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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 the 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.

SEE ALSO Civil Society; Elections; Independent Media; Popular Sovereignty