Accountability

Accountability
means that the government in a democracy is responsible to the people
for its actions. This responsibility is primarily ensured by periodic
public elections through which the people choose their representatives
in government. If those elected to represent the people are
insufficiently responsive to them, they are likely to be rejected at the
next election and replaced by others who promise greater
accountability.

Both elected and appointed officials in
government are held accountable to the people by laws that regulate
their actions. These laws limit the government’s use of power in order
to protect the people from abuse. There also are laws that require
transparency or openness in government so that the people may readily
have information necessary to evaluate the performance of their elected
and appointed officials.

The mass media of communication, such as
newspapers, television, radio, and websites, provide the public with
information about the performance of government. Laws that protect
freedom of speech and of the press are therefore foundations of
accountability in a democracy. In particular, the mass media regularly
conduct public opinion polls to measure the people’s approval or
disapproval of particular representatives or of the government in
general. Thus, independent and privately owned media outlets provide the
people and their representatives with information that prompts
accountability by the government to the governed.

Some democratic
governments, such as those in Sweden, Lithuania, and Estonia, include
the office of ombudsman, an appointed official who responds directly to
individuals with a grievance against the government and who is empowered
to seek resolutions of complaints. Most democracies also include
agencies that regularly conduct evaluations of the performances of
different parts of the government and communicate their findings to the
public.

By John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide (Oxford University Press)