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Last updated 26 Aug 2017
The concept of accountability is the foundation of representative democracy.
In a representative democracy, the representatives (e.g. MPs) should be held responsible (i.e. accountable) for their actions and decisions.
In reality, the accountability of representatives becomes real when they next offer themselves for election.
A government party will try to defend its performance (record) in the face of inevitable criticism by opposing parties.
An incumbent member of parliament will be held to account for his/her performance by voters.
In between elections, a government is also held to account regularly. For example, the legislature will scrutinise government policies and decisions.
So good government requires that those responsible for policy-making, implementation and public expenditure can be held to account for their actions. However, the issue of who is actually responsible for policies and decision-making can sometimes be in doubt.
A good example of this in the UK is is how to draw the line between the responsibilities of ministers and those of senior civil servants. Recent debates about the perceived failings of the UK Borders Agency and the Care Quality Commission raised questions about whether government ministers, their officials or the arm’s length body in question were to blame and how to hold these different actors to account.
Parliament, particularly through the Public Accounts Committee, often expresses frustration at the difficulty of calling to account those responsible for mistakes in government. From the perspective of ministers, meanwhile, the central problem often appears to be their lack of ability to exercise sufficient control over the civil service machine.