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Two General Models of Accountability for Nation-States

Accountability functions to expose and sanction two sorts of abuses: the unauthorized or illegitimate exercise of power and decisions that are judged by accountability holders to be unwise or unjust.  In politics, ensuring accountability requires establishing institutions that provide information to those people trying to hold power-wielders accountable and that enable them to impose sanctions on the power-wielders. “To be accountable means to have to answer for one’s action or inaction, and depending on the answer, to be exposed to potential sanctions, both positive and negative”(Oakerson 1989: 114).  Information and sanctions, however, are necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for accountability.  They presuppose norms of legitimacy, which establish not only the standards by which the use of power can be judged, but also who is authorized to wield power and who is properly entitled to call them to account.

In an effort to clarify different forms of accountability, we describe two theoretical models of accountability.  The distinction between them is grounded in alternative conceptions of the legitimacy of political authority, which have different implications for how accountability is understood.  Each of the models represents a schematic distillation of a line of argument that has been developed over centuries.  One can find similar views competing in debates between Federalists and Antifederalists over the U.S. Constitution, for example, as well as in contemporary debates over whether international organizations such as the World Bank should be held accountable to the states that authorized their creation or to poor people who are most affected by

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