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The requirement for representatives to answer to the represented on the disposal of their powers and duties, act upon criticisms or requirements made of them, and accept (some) responsibility for failure, incompetence, or deceit. Members of a legislature may be brought to account for their voting record by party officials such as whips, their local parties, or their constituents. Government ministers are accountable additionally for government decisions to a legislature and the voting public. In Britain it is intended that ministers observe the concepts of both individual ministerial responsibility and collective responsibility. Parliamentary debate, select committee investigations, and the media are the key forums in which their accountability is maintained. The accountability of bureaucrats varies according to their level of politicization. For example, in the USA officials of an administration are political appointees who may be required to take personal responsibility for their actions. In Britain, however, while they may be asked to answer questions before a select committee, departmental civil servants are nominally neutral and are made accountable for their actions only in cases of maladministration. Otherwise it is assumed that their actions are taken on behalf of ministers, and, hence, accountability for their actions is maintained through the concept of individual ministerial responsibility.

Arguments may be advanced that politicians and officials can be made too accountable, thus hampering them in carrying out their duties and powers. However, in Britain concern is more frequently expressed about the problems of maintaining accountability. Ministers in practice often do not observe the concept of ministerial responsibility, and the extent to which they are compelled to account for their actions is often dependent upon the political context. At the same time, the creation of executive agencies since the late 1980s has revised the hierarchic organization of the civil service which underpinned the concept of ministerial responsibility. This reform was designed to separate accountability for departmental policy‐making functions, which remained with ministers, and accountability for executive agency policy execution functions, which was placed with agency chief executives. A review in 2002 concluded that the agency model, involving direct accountability of chief executives to parliamentary scrutiny, had generally worked well. However, in two cases—the child support agency and the prison service agency—there were long‐running problems, and the issue of where accountability for policy and management failings respectively began and ended became a major issue of public debate. In these cases the chief executive resigned or was dismissed rather than the minister, leading to accusations that ministers were able to avoid accountability. More generally, complaint is made that there is a lack of accountability for key parts of government activity, such as the intelligence services.


Subjects: Politics.

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