an accounting

Democracy has many definitions, implications and consequences, but accountability is one of its most important components. Citizen participation, political equality, civic consciousness, self-realization, decent treatment by authorities, sense of individual political efficacy, respect for constitutional norms, protection of human rights, responsiveness to public opinion, social and economic leveling and, of course, “freedom” have all been associated with this form of political domination – either as a defining feature or a likely product of it – but they are all contingent and vulnerable if citizens cannot reliably hold their rulers accountable for the actions that they take in the public realm. Traditional sovereigns, benevolent despots or elected autocrats might momentarily tolerate any or all of the above, but if they cannot be held accountable they can dismiss these ‘political concessions’ as irrelevant or retract them at will.

Firenze, Italy, January 2007


In the monthly workplace safety meeting the other day, as is usual, the safety manager told anecdotes about financial hits not directly related to work. One of the stories was about one of our field welder workers. Late in the day he had finished a job at a remote site, and went straight home afterward, rather than come back to the shop. Some equipment was in the back of the pick up and he parked in front of his home. Unfortunately, sometime that night someone came by and helped themselves to a jerican and a few boxes of welding rods and a stinger from the cargo bed. Ah, well, worse things have happened. The sheepish employee reported the theft, and, though his supervisor chastised him for his lapse of care, the worker was, said the safety manager, “not going to be held accountable for the loss.”

Held Accountable, eh?

Although the book The Unbroken Machine champions the principle of Accountability, nowhere in its pages is a functional definition given. We are on our own to come up with a clear meaning. And, Accountability, like Democracy and Responsible Government, does not lend itself to a straight forward interpretation that will just drop into your lap. Check it out.

  • Accountability is the property of being able to be held to account.

First off, when you read this, there’s already a hidden aspect; there are actually two parties involved! One, the Accountable party, is held, and some other, Implied, party is the party doing the holding. So:

  • Accountability is the property one party has of being able to be held to account by another party.

To take this further, my coffee cup has a handle; my cup is hold-able. But it is me who does the holding. Or it is me who does not. My choice. I can hold the cup or not, but the cup remains hold-able in either case. It’s like an Accountable party has some kind of a handle! The Implied party has the active role of choosing to do the holding or not, and the Accountable party has the passive role of being held or not. Like my hapless cup, the Accountable party has no choice in the matter.

  • Accountability is the property one party has of being able to be forced, by another party, to account.

So, only now do we get to the root; what is it ‘to account’? If that welder, whose case was considered in my safety meeting, had been less fortunate, if it had turned out he was to be ‘held accountable’ for those stolen items, then that would mean he would be forced to make recompense for the loss to the company.  That’s one sense of what it means ‘to account’.

Here’s another. It is the vocation of accountants to organize financial records in a standardized way, so the records can be easily read and understood. Further, accountants present those financial records and swear that the values are correctly tallied, and also swear that the descriptions with each of the arithmetically correct values, are all semantically correct.

This adds a degree of reliability to the presentation, because the party making the presentation is the same party who did the math and separated those figures into the appropriately-titled categories. The accountant stands by his or her numbers and descriptors.

Then there is another meaning for ‘to account’: to tell a true story of events you yourself have verified or witnessed. This can be the presentation part of the accountant’s job, but could also be for other situations where important events need to be relayed to someone making a decision.  For example, that welder was held to account for the loss, in that his supervisor demanded he give an explanation of how the goods in his care were lost. He was then not held to account for the loss, because he didn’t have to pay for the lost items.

So, the phrase ‘to account’ has three senses, related but distinct.

  1. To make recompense for some loss that cannot otherwise be recovered.
  2. To prepare and present correct financial records (with the understanding those two connected tasks require special skills, those skills understood to have equally important subjective and objective components).
  3. To tell a true story of events you yourself have verified or witnessed.

For all three, their is an element of repercussion. The first, of course, is actually overtly about the penalty the accountable party will suffer. For the second in our list, the accountable party puts their reputation on the line. The implication is that, if the preparation and presentation are not performed with the requisite skill, the Accountant’s good reputation could be lost and they would not be asked to do this kind of work in the future. They would loose the chance to practice their chosen vocation, loose the chance for future paying commissions. And, for the third sense in our list, there seems to be two implications of penalty. If the account, the story, turns out to be untrue, then the story teller is in some trouble with those who were told the story and believed it.  But, also, if the story is totally true, and is about something the story-teller did wrong, then, a judgement is coming and there may be consequences. All three are related somewhat, yet all three are distinct.

  1. Accountability is the property one party has of being able to be compelled, by another party, to make recompense for some loss that cannot otherwise be recovered.
  2. Accountability is the property one party has of being able to be hired, by another party, to prepare and present correct financial records.
  3. Accountability is the property one party has of being able to be trusted, by another party, to tell a true story of events the accountable party verified or witnessed.

Does that seem about right?

Any discussion about political accountability should start with an acknowledgement of the polysemic nature of the term, and shore up some kind of practical definition. The Unbroken Machine does not do this, and I have to count that against the work. My reading of the book is that accountability is seen exclusively, or very strongly, as the number 2 vocation-of-accountants process. I want to give the author his due; this may have been true, or close to true, in the original concept back when Responsible Government was a work-in-progress. But a strict 19th century meaning of accountability leads to some odd conclusions in today’s context.

On the other hand, the prologue to this post is an excerpt from one of the works of Philippe C. Schmitter, a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the European University Institute. This one paper, Political Accountability in ‘Real-Existing’ Democracies: Meaning and Mechanisms, deals with the challenges that go with defining and measuring political accountability, and the professor concludes that

I doubt very much if the multiple indicators that are needed to capture its [political accountability’s] complex dimensionality can be eventually collapsed into a single indicator that can reliably and validly tell us whether a given polity is more democratically accountable than another. The best we may have to settle for is that some types of REDs [ Real and Existing Democratic states ] are differently accountable than others.


Nevertheless, both Professor Schmitter and the Machine‘s author, blogger Dale Smith, promote Accountability as an important part of the mix in modern Democracies. I will bend this a bit to my own purposes, and say that political accountability may be a process, or family of processes, that can be used to build a channeling democratic assembly for a democratic society of millions of citizens, per my last post. Tentatively, we can go forward with this project, knowing political accountability is not rigidly-defined, but knowing it does have certain elements that maybe we can call upon as the need arises. And, if we do achieve our goal of a modern-day channeling assembly, we can look back at the whole, trace the various parts, and say, “Ah ha, so that’s what accountability means!” This website is, after all, not a dissertation, but a technical project.

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