This Brief looks at the concept of Accountability

“Accountability” entails a hierarchical relationship between two entities. For this relationship to hold, one agrees to be tasked with a set of responsibilities by the other, and so becomes accountable. This is commonly referred to as a principal-agent model. An agent is accountable to its principal for the responsibilities it has agreed to take on. An agent is subject to oversight.

In a democracy, those voted into power can be viewed as ‘agents’. They commit to serving the public interest. The ‘public interest’ is, in essence, a set of mutually understood goals. In a constitutional democracy, like South Africa, a core-set of these goals are enshrined in our Constitution. Although negotiation and compromise are involved in establishing many goals, mutual understanding is a vital element to ensuring clear lines of accountability.

The public constitute one type of principal by monitoring and overseeing government conduct. Those in power are also subject to standards set by, for instance, internal and external performance reviews, professional norms, the legal system, and independent non-governmental bodies. They are also subject to the scrutiny of the media and civil society organizations.

How accountability works depends on certain systemic features of the political system. These include the legal framework of the country, the type of electoral system, and the country’s bureaucratic system. These features determine how representation is established, how policy is decided and evaluated, and the consequences of not performing to expectation.

Accountability is not only limited to the relationship between citizens and those in power, but it also extends to the sphere of the private sector and how these interactions might impact on the public interest.

Many of these themes were raised in a Roundtable event on Accountability hosted by the Helen Suzman Foundation on Wednesday night.

Panellists were drawn from the world of politics, academia, and the media. They were Prof Alex van den Heever, Mr Mmusi Maimane, Dr Mamphela Ramphele and Mr Nic Dawes. The panel discussion was chaired by the director of the HSF, Mr Francis Antonie.

Prof Alex van den Heever described an ‘accountability framework’. An accountability framework is a system that is meant to ensure structurally that agents are held to account.  A weak accountability structure guarantees that responsibility is subject to abuse, and oversight is undermined. Prof van den Heever listed four essential, and inter-dependent elements that such a framework requires:

  • Clear norms and standards on performance.
  • Transparency.
  • Non-conflicting supervisory structures.
  • And a compliance system with the appropriate incentives and disincentives.

Mr Mmusi Maimane stressed the importance of the Constitution and the Rule of Law in understanding accountability. He emphasized that local government needs to be strengthened, where the power of the public to hold government to account should be suitably enabled.

Dr Mamphela Ramphele emphasized that the strongest level of government should be local government. She stated that the public have lost hope and are disillusioned because government fails to acknowledge its own accountability. Dr Ramphele also stated that government lack the political will to perform accountably.

Mr Nic Dawes stressed the need for public engagement in matters of accountability. He stated that there is a need to broaden and deepen an ‘accountability culture’. Mr Dawes pointed out that many channels designed to promote accountability have been captured by government, and some have been eroded. But these are not eroded beyond repair. Mr Dawes also stated that where elements in an accountability framework are eroded, functional channels of accountability take on a much greater strain.

Wim Louw -
Helen Suzman Foundation