Accountability Keywords

Date: January 2022
Author(s): Jonathan Fox
Publication type: Working Paper
Published by: Accountability Research Center

Accountability Keywords

‘What counts’ as accountability, and who decides? Accountability is often treated as a magic bullet, an all-purpose solution to a very wide range of problems—from corrupt politicians or the quality of public service provision to persistent injustice and impunity. The concept has become shorthand to refer to diverse efforts to address problems with the exercise of power.

In practice, the accountability idea is malleable, ambiguous — and contested. This working paper unpacks diverse understandings of accountability ideas, using the ‘keywords’ approach. This tradition takes everyday big ideas whose meanings are often taken for granted and makes their subtexts explicit.

The proposition here is that ambiguous or contested language can either constrain or enable possible strategies for promoting accountability. After all, different potential coalition partners may use the same term with different meanings—or may use different terms to communicate the same idea. Indeed, the concept’s fundamental ambiguity is a major reason why it can be difficult to communicate ideas about accountability across disciplines, cultures, and languages.

The goal here is to inform efforts to find common ground between diverse potential constituencies for accountable governance.

This analysis is informed by dialogue with advocates and reformers from many countries and sectors, many of whom share their ideas in blogposts on the Accountability Keywords website (see also #AccountabilityKeyword on social media). Both the working paper and blogposts reflect on accountability-related words and sayings that resonate with popular cultures, to get a better handle on what sticks.

The format of the working paper is nonlinear, designed so that readers can go right to the keywords that spark their interest:

  • The introduction maps the landscape of accountability keywords.
  • Section 2 addresses what counts as accountability?
  • Section 3 identifies big concepts that overlap with accountability but are not synonyms- such as good governance, democracy, responsiveness and responsibility.
  • Section 4 shows the relevance of accountability adjectives by spelling out different ways in which the idea is understood.
  • Section 5 unpacks widely used, emblematic keywords in the field.
  • Section 6 considers more specialized keywords, focusing on examples that serve as shorthand for big ideas within specific communities of practice.
  • Section 7 brings together a range of widely-used accountability sayings, from the ancient to the recently-invented—illustrating the enduring and diverse nature of accountability claims.
  • Section 8 makes a series of propositions for discussion.

Jonathan Fox is a professor at the School of International Service at American University, where he directs the Accountability Research Center. He works with a wide range of public interest groups, social organizations, private foundations, and policymakers to learn from transparency, participation, and accountability initiatives. His most recent articles were published in World Development, Journal of Peasant Studies and IDS Bulletin. His books about accountability include Accountability Politics: Power and Voice in Rural Mexico; Mexico’s Right-to-Know Reforms: Civil Society Perspectives; Demanding Accountability: Civil Society Claims and the World Bank Inspection Panel and The Struggle for Accountability: The World Bank, NGOs and Grassroots Movements. He serves on the boards of directors of Bank Information Center, Community Agroecology Network, and Controla tu Gobierno (Mexico). He is also an honorary board member of Fundar (Mexico) and an honorary associate of the Institute of Development Studies. He previously served on the board of Oxfam America and as a founding member of the International Expert Panel of the Independent Reporting Mechanism of the Open Government Partnership. For publications, see:

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