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Essay: The concept of accountability in the public sector

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The concept of accountability in the public sector stems from the use of delegated authorities where the supervisor holds the subordinate accountable, and this evolves into a principle of ‘democratic chain of delegation’ where citizens hold executives accountable (Strom, 2000). While the meaning of accountability has been broadened to normative and value-laden domains, its framework has been developed in the specific context of New Public Management (NPM) reforms. This led to the framework focusing too narrowly on “managerial accountability,” which, on the other hand, stimulates considerable intellectual efforts aimed at building up complementary work for public accountability to fill the gap between the concept and its framework.

Under the umbrella of NPM, financial accountability has been a prominent concept among different areas of accountability. Due to its inclination toward quantitative terms and toward the principles of economy, efficiency, and output, the new arrangements for financial accountability, such as business-like accounting and performance-based budgetary systems, were particularly well promoted under the NPM regime. At the same time, however, the conceptual and analytical base for financial accountability has been relatively weak and far more skewed by NPM-specific perspectives. For this reason, the framework of financial accountability remains highly dependent on a broad outline of accountability. Its weak framework leads to unproductive controversy over the concept, also seriously impairing the ability to provide practical guidance on governance. Thus, this paper aims to develop a strong foundation that can serve to enrich the dimensions of financial accountability and can provide a systematic and critical evaluation of the related literature.

One important but rarely explained issue is the lack of a long time view. The reasons for this can be divided into two. First, with regard to overall accountability, most of the complementary frameworks for managerial accountability have developed dichotomous category pairs which cross-sect the concept, thereby neglecting the longitudinal dimension. Second, with regard to democratic accountability, analytical frameworks have not been fully developed to mold future citizens into the understandings of political representation that has been shaped by public values. To sum up, the long-term perspective has not been well formulated with regard to accountability and financial accountability, and therefore, further work is needed to address questions concerning the neglected time dimension and neglected future citizens in their frameworks.

This paper is organized as follows. Section 2 provides an overview of the evolution of the concepts of accountability and financial accountability. In Section 3, I review the conceptual frameworks on accountability and their dichotomous attributes in order to explain how the time dimension was overlooked with regard to the two concepts. Section 4 analyzes the trends in analytical frameworks for democratic accountability and describes how future citizens were excluded from democratic accountability. This section also includes practical implications based on a systematic review of the literature. Section 5 concludes.


2-1. From financial accounting to managerial accountability

The nature of financial accountability is deeply embedded in its origin from the word “accounting.” The term is supposed to be derived from the stem “count” with the added prefix “ac” and suffix “ing.” From this standpoint, “accounting” stems primarily from two components: the root word, “count,” which means “[to] reckon money received and paid,” and the suffix “ing,” which indicates “describing the act or consequences of the action.” Dubnick (2002: 7-9) noted that the concept of accountability had emerged as a form of “institutionalized accountability” in which the agents (i.e., property holders) were required to render a count of what they possessed in the realm of principal (i.e., the king). Thus, in its original meaning, ‘accountability’ was closer in meaning to the modern word “accounting” or “bookkeeping,” which suggests a record of financial information (Bovens, 2006: 6).

The meaning of accountability has completely changed over time. First, based on the end-means continuum, the term implies more than just a means. It has begun to become a fundamental requirement of good governance, which is closely connected to the ultimate end of government. This leads the term to encompass numerous public values such as “transparency, equity, efficiency, responsiveness, responsibility, and integrity” (Nabatchi et al., 2015: 139). Second, the accounting relationship has completely reversed from account-taking to account-giving (Bovens, 2006). Accountability now refers to “the authorities themselves who are being held accountable by their citizens” rather than “sovereigns holding their subjects to account” (Bovens, 2006: 6).

The conceptual shift from financial accounting to “public accountability” was aligned with the rise of the accountability movement away from the traditional public administration model to the NPM model. As a result, the actual shift was from a notion of financial accounting to a broader notion of “management accountability,” but the new concept was narrow in scope as it referred primarily to inspection, audit, evaluation, and assessment (Tilbury, 2006). This change brought about two major problems. First, “public accountability” was used interchangeably with “management accountability.” Consequently, accountability in NPM agendas was often misused as “both an instrument and a goal” (Bovens, 2006: 7). Even though the concept of management accountability was more likely to mean instruments effective at addressing the problems of public governance, it has, over time, been used to represent a norm of good governance. While the focus of NPM was mainly on accountability “mechanisms” as policy instruments and tools, its accountability was often mistakenly seen as a “virtue.” Second, the concept of “public accountability” has often been overlooked and has rarely garnered attention. In addition, as much attention was paid to managerial accountability at the concrete level, the abstract role of the account-giving mechanism carried out by the actor was also discussed to infrequently (Dubnick and Frederickson, 2011).

2-2. From accountability to financial accountability

The concept of accountability is relatively straightforward in the financial sphere because it shares some common ground with its linguistic origin—accounting. Behn (2001: 7) stated that “it is not surprising that the most obvious form of accountability focuses on financial accounting—on how the books are kept and how the money is spent.” Governments that have embraced NPM ideas have sought to improve financial accounting standards and reporting forms, an act broadly regarded as an attempt to enhance accountability. However, since the interpretation of accountability was more straightforward and definite on the financial side, discussion of its definition was often dismissed or ignored. As a result, the literature concerning financial accountability lacks a widely accepted definition in which scholars suggest various definitions that fit in their own specific work. In most cases, the broad definition for accountability that encompasses several areas serves as a portion of the narrower definition for financial accountability.

By exploring various definitions in scholarly works, government agencies, and non-profit organizations, I found three distinct ways to define the term. First, some define financial accountability as ‘maintaining individual accountability in a financial process,’ or ‘the obligation of an individual or organization to account for its financial activities.’ These definitions give more weight to the person or organization to be held accountable, and consider finances as specific work assigned to them. Second, some of the definitions highlight features related to accountability mechanisms. In this case, financial accountability is often defined as ‘a means of ensuring that public money has been used in a responsible and productive way,’ ‘holding accountable for the way money is used and managed,’ ‘compliance with legality and regularity of financial accounts,’ and so on. Behn’s (2001: 7) definition of “accountability for finances” will fall into this category as being characterized by a lot of “rules, procedures, and standards.” Thi
rd, few cases define the
term from the perspective of virtue-based accountability or political accountability. This includes definitions such as ‘accountability for the use of public money and stewardship of financial resources,’ and ‘holding accountable to various stakeholders for properly managing the funds they receive.’ From this, one can infer that the skewed attention toward management accountability is also reflected in the definition of financial accountability, as the concept relates directly to the discourse of accountability.


3-1. Conceptual frameworks on accountability

Scholars in public administration endeavor to provide a conceptual framework for understanding the concept of accountability. They have attempted to delineate boundaries between multiple domains embedded in the concept. The accumulated knowledge of intellectuals can be summarized as a recurring tension between two major dimensions of accountability—accountability-as-mechanism and accountability-as-virtue. This dichotomous nature traces back to the classic debate between Herman Finer and Carl Friedrich, which is often noted as a defining moment that served to shape and develop the notion of accountability. Through a lens of dichotomous splits, such opposing views were driven not only by different concepts of accountability, but also by different beliefs about the relationship among elected officials, public administrators, and the public in democratic governance.

Administrative responsibility and political accountability

Finer assumed a closed relationship between administrators and the public in which the preferences and priorities of the public is provided only through the elected, representative institutions. This implies that Finer (1941: 419) views administrative responsibility as being responsible to “the declared or clearly deducible intention of the representative assembly,” which lies in the relationship between the executive and legislative branches that contributes to the balance of powers in a democratic society.

Friedrich, however, advocated for administrators to assume a role that necessitate their open and direct interaction with the public. Switching the attention from the institutional contexts to individual behaviors and attitudes, he perceived accountability in behavioral terms and focused on ethical behaviors of administrators and their discretion in the broader public interest. In his view, since “politics and administration play a continuous role in both formulation and execution” (Friedrich, 1940: 6), the key relationship of accountability was between public administrators and their constituents, not constrained by representative institutions. This corresponds to what Romzek and Dubnick (1987: 229) termed “political accountability,” with the potential constituents including “the general public, elected officials, agency heads, agency clientele, other special interest groups, and future generations.” However, some authors put more emphasis on the direct relationship with the general public among various constituents because the special interests of interest groups expressed through elected officials were seen to confound public administrators’ policy decisions or actions (Dunn and Legge, 2001: 80).

Accountability-as-mechanism and accountability-as-virtue

Their debate has been a recurring theme in the modern debate that focuses on the definition and dimension of different concepts of accountability. Finer defined accountability, in a narrow, descriptive sense, as an obligation to comply with imposed institutional relation or arrangements such as laws, rules, procedures, and standards. His focus was less on an obligation of public administrators and more on the way in which the relation or arrangements operate to ensure administrative responsibility. This corresponds to a series of terms, including “passive accountability (Bovens, 1998),” “accountability-as-answerability (Tetlock, 1985),” “accountability mechanisms (Bovens, 2010),” or “ex post facto accountability (Bovens, 2007),” which suggest that administrators are passively held answerable by the mechanisms that are applied retroactively to their conduct. The pattern associated with these frameworks is potentially grounded in Finer’s (1941: 350) notion of administrative responsibility, which “require[s] public and political control and direction.” Bovens (2007) identified the three phases of these mechanisms in practice and condensed them into his definition of accountability as “a relationship between an actor and a forum, in which the actor has an obligation to explain and justify his or her conduct, the forum can pose questions and pass judgment, and the actor may face consequences” (Bovens, 2007: 450).

The other side of accountability, in a broader, normative sense, stems from Friedrich’s characterization of accountability. Accountability in this broad sense comes close to ‘a sense of individual responsibility,’ ‘a positive quality in public organizations or officials,’ and ‘a willingness to behave responsibly and responsively.’ Bovens (1998; 2010) emphasized the evaluative dimensions of accountability and termed this “active responsibility” and “responsibility-as-virtue” because it refers to a set of norms that proactively guide the behaviors of public actors who take internal accountability for their active, every-moment practices of public policy. The concept means more than mere compliance with executive orders and legislation; rather, it embraces the multiple expectations, values, and perceptions of various stakeholders. Romzek and Dubnik (1987) provided an example of a broader definition of accountability by suggesting that “public administration accountability involves the means by which public agencies and their workers manage the diverse expectations generated within and outside the organization” (Romzek and Dubnick, 1987: 228).

Managerial accountability and public accountability

The conceptual framework between political and administrative responsibilities has been central to addressing different sorts of issues, standards, frameworks, and analytical dimensions in the two distinct types of accountability (Bovens, 2010). It also greatly contributed to our understanding of such multifaceted umbrella term. The broader concept of political accountability in comparison with the narrower meaning of administrative responsibility has created a wider scope with regard to constituency and heightened strong ethical values such as responsiveness, inclusiveness, and equity. In this regard, political accountability can be interpreted as ‘public accountability’ of the bureaucracy to citizens in a web of “mutual and collective [democratic] responsibility” (Behn, 2001: 125). On the other hand, ‘managerial accountability’ can be understood as “the managerial form of [administrative] accountability,” which refers to the answerability to NPM-driven management structures and institutional mechanisms (Afzal and Considine, 2015: 47).

Applying the analytical distinction between vertical and horizontal dimensions of political accountability (O’Donnell, 1998), a broader sense of accountability—political accountability—sheds light on the vertical scope in which citizens and civil society organizations participate in exacting moral accountability, which is distinct from horizontal accountability—administrative responsibility—exercised through a hierarchical system of checks and balances. While the concept of public accountability widens the scope of political accountability to accountability in democratic networked governance, the context-dependent concept of managerial accountability narrows the scope of administrative responsibility, which excludes non-NPM institutional responsibility. However, all of these frameworks belong to the static domain without time dimension, wh
ich actually turns out to
be dynamic.

3-2. Neglected time dimension

While a set of frameworks complement and build on each other, the delineation of the concept focuses heavily on vertical versus horizontal dimensions in a time-sliced fashion. That is, time dimension in accountability has not been of primary importance. However, it is worth noting that the time dimension is closely interrelated with a series of conceptual distinctions made in previous literature, and it may cover complementary aspects of the question concerning two sequential lines represented by administrative responsibility versus political accountability.

First, the positioning of accountability actors depends on the time dimension. Civil servants usually have longer terms to serve the public interest over the long term. At the same time, they are responsible to the elected representatives of the public who tend to have “a limited time horizon” and “prefer policies that yield tangible benefits for constituents in the near term” (Posner, 2004: 137). For this reason, the priorities expressed by elected officials may be far more related to short-term issues and temporal problems instead of long-term solutions, whereas the long-lasting forms of civil service personnel would prioritize sustainable solutions to secure a long-term perspective of the citizens, both current and in the future.

Second, the time frame is essential to distinguishing between two main streams of accountability. Accountability mechanisms focus predominantly on retroactive accountability for the past outcomes, while accountability as a virtue takes a proactive approach to ensuring ethical behaviors in the future. The timeline is also useful to distinguishing between ex ante accountability of the decision-making process leading up to the decision and ex post accountability where the results available from the decision already taken or where questions of compliance are identified and addressed. In other words, ex ante accountability refers to being accountable for the decision before an administrator act, while ex post accountability is suggestive of situations where administrators are accountable for the outcome of their decisions. For example, the focus of traditional bureaucratic administration is very much on input-oriented legitimacy before the implementation of the policy (Scharpf, 1999). In contrast, the development of an accountability mechanism in the NPM reforms has greatly relied on ex post results-oriented mechanisms.

Third, the time horizon determines the availability between accountability mechanisms and accountability virtue enhancement. A formal mechanism of accountability requires short-term results as it depends largely on clarity of measurable standards of performance with clearly defined roles and consequences. However, in many situations, the lag between decisions or actions and their ultimate effects introduces problems of risk and uncertainty (Mashaw, 2014). The longer the time horizon, the less accurate such a mechanism becomes. On the contrary, the normative realm of accountability is well suited for the evaluation of problems of uncertainty in continuous time. As a normative guideline, it can repeat itself beyond one dimension of time and accumulate over time.

Neglected time dimension in accountability and financial accountability

Given that short-term dimension of accountability is prone to administrative responsibility, accountability-as-mechanism, and managerial accountability, the absence of time dimension has undervalued the importance of virtue-based accountability and public/democratic accountability. This can be explained by two decades of NPM-style reforms that emphasize “short-term focus on securing measurable improvements in operational efficiency” (Ferlie, 2017: 14). NPM sought to push “results-based and new market forms of accountability” through increasing regulation and monitoring of the contractors and replacing politics with market-based mechanisms (Benish, 2014: 262).

Not surprisingly, the neglect of a long-term ethical approach has been particularly obvious with regard to financial accountability. The above discussion implies that the concept of financial accountability is now framed as covering only the short-term use of public money and responsiveness to the citizen as customer or consumer. Further, since financial information regarding outcomes or objectives was relatively straightforward and inclined to compliance/accountability mechanisms, few avenues were open to the discussion of moral virtues and values in terms of finances. Only a limited set of norms, such as austerity, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness, has been mentioned. The audit and report instruments were preferred for the financial information as they exercise accountability “through control or ex post” rather than “through scrutiny or ex ante” (Lastra and Shams, 2000: 7). Several methods exist to address uncertainties and risks involved with long time horizons, such as compound interest rates and the time value of money, also devoted to the dominant usage of managerial accountability mechanisms in the public finance sector.


4-1. Analytical frameworks on democratic accountability

To fill the gap between concept and conceptual framework, the public administration literature is still making efforts to develop a better framework for “more democratic forms of accountability” (Christie, 2017: 84). Democratic accountability is deeply rooted in the context of representative democracy in which citizens hold politicians and executives accountable for their actions, maintaining complex arrangements among the public and their representative bodies. Starting from the Friedrich’s (1940) argument on political accountability, the term “democratic accountability” broadened the concept as a public agency’s accountability environment in democratic governance (Behn, 2001). This further links to the concept of “public accountability,” which is generally used to imply “good intentions, loosely defined concepts, and vague images of good governance” (Bovens, 2006: 7).

Public accountability is a vital part of democratic governance. It provides “a unique set of public missions and norms such as representation, equality, impartiality, integrity, justice, and citizenship” to governance in the public domain (Haque, 2000: 610). In democratic governance, democratic accountability is “an extremely important type of public accountability within democracies” exercised along the chain of delegation relationships (Bovens, 2006: 16). In addition, it is worth mentioning that new forms of democratic governance are emerging which stress the relationship between citizens and public decision makers. As such, the following section explores existing analytical frameworks of democratic accountability with three primary values: responsiveness, inclusiveness, and equity. This will help form a basis of the conceptual framework applicable to the future dimension of democratic accountability.


Romzek and Dubnick (1987) referred to political accountability relation as the relationship between a representative (the public administrator) and one’s constituents (those to whom the administrator is accountable). They characterized political accountability systems as “responsiveness” to the priorities and needs of electoral constituents, client or stakeholder groups, and the general public by characterizing it as having a low level of external control (Romzek and Dubnick, 1987).

Koppell (2005) developed an alternative typology of accountability by mentioning Romzek’s classification for treating different levels of political accountabilities as the same concept. He contended that Romzek’s notion of “political accountability” conflates an upward responsiveness to entities that have for
mal authority (such as Congress) a
nd organizations that have influence outwardly but no formal authority (such as interest groups) (Koppell, 2005). Koppell (2005: 98) suggested responsiveness as one aspect of three substantive dimensions of accountability that turns political accountability “outward rather than upward.” In other words, his term “outward” accountability emphasizes direct expressions of the needs and desires of key constituents (e.g., advisory councils with representation of key constituent groups) over the will expressed moving up through the elected representatives. Similarly, numerous other scholars point out the need for a new form of ‘horizontal accountability,’ which has been labeled “downward accountability, citizen accountability, or societal accountability” (Schillemans, 2008: 179). Bovens (2007: 16) also claimed that “for more direct and explicit accountability relations between public agencies … more attention is beingpaid to the role of NGOs, interest groups and customers or clients as relevant stakeholders.”


While responsiveness depends on the ‘depth’ of involvement of stakeholders, inclusiveness refers to the ‘breadth’ of public involvement. The question of inclusion is probably the most fundamental of question of accountability: ‘who should constitute an account’ and ‘whom does the public administrator represent.’ In a web of ‘360-degree’ accountability, public administrators are subject to the multiple constituents they serve, but ultimately they should promote a general level of inclusiveness—being accountable to the general public.

However, in the last two decades, new theories of democracy have challenged the principle of inclusivity, drawing attention to the idea of ‘affectedness’ to justify a rule of inclusion for those who are affected by the decisions made (Hirst, 2000). The idea behind this new perspective is that the degree of affectedness of individuals will validate the legitimate bounds of inclusivity. Mulgan (2003: 10) made a connection to accountability by stating that “strictly speaking, the concept of accountability implies potentiality (accountability [italics added]), the possibility [italics added] of being called and held to account.” In this regard, the question of inclusivity (the range of representation) becomes similar to that of responsiveness (the degree of representation). The answer lies in the questions regarding the possibility and capacity of representation, such as ‘whether constituents are affected by a decision’ or ‘who the legitimate accountability holders are’ rather than ‘how inclusive the representation should be.’


The terms equity, fairness, or justice are often used interchangeably around the central theme of public value. When applied to democratic accountability, the term equity pertains to being accountable for the full and fair participation by all potentially affected stakeholders. It refers to the role of public administers to be accountable for the equitable administration, especially with “a willingness to act in a transparent, fair, and equitable way” (Bovens, 2010: 450). Even though the concept of equity overlaps considerably with responsiveness and inclusion, it is more concerned with ‘the relative level of representation across citizens’ rather than the absolute degree or range of representation.

More recent literature constitutes the basis for bottom-up approaches to equity. Equity emphasizes ‘how equally’ people want to be represented, while responsiveness and inclusion focus on ‘how (responsiveness) and whether (inclusion)’ to represent from the standpoints of public officials. Under the reciprocal relations of accountability between those who hold others accountable and those held accountable, equity is usually used in holder-oriented contexts, whereas responsiveness and inclusion are often used in holdee-oriented contexts. Recent studies have suggested that bottom-up approaches to accountability should be considered as means of strengthening “the demand side of good governance” (World Bank et al., 2010: 167). All these together imply the importance of equity principle in promoting citizen engagement and democratic accountability.

In the all three core values, democratic accountability provided the foundation for public administrators to represent their constituents. However, as accountability relations flow both upward and outward, resulting in different levels of accountability to specified or general categories of constituents, there is a certain amount of ambiguity concerning representation. Two relevant insights can be extracted. First, the traditional view on democratic accountability has focused on the supply side of governance—the ability of governments to be accountable; however, the dominance of such a top-down approach has recently been questioned. Second, there was very little discussion on the development of an evaluative framework, which could assess the quality of the democratic accountability process. The literature offers the possibility for potential stakeholders, but it does not specify any details regarding who is affected by actions or decisions taken or made by public officials. Thus, it seems likely that the demand side of potential stakeholders was often neglected.

4-2. Neglected future citizens

It is rarely clear exactly (1) whose voices should be represented, and (2) how those voices can be weighted equally. If a long-term view is taken, one can easily infer that the demands of long-term stakeholders have been underestimated. In other words, there has been unresponsiveness, exclusion (or constrictiveness), and inequity associated with or applied to the voices of future citizens. In addition, the NPM model, with its origins in public-choice theory and managerialism, plays a central role in solidifying a short-term orientation and a relatively narrow concept of customer/consumer. Any conception work on the assumptions of narrow self-interested individuals or representatives as only delegates tends to be inevitably tied to “present-oriented by virtue of its reliance on the demands of existing citizens” (Thompson, 2010: 4).

Lewis (2006: 699) urged discussion of public interest and “the roster of participants” to expand in scope in terms of time frame and number, respectively, and he defined the accountability of public administration professionals as follows: “(1) to reflect on its many facets disclosed through broad representation and dialogue, and (2) to engage genuinely the duties and values associated with four aspects of public interest: democracy, mutuality, sustainability, and legacy.” Frederickson (1994: 463) also pointed out the importance of extending the moral and ethical responsibility of public officials to future generations, because “they cannot speak for themselves” while “the most senior persons among temporal generations turn out to be powerful voices on their own behalf.” Hart and Cornia (1994: 2373) warned, “Citizens of the next and succeeding generations may be coerced into paying for debt and its interest.”

Many scholars from different disciplines have agreed that long-term stakeholders serve as a necessary domain for issues of accountability. In the political philosophy literature, Thompson (2010) mentioned that the representatives should not only respond to ‘actual constituents,’ but they should also attend to the political rights of ‘future constituents.’ When the discussion switched to environmental sustainability, several authors extended the stakeholder group to global stakeholders and further to all humankind, which includes ‘future and distant generations’ (Weiss, 1990). The legal research and discipline of ethics tend to focus more on the issues of ‘interperiod equity’ and ‘intergenerational justice,’ which involve distinct notions of the concept of generation and its moral and legal obligation throughou
t time (Solum, 2001). In
the field of public administration, it has been explored in terms of the roles and professional ethics of public servants in protecting “the public interests of future generations” (Lewis, 2006: 699) and “the art of stewardship” (Hart and Cornia, 1994: 2367).

Who are the long-term stakeholders?

More and more policy issues and administrative decisions are having greater effects over longer periods of time. However, the discussion on moral obligations of public servants to future generations remains tenuous. The first question in relation to accountability is always ‘to whom is account to be rendered,’ i.e., ‘who do public administrators serve in the long term?’

Frederickson (1994: 461) assumes “temporal generations” to be four generations of twenty years each, and defines “near-term future generations” as “the children, grandchildren, and in some cases, great-grandchildren of temporal generations” and “future generations” as “those living beyond the great-grandchildren of temporal generations.” Thompson (2010) also seems to share some basic ideas about differentiating between short-term and mid-term generations (e.g., favoring current elderly at the expense of children) as well as between both terms and long-term generations (e.g., the interests of current constituents and their near progeny versus the interests of future generations).

Solum (2001) presented an interesting discussion that links the definition of generation to corresponding real-world problems. According to Solum, the notion of generation is largely affected by socioeconomic, demographic, and cultural factors. For the sake of simplifying shortcut for the discussion of public policy questions, the author suggested that “a fuzzy-edge demographic unit,” such as “the Baby Boomer generation,” can refer back to the concrete example of related policies, such as the benefits and financings of social security policy (Solum, 2001: 169). In addition, Solum (2001: 171) distinguished “unborn future generations” from the current generations, referred to as “all future persons who will not be born until the last person now alive has died.”

About what are public administrators accountable?

The next logical question would be ‘about what is account to be rendered.’ Previous studies used a few examples of public policy issues to explain very specific domains. For example, Solum (2001: 165-172) introduced the four-quadrant matrix that allows for a better understanding of intergenerational duties in the specific policy. The proposed quadrant consists of the two axes: (1) the direction of the duty in time (backward-looking duties and forward-looking duties), and (2) whether duties are contemporaneous (owed while the older and younger generations coexist) or non-contemporaneous (owed to the unborn or deceased). Each intersection revealed that social security policies involve the duty of the younger working generation to finance benefits for the elderly, while environmental policies entail the obligation of the current generation not to harm unborn future generations. The health care finance issue also concerns tension between the old and those not yet old in present generations (Frederickson, 1994: 457). Frederickson (1994) examined three cases related to the treatment of the future or future generations: capital bonding for schools, natural resource depletion, and social security entitlement.

It is worth noting that financial resources often represent the value of other resources. Any policy issues involving future citizens always concern different types of capital, including financial, natural, human, and social resources. In this regard, financial accountability has been central to discussion related to the allocation, disbursement, and utilization of public resources in the long term. For example, large increases in government debt can be a result of a range of various government policies and programs, but it is often framed as a financial burden shifted from a profligate present generation to voiceless unborn generations (Hart and Cornia, 1994).

How can it be addressed?

The last step will be to explore practical ways to account for neglected future citizens. Frederickson (1994: 463) argued that public officials should use their “creative problem-solving” skills to find policies that are likely to have “a neutral effect on future generations” by avoiding frontload benefits and backload costs based on a cost-benefit intergenerational matrix. Hart and Cornia (1994: 2368) proposed a normative term, “intergenerational stewardship,” and defined it to involve “matters more of prudent judgment and passionate commitment … than of rigorous analytic precision.” The three major considerations include (1) future-oriented benevolence to “care deeply about the lives of those of the future,” (2) future orientation which requires “imagination … beyond the ability to make linear extrapolations from past trends,” and (3) decisions for the future made from “the correct moral orientation combined with a futurist orientation” (Hart and Cornia, 1994: 2383-85). In addition, they highlighted “an essence of reciprocal trust” of the public to be reciprocally accountable (Hart and Cornia, 1994: 2383).

Lewis (2006: 698) suggested conceptualizing the public interest as an ongoing process, not as an objectively identifiable endpoint, and added public administrators’ responsibility “to hear otherwise silent voices in the process by which the public interest is defined.” The author also identified a public service duty to weigh ethically future needs and mutual interests through “the ethical analysis and democratic process” against current uses and private interests in conventional claims on the public interest (Lewis, 2006: 699).

Thomson’s (2010) idea of “democratic trusteeship” was presented from a political angle, but the author still made a significant point that related specifically to governmental officials. Thomson (2010: 24-25) suggested that governments should be required (1) to implement audit mechanisms, which include information on “the democratic capacities of future citizens,” and (2) to establish a contingency fund, which compensates for “the damage done to the democratic process.” He also suggested pre-decision democratic processes, such as “suspensive interventions, age-differentiated political rights, and constitutional conventions,” which enable public administrators to deliberate on “the democratic capacities of future sovereigns” (Thomson, 2010: 23-26).

The figure below summarizes the practical implications for public/democratic accountability in the long-term and suggests directions for further research. Future citizens are placed on the horizontal axis, and the role of accountability is placed on the vertical axis. Accountability-as-mechanism is the technical role of accountability composed of some specific institutional mechanisms or policy instruments. Accountability-as-setting is an alternative dimension of such mechanisms that provides the overarching moral, normative setting for having enhanced accountability.


In this paper, I made a normative argument that the concept of public administrators’ financial accountability should have an extended time dimension. To support my argument, I conducted a systematic literature review on five primary topics, which include accountability, financial accountability, managerial accountability, public accountability, and democratic accountability. The review on the extant research suggests the existence of “accountability myopia.” The time dimension and future citizens were neglected in conceptual frameworks for accountability and analytical frameworks for democratic accountability, respectively. Through this critical evaluation of the gaps between theory and
practice, the paper makes some pr
eliminary recommendations that involve integrating the two neglected dimensions into accountability. Clearly, additional work is needed to further develop the technical and analytical framework. In conclusion, we need to instill the long-term dimension to the existing frameworks for accountability and financial accountability.

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