There’s something incredibly valuable about concepts that cut across fields and contexts. They help us grapple with unfamiliar territory, facilitate reasoning by analogy, and spread lessons that can lead to unexpected breakthroughs.

Accountability is one of those concepts. We use it in the context of government services (social accountability), political advocacy (holding leaders accountable), donors (accountability to beneficiaries), management (executive accountability), and so forth.

Yet for all that we use this concept, it’s terribly vague. Many advocates will be quick to point out that accountability is multi-dimensional and multi-directional: accountability is to someone, for something, through some mechanism. It is rarely singular. In any given system, multiple accountabilities exist and shift over time.

The vagueness itself is not a problem. We have odd gaps and inconsistencies in how we use other terms like “power” or “justice”—meanings across fields are only consistent at the abstract level. We can’t conflate them at the analytical level.

But the vagueness does leave us open to confusion. One of my least favorite uses is when we describe a lack of accountability. We do this in a variety of contexts. It’s a wonderful way to characterize a situation, system, or individual that is equal parts sweeping, easy to grasp, and totally inaccurate.

Truth is: Everybody is accountable to somebody.

An unaccountable dictator is still accountable to a small coterie on whom he relies to execute his will and protect him from challenges; those individuals are accountable to him, and to others, in turn. An unaccountable bureaucrat (one of the anti-government conservative right’s favorite punching bags) is hired by someone, constrained by rules, and responsive to new policies. An unaccountable company executive (one of the anti-corporate liberal left’s favorite punching bags) is similarly responsive to a board, market forces, and his personal circle.

If we say someone is not accountable, we actually mean that they lack enough incentives to do the things we think they should be doing, and are instead responding to other incentives.

“Lack of accountability” is a characterization that has political uses. If you want to spur people to action, then describing a lack of accountability might be useful. But if you want to figure out the action that needs to be spurred—which hopefully you’ll do before trying to spur others—then you’d better have a more nuanced understanding of the accountability system that you’re facing.

Does it matter that it’s never technically accurate to describe a lack of accountability? Maybe not. But like so much rhetoric, hopefully understanding it can help us to use it better and to inoculate ourselves against its use by others.

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