concept that embodies a number of different types, with a common theme of answerability by an accountor to an accountee, usually—but not necessarily—in a hierarchical relationship designed to ensure compliance and control. Responsibility, on the other hand, speaks of the associated but different domain of individual moral choice, where often conflicting duties of obligation are experienced by those in official positions. Beginning in the 1980s, the so-called new public management movement, which brought major changes to many Western systems of public administration, sought to enhance the accountability of public bureaucrats, especially their answerability to their elected political superiors. The effects have been mixed and uncertain, often with unintended consequences, such as the reinforcement of risk aversion and blame shifting and gaming behavior. The quest for accountability is inherently a political process, in which “holding to account” may often depend much less on any forensic determination of specific culpability and much more on evidential and political disputation, where the search for the “truth” is highly—and increasingly—contestable.

Keywords: accountability, responsibility, answerability, control, ministerial responsibility, new public management, oublic administration


Accountability and responsibility are central to institutional, constitutional, and conventional arrangements in Western liberal-democracies. This is not to say that these two concepts have little importance in non-democratic political systems. On the contrary, such systems usually demand high levels of formal accountability from all state employees in what are quite rigid patterns of hierarchical control, demanding loyal obedience. However, political elites in non-democratic systems—whether totalitarian, authoritarian, monarchical, or theocratic—are not answerable directly to their citizens, and usually only to themselves, except when popular revolutionary impulses force them to either concede power or to fall back on increasingly coercive means of holding on to it. Somewhat paradoxically, perhaps, in such systems issues of responsibility are often more dramatically manifest, as those working for the regime and citizens who feel oppressed by it make individual and collective moral choices about the limits to their compliance—choices that more often than not may be made in the face of direct threats of severe punishment, including death.

Undoubtedly, any transformation of a non-democratic regime to a more liberal democratic mode will involve the development and exercise of the means of holding political and administrative elites to account, that is, making them more answerable, directly and indirectly, to citizens, as the exercise of political power comes to depend more on persuasion rather than coercion. The continuing availability for public scrutiny of official information is a sine qua non if the accountability of public officeholders is to be secured and maintained. In short, accountability depends on what has come to be widely known as “transparency.” However, there is usually no such transparency in non-democratic regimes, where regime-supporting propaganda replaces public scrutiny and the “truth” is whatever the political elites say it is.

An important issue in established Anglophone liberal democracies is that the words “accountability” and “responsibility” are often used as if they were synonyms. However, the two words do not mean the same thing and can be better understood as separate but related concepts.


As Thomas (2012, p. 674) argues:

Reflecting its ubiquitous prominence in public debates, accountability is now used at different times to describe: a general subjective sense of responsibility, the upholding of professional values and standards even in the absence of external scrutiny, a demonstrated responsiveness to particular clients or the community at large, and/or the requirement for openness, genuine democratic dialogue and public participation in governance.

The etymology of “accountability” traces back centuries to the idea that the expenditure of public money be verifiable and controllable (Uhr, 1993). This notion of accounting applied to control not just over the use of money but also over the consumption of time, energy, and other official resources and discretionary authority. Allied with this has been the concept of popular sovereignty—that in liberal-democracies both elected politicians and appointed civil servants are ultimately answerable to, and controllable by, the citizenry. More functionally, the concept lies at the heart of all rationally organized systems of organizational control—bureaucracies (Weber, 1974a)—whether governmental (across the spectrum of democratic to totalitarian regimes), corporate, or non-profit.

However, in the words of one scholar, the concept of “accountability” (which has no clear counterpart in some European languages) has become “a garbage can filled with good intentions, loosely defined concepts, and vague images of good governance” (Bovens, 2007, p. 184). Moving from generic ideas of accountability, multiple types have been identified. For example, Romzek and Ingraham (2000) posit hierarchical, legal, professional, and political accountability—emphasizing, respectively, the values of efficiency, the rule of law, expertise, and responsiveness. Hierarchical accountability relationships are characterized by close supervision of individuals who have little work autonomy; legal relationships entail detailed oversight from external bodies such as legislatures and courts; professional relationships are marked by high levels of operating autonomy of the part of those who have internalized norms of appropriate practice; and the political type gives managers the choice of responsiveness primarily to key stakeholders, such as elected officials, the public at large, or client groups (more on this later).

Prospective accountability can be distinguished from retrospective accountability, both politically and managerially. Prospectively, politicians are obliged to state their intentions, particularly during electioneering. They do so by way of promises and election manifestos. Prospective managerial accountability is manifest in activities such as strategic and corporate planning. On the other hand, retrospective political accountability demands that politicians explain and justify their past decisions and actions. Retrospective managerial accountability requires bureaucratic executives, managers, and operators to report on how their discretionary authority was exercised after the event. In doing so they make their work “visible” to superiors who are not able to observe it while it is undertaken (Hummel, 2008, p. 30).

Hill (2009, p. 284) distinguishes among six “forms of accountability”: political, hierarchical, direct democratic, legal, professional, and bureaucratic. Political accountability is expressed to elected representatives; hierarchical accountability is “to the ‘head’ of an organization”; direct democratic accountability is to the public (or various publics); legal accountability is secured through the courts and may sometimes override political legitimacy; professional accountability is governed by “profession-related principles” and may also override political accountability; and the bureaucratic form is “normally a derivative from political, hierarchical or legal accountability” and may in some cases involve “overriding ‘responsibilities’,” like those embodied in some professional accountability.

When one is “accountable,” one is required to give an account of one’s actions and decisions to a superior in an organizational or systemic hierarchy. There are two potential problems with this. First, there is the issue of veracity. If accountability is to be secured through the upwards flow of information through organizational hierarchies, it is often difficult, sometimes impossible, for superiors to be certain about the truthfulness of the accounts given by their subordinates, especially when supervision is not immediate and direct and when answerability is exercised after the event. This is the case in many public organizations, in particular (see Gregory, 1995; Wilson, 1989, pp. 154–175). For example, police officers in patrol cars exercise discretion in how they spend their time on the job, but they cannot always be directly managed in their use of that discretion, and their work can be made “visible” to superiors only after it has been done.

The second problem is that of multiple and conflicting accountability relationships, or what Behn (2001) has called “360-degree accountability for performance.” This speaks to the answerability and presumed responsiveness of officials to particular “client” groups as well as their formal accountability to hierarchical superiors. The exponential growth of professional occupations in governance—as distinct from the bureaucratic clerks of Weber’s time—has created major accountability tensions between hierarchical managers seeking control and professional operators who value autonomy (Byrkjeflot, Christensen, & Laegreid, 2014; Christensen & Laegreid, 2017).

In all these endeavors the central idea of accountability has been that of answerability, in both the political and bureaucratic domains, to secure political and managerial control. Mulgan (2003, pp. 22–23) has posited four dimensions of any accountability relationship, as a framework of analysis: (1) Who are accountable? (2) To whom are they accountable? (3) For what are they accountable? and (4) How are they accountable? The last question addresses the sanctions and rewards that flow from the performance of assigned tasks in an organization. However, he argues that while this simple model of accountability illustrates the essential principles underlying all accountability relationships, “it is quite inadequate as a means of understanding how the complex structures of accountability operate in a modern democratic society” (Mulgan, 2003, p. 22).

The main problem with dual or multiple accountabilities, for example, is that they embody conflicts of interest, making it impossible for accountors to adequately fulfill simultaneously all their accountability obligations. In short, if someone is to be held accountable to everyone, they may well become accountable to no one. Moreover, all governmental and public policymaking processes are fraught with uncertainties, complexities, and unintended consequences—malign and benign. There is always an underlying risk of failure and error. Therefore, accountability as the quest for control through systems of hierarchical answerability often becomes a means of avoiding the worst outcomes rather than achieving the best (Lucas, 1976). When something does go wrong, then “accountability” is commonly identified with the demand that “heads should roll”—what Romzek and Ingraham (2000) call the “gotcha” mentality, a “witch hunt” for those who are culpable, and punishable. Such demands for accountability are seldom heard when governmental systems are seen to be working well (effectively, economically, efficiently, humanely, justly). In these circumstances there are far fewer calls for heads to be crowned than there are for heads to be severed.


Mosher’s (1968) distinction between “objective responsibility” and “subjective responsibility” captures the key difference between the concepts of accountability and responsibility.

Objective responsibility, or accountability, addresses the formal institutional framework of public authority. It can be envisaged as a formal organization chart, showing hierarchical lines of answerability. For example, in Westminster parliamentary systems, the theory of ministerial responsibility depicts a formal arrangement whereby bureaucratic officials are answerable to their ministers, who in turn are answerable to parliament and thus (but not solely through this formal channel) to the public. Under the American presidential system, where the political executive is institutionally separable from the legislature, the federal bureaucracy is answerable to the president (through the cabinet) and thence to the public. (Top federal bureaucrats often also feel accountable to the Congress, because of that body’s authority over legislation and spending, and because of its very significant capacity to oversee the bureaucracy. For their part, members of Congress are directly answerable to the public.)

Objective responsibility requires agents (politicians or bureaucrats) to give an account of their actions to specified others, who have the right and capacity to monitor their performance and to invoke sanctions and rewards. Mosher (1968) argued that this idea of accountability as answerability through formally prescribed channels does not address the moral dimensions of politicians’ and officials’ actions and is concerned mainly with the external, formal, procedures through which politicians and officials answer for those actions. Answerability per se says little about the morally responsible exercise of discretionary choice among conflicting obligations. This idea of responsibility does not assume the veracity of accounts offered under formal accountability processes. Rather, it acknowledges what most people know to be so: the opportunistic desire to hide the truth, to put the best complexion on bad outcomes, to engage in the deceptive practices that often characterize the unending pursuit of political advantage. Such behavior is characteristically displayed in the blame-shifting games played by politicians and officials (Hood, 2002; 2007, 2011; Hood & Lodge, 2006), which affirm that truthful answerability depends ultimately on the moral character of those who are required to be accountable and that accountability obligations need to be fulfilled responsibly. As Mulgan (2003, p. 237) argues, “Voluntary compliance, where power-holders act appropriately without threat of exposure or punishment, plays a central role in any just and effective organisation or society.”

When it comes to public assessments of the validity and propriety of political and official behavior, Mosher’s notion of “subjective responsibility,” a psychologically oriented idea, addresses how individuals resolve the conflicts among the disparate felt duties of moral obligation that confront them. These exert what Dubnick (1998) calls “moral pulls” and “moral pushes” on politicians and bureaucrats, strongly constraining how they carry out their functions. Where does primary responsibility lie—for example, to the organization, the profession, the government of the day, to the public interest, to oneself?

Public judgments are made about those choices, when measured against various moral standards and criteria, as to whether or not politicians and officials have acted responsibly. This idea of responsibility is also close to the attribution of causality, of “being responsible for” a particular outcome—that is, as a culpable perpetrator. As Bovens (1998, pp. 28–31) has argued, to be responsible in this sense means that every one of four elements must be present: human conduct (action or inaction) leading to a harmful or shameful event or situation; a causal connection between individual conduct and damage done; personal liability; and a relationship with the agent, particularly in cases where one is held to account for the (in)actions of another.

Relationships Between the Two

In the complex and uncertain world of governance it is difficult to specify an unambiguous normative relationship between accountability and responsibility, for practical purposes. Nevertheless, relationships between the two concepts can be drawn heuristically.

Politicians and administrators can simultaneously be fully accountable but irresponsible. They might be trustworthy in doing the job competently and reliably, and truthful in their reporting of it to superiors, yet be irresponsible in their inability or unwillingness to exercise individual reflective judgement about the moral legitimacy of their work. Nazi officials, for example, could be fully and openly accountable to their superiors, behaving with full procedural regularity, while at the same time carrying out genocide. The converse is also possible: that someone can act on what they and others consider to be morally appropriate grounds yet dissemble in carrying out their accountability obligations. An example would be a bureaucratic official who pursues what he or she genuinely considered to be “the right thing to do,” even when their views are opposed by their legitimately elected political superiors, whose function it is to determine what is in the public interest. This would be so in cases where bureaucrats surreptitiously and illegally leak information for political purposes.

The optimal scenario of the relationship between responsibility and accountability is when an individual politician or official is simultaneously both substantively responsible in their actions and instrumentally accountable in their reporting of them, thus displaying “responsible accountability” (Gregory & Hicks, 1999). Whistle-blowers fall into this category, since they are willing to act openly in disseminating information or taking an action and in so doing they accept the consequences, rather than seek to evade them. So too do public officials who resign, or insist on assuming other duties, when they are unwilling, on moral or ethical grounds, to be complicit in carrying out policies or decisions formulated by their political superiors (Hirschman, 1970). It follows that the worst-case scenario is when there is a conjoint deficit of both substantive responsibility and instrumental accountability.

In sum, objective responsibility, or accountability as formal answerability, is a necessary but insufficient component of responsibility, in that there is a moral obligation on the individual to explain and justify, both honestly and openly, his or her decisions and actions. On the other hand, individual responsibility is ultimately a matter of personal moral and ethical choice—often extremely difficult, given the conformist pressures that are at work in most large organizations and which may greatly diminish an individual’s awareness that any such choice exists in the first place (Adams & Balfour, 2015; Bauman, 1989; Bauman & Donskis, 2013; Russell & Gregory, 2005, 2011; Waller, 2002): “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die”—or when later they are held to account as criminal perpetrators, to plead that they “had no choice” and were “just following orders” (Arendt, 1977).

Mosher’s distinction is reminiscent of the seminal debate between Friedrich (1940) and Finer (1941). The former had argued that the rise of professionalism in government administration, together with the growth of administrative discretion and complexity, meant that formal and externally imposed mechanisms of ensuring administrative responsibility (here, accountability), while still necessary, were no longer adequate. Instead, responsible official action depended upon officials also being responsive to technical knowledge tempered by “popular sentiment.” In response, Finer (1941) asserted the primary importance of formal external controls, which are exercised invariably in the name of “accountability” and which include legislative processes and committees, constitutional and other statutory requirements (such as a Bill of Rights), official information and privacy enactments, ombudsmen, parliamentary auditing offices, not to mention the news media’s “watchdog” role in public affairs. These are some of the main sources of the “contextual goals,” which bind bureaucratic authority, making public organizations risk-averse or constraint-driven (Merton, 1940; Power, 1997; Wilson, 1989). When something goes wrong, formal mechanisms of bureaucratic control are usually “tightened up” in an attempt to cater even more rigorously for whatever contingencies may arise in the exercise of discretionary authority. The greater the scope of bureaucratic discretion, the more rules proliferate in the attempt to control it.

This perennial tension might be called the “yin and yang” of the two concepts, when seen as two ends of a conceptual continuum, or as a mutually constitutive, ongoing, but not necessarily “balanced” relationship. As Uhr (1993, p. 4) expresses it:

Accountability is about compliance with authority, whereas responsibility is about empowerment and independence. Accountability is the negative end of the same band in which responsibility is the positive end. If accountability is about minimising misgovernment, responsibility is about maximising good government.

Similarly, whereas accountability addresses issues of legality—as compliance with laws, rules, and regulations—responsibility focuses on matters of legitimacy—that is, not on what is required to be done, but on what ought to be done. Aphoristically, it is the difference between “doing the thing right” as distinct from “doing the right thing.” In this, accountability requirements can be shaped by evolving judgments as to what it means for public officials to be acting responsibly and vice versa.

The relationship between accountability and responsibility as depicted here manifests Weber’s distinction between instrumental (or formal, or practical) rationality (Zweckrationalitӓt), on the one hand, and substantive rationality (Wertrationalitӓt), on the other. Accountability is primarily a means to an end, the maintenance of organizational or systemic control, whereas responsibility is best understood as an end in itself. Its exercise embodies its own justification and expresses ultimate values like honesty, fairness, duty and honor, and humanity. Torture, for example, can be addressed as an instrumentally rational question: Does it work? Or it can be understood as a substantively rational question: Is it morally acceptable? (The fact that the euphemism “enhanced interrogation techniques” is officially adopted in place of the word “torture” attests to the importance of language in framing its consideration in technical rather than moral terms.)

Accountability, Responsibility, and New Public Management

During the past 30 years or so, the “new public management” (NPM) movement has seen a shift away from “government” as Weberian bureaucratic structures, in which lines of hierarchical accountability are generally clear, to the notion of “governance”—the differentiated polity of the “hollowed-out” state, characterized much less by state bureaucracies and more by managed networks involving marketized or quasi-marketized contractual relationships (Christensen, Lie, & Laegreid, 2007; Rhodes, 1997, 2007). According to Peters (2006, p. 108): “Overall, the task of public administration in this increasingly complex internal structure of the public sector, as well as in confronting a seemingly more complex policy environment, is to knit together packages of instruments and procedures to produce effective public action.” Here, accountability relationships are more complex, multilateral, conflicting, and uncertain. For these reasons, when it comes to holding accountors to account, the means of doing so, in the complex world of politics and governance, are more likely to be blunt and imprecise rather than forensic and sharp-edged. They are matters of political judgment rather than technical calculation, better expressed in forums of public opinion, and at the ballot box, rather than in the findings of legal or scientific inquiry.

NPM, which has strong roots in the neo-liberal reforms of governmental institutions and processes that emerged from the so-called “Washington Consensus” in the 1980s and 1990s, turned strongly to market and quasi-market mechanisms of accountability in the delivery of public goods and services (Boston, 2011; Bouckaert & Pollitt, 2004). It tried to refashion public agencies as responsive, “customer-driven,” enterprises and introduced a raft of managerial techniques, mimicking those used in the private sector. The aim was to render public administration and management more “business-like.”

Such market accountability is also central to “third-party” government, involving the contracting-out of public services, a development replete with issues concerning the public accountability of both government agencies and service providers, especially where providers do not operate under the same formal constraints as state bureaucracies (Mulgan, 2006; Peters, 2011). In all of this complexity, accountors’ responses may be shaped by their assessment of which accountees possess the formal authority to reward or punish them. There is also some evidence that non-governmental organizations that are funded by government agencies to provide social services can feel mainly accountable to the recipients of their services rather than to their funding agencies. This was found to be the case in New Zealand, for example (Cribb, 2006). The shift to NPM in some parliamentary systems has also subtly changed the relationship between ministers and their top officials, as open-ended relational contracts between the parties have been replaced by fixed-term formal contracts. As a result, the constitutional duty of senior public servants to give “free, frank and full” advice to their ministers, rather than telling them largely what they want to hear, may have become attenuated (Hood & Lodge, 2006; Mulgan, 2007).

NPM sought to free governmental executives and managers from the dead weight of rules-driven bureaucratic excess, to give them the freedom to manage, and to re-energize public employees in a quest for greater effectiveness. However, they would at the same time be made more directly and clearly accountable for their ability to produce results, in running their organizations efficiently, and in producing public value that would be increasingly measurable and tangible. They would be “free to manage” but also “made to manage,” in this attempt to strike a new equilibrium between the effective pursuit of organizational purpose, on the one hand, and the imperatives of organizational control, on the other.

Human resource management grew exponentially in governmental agencies worldwide, especially as the heads of government organizations were delegated the powers to hire and fire their own agency staff, largely free from the constraints previously enforced by unified career services. Systems of performance management and appraisal burgeoned, as did the introduction of performance pay systems, intended as incentivized “carrots” to complement if not supplant the “sticks” of direct procedural control.

Unsurprisingly, given their preoccupation with the accountability (and efficiency) of public managers in the delivery of goods and services within strong fiscal constraints, exponents of NPM placed little emphasis on the wider and more philosophically challenging idea of responsibility. Its foundations in agency theory, in particular, based on the assumption that officials cannot be trusted not to advance their own narrow self-interest ahead of the public interest, may have reinforced rather than countered any such existing tendencies. The strong emphasis on rigorous performance management may have weakened the “softer” and more subjectively inspired dimensions of ethical probity in public service organizations, which are more consistent with the nature of responsible rather than (just) accountable action (Gregory, 1999; Moynihan, 2008). More empirical research is needed to see if this has occurred—an examination of the comparative incidence of conscience-driven “whistle-blowing” by government officials in regimes that display more or fewer NPM characteristics, for example.1

In some Westminster parliamentary democracies, NPM was in part a response to perceived shortcomings of the doctrine of ministerial responsibility. A former New Zealand prime minister and leading constitutional reformer, for example, claimed that the doctrine had become surrounded by an “enveloping haze,” a lack of responsiveness by bureaucratic leaders toward their political executives, and a lack of clarity in the respective roles and responsibilities of ministers and officials (Palmer, 1987, p. 56). The replacement of permanent tenure for top departmental officials, first in Britain and New Zealand and later in Australia, and its replacement by fixed-term contracts was seen as a means of sharpening the accountability of top bureaucrats to the political executive.

In Westminster systems, too, it has become increasingly commonplace for ministers (as principals) to pass the buck on to their departmental chief executives (as agents), to leave them to “hang out to dry,” when those same principals might normally have been expected to speak in their defense in Parliament (see, e.g., Barker, 1998; Gregory, 1998; Polidano, 1999). There was never a time when the doctrine of ministerial responsibility meant that ministers would necessarily resign their portfolios when something went seriously wrong within their official ambit, and the frequency of ministerial resignations is not of itself a valid indicator of the doctrine’s strength or weakness (Gordon, 2013; Thompson & Tillotsen, 1999). Rather, the essence of ministerial responsibility is that ministers must be answerable to parliament and the public for the administration of their portfolios, as a constraint on the exercise of executive power.

As has been long recognized, the “politics–administration” dichotomy is a blunt distinction when it comes to determining who—politicians or officials—should be “held accountable” to the public (Appleby, 1949; Campbell & Peters, 1988). NPM aspired to make the distinction more precise by clearly allocating roles and responsibilities as between elected politicians and appointed officials, in the belief that no one should be held accountable for outcomes for which he or she has been inadequately delegated authority and resources. However, there is good evidence that NPM-styled reforms have been able neither to enhance the capacity of governmental systems to match operational performance with a multitude of accountability requirements nor to effectively hold people to account when something goes wrong. Christensen and Laegreid (2015, p. 222), for example, in their study of a large welfare administration reform in Norway, found “no straightforward coupling between accountability and performance,” but instead a relationship characterized by “tensions, dilemmas and trade-offs.” NPM has made governmental systems more complex, especially through new combinations of hierarchies and markets in the delivery of goods and services. This has often defeated public calls for people to be held to account and has gone hand in hand with the expansion of the concept of accountability well beyond its core meaning (Mulgan, 2000).

The Politics of Accountability and Responsibility

The doctrine of unintended consequences ensures that in the complex world of public policymaking something, somewhere, will go wrong, producing consequences that are widely seen as undesirable as they are unintentional. Moreover, agents of governmental and corporate institutions and systems, including those based on fundamental values of liberal-democracy, are capable of egregiously intentional moral infractions. Questions are left hanging in the air without answers: for example, who was held to account for the global financial crisis of 2007–2008? Who is to be held accountable for failures to control global warming? Who was held accountable after the release of the Chilcot Report, which found it “now clear” that the British government’s policy on the 2003 invasion of Iraq was “made on the basis of flawed intelligence and assessments,” which “were not challenged, and they should have been” (Sir John Chilcot, 2016, p. 6). Who is held accountable for the widespread sexual violence against children perpetrated by United Nations peacekeeping forces in the Central African Republic (The Guardian, 2015)?

In all of this, just what constitutes “misgovernment” and “good government” are more often than not matters for politically disputatious storytelling and argumentation, rather than technically forensic calculation. When officials act irresponsibly and/or are popularly deemed to be “responsible for” certain egregious outcomes, they may avoid sanctions through recourse to legal procedures, which, while fulfilling the requirements of natural justice, result in what are widely perceived to be substantive injustices.

The effectiveness of rational systems of control is dependent on an ability to know what the “facts” are. But governmental systems are intensely political by nature, so the inevitable babble of competing and conflicting voices means that the “facts” are simply not just out there, waiting to be discovered, measured, and evaluated. As Rodgers (2017) puts it:

. . . truth as the product of self-critical search and dialogue does not characterize the moment we live in now. The cultural-political air is filled with competing truth claims, shouted angrily and with barely a shred of doubt. Is global warming real, whatever the preponderance of scientific opinion might be? Has globalization fatally eroded the inner core of the U.S. economy? Is racism “over”?

The term “post-truth” was named by Oxford Dictionaries as “the 2016 international word of the year, ” following a huge growth in popular usage of the term after “Brexit” and the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.2

In most cases of governmental failures of high public salience, information about what occurred and why, and whom might properly and fairly be required to accept blame and pay the price, emerges from many different sources. The truth is elusive and highly contestable, especially in circumstances of complex collaborative action where it is difficult to clearly trace causes and effects and where virtually all involved are able to plausibly deny “responsibility.” The “facts” may often only become authoritative to the extent that competing political interests are able to have them accepted as such. In this process “the public” does not play the role of some sort of independent and impartial jury, carefully weighing the various claims to truth, and then arriving at some collective political verdict, even at the ballot box (though on occasion this may appear to be so). Compounding all this has been the increasing use by governmental officials of professional “spin doctors,” news media experts whose main task is to establish and maintain favorable public images rather than to assist the public to fulfil its right to know.

However, in day-to-day political discourse the “facts” cannot mean whatever a government official says they are. Accountability and the need for responsible action both demand that there remain available independent sources of verification, particularly a professionally competent and adequately resourced news media. This relationship in itself is a political struggle, one which today may favor the forces of unchallenged propaganda, reinforced by popular disillusionment with liberal-democratic institutions and people’s preference to hear what they want to hear and to believe what they want to believe. At the same time, the exponential development of social media can facilitate political deception through the propagation of mistruths as much as it enables a check on the abuse of power.

Processes of determining culpability are therefore characterized by a high degree of uncertainty and ambiguity, even in “rational” bureaucratic systems (Russell & Gregory, 2015). Arendt (1977, p. 289) described bureaucracy as “the rule of Nobody,” while Thompson (1980, p. 905) spoke of “the problem of many hands, noting that, “Because many different officials contribute in many ways to decisions and policies of government, it is difficult even in principle to identify who is morally responsible for political [policy] outcomes.”

The players in this political struggle for sustainable credibility among highly contested narratives seek to develop and maintain their good reputations: “Trust me, I know what I’m doing,” “Believe me!,” “Well, I’m not a crook” (Busuioc & Lodge, 2016; Gregory, 2009b). These reputations are not only politically and socially defined, but since the 1980s—especially for bureaucratic officials—have increasingly become commodities, in effect “bought and sold” in a labor market regulated by employment law.

To compound such matters, some areas of critical public policymaking have become ring-fenced from direct and even indirect political accountability—independent central banks, for example (Flinders & Buller, 2006; Marcussen, 2007). In Mulgan’s (2003, p. 1) words:

The mounting demand for accountability is a symptom of a growing public anger at individuals and institutions that are supposed to pursue the public’s interests but refuse to answer the public’s questions or accept their directions. In theory, a democratic society should be built on respect for the rights and interests of all citizens. In practice, however, citizens face a widening gulf between themselves and the powerful institutions that are meant to serve them.

This is not to say that public demands that someone be held to account, be “blamed and shamed,” when something goes wrong in governmental administration cannot be counterproductive, inhibiting the development of systems that learn from their mistakes. To judge where this point is has been, and always will be, a political action in an increasingly complex and differentiated governmental context.

Conclusion: Emerging Challenges

The two concepts of accountability and responsibility need to be understood on their own terms. But in the domain of politics, broadly defined, they are in an ongoing and shifting relationship, as institutions and previously taken-for-granted norms, values, expectations and shibboleths, become increasingly tenuous and “liquid” (Bauman, 2000).

Max Weber (1974a) saw rationally organized bureaucracy as a constant and ineluctable feature of the modern state, outlined in his lecture, “Politics as a Vocation,” as an “ethic of responsibility.” As he put it:

. . . it is immensely moving when a mature man . . . is aware of the responsibility for the consequences of his conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul. He then acts by following an ethic of responsibility and somewhere he reaches the point where he says: “Here I stand; I can do no other.” That is something genuinely human and moving. And everyone of us who is not spiritually dead must realize the possibility of finding himself at some time in that position.

(Weber, 1974b, p. 127, emphasis in original).

These words resonate today for those in government who, as a consequence of the dilemmas they face in the course of their everyday employment, seek at the same time to be both instrumentally efficacious and substantively responsible. The search for effective ways of instilling an “old-fashioned” sense of duty and honor among those who fill top governmental posts, whether elected or appointed, has become increasingly pressing (Gregory, 2009a). Government officials should be educated to think critically about their roles and functions, rather than merely being trained to fulfill them, however competently. They should be able to keep their minds open to the possibility that at one point they may have to decide as individuals just where they draw their own line in the political or bureaucratic sand. However, all this may be much easier said than done.

The growing rise of authoritarianism in a “post-truth” political context makes such sentiments sound idealistic and out of touch with harsher realities. Yet widespread resistance to such trends also gives hope that honor, duty, and moral responsibility will not be irrelevant to the resolution of political struggles and policy conflicts. Trust—a political commodity in ever-decreasing supply—is enormously important. The pressing challenge is to be able to build and sustain trusting relationships between the governors and the governed, in which the former are instrumentally accountable and morally responsible in response to the latter’s demands that they should be.


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                                                                                                                                          (1.) There is a shortage of rigorously systematic research on the extent to which NPM in various jurisdictions has delivered on its promises. Hood and Dixon’s (2015) analysis of NPM in Britain is an outstanding exception.

                                                                                                                                          (2.) The Oxford Dictionary’s definition of “post-truth” is: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion or personal belief.”