Two Concepts of Accountability: Accountability as a Virtue and as a Mechanism

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This paper distinguishes between two main concepts of accountability: accountability as a virtue and accountability as a mechanism. In the former case, accountability is used primarily as a normative concept, as a set of standards for the evaluation of the behaviour of public actors. Accountability or, more precisely, being accountable, is seen as a positive quality in organisations or officials. Hence, accountability studies often focus on normative issues, on the assessment of the actual and active behaviour of public agents. In the latter case, accountability is used in a narrower, descriptive sense. It is seen as an institutional relation or arrangement in which an actor can be held to account by a forum. Here, the locus of accountability studies is not the behaviour of public agents, but the way in which these institutional arrangements operate. The present paper argues that distinguishing more clearly between these two concepts of accountability can solve at least some of the current conceptual confusion and may provide some foundation for comparative and cumulative analysis.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)946-967
Number of pages22
JournalWest European Politics
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2010


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