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The meaning of the word accountability has been deliberated extensively by many scholars.

Nelson et al. (2003, p.10) note the lack of clarity in determining the meaning and implications of accountability, but accept that it generally refers to “the obligation to give an account”

(quoting Perks, 1993) and that it basically represents the reporting about the performance of one party, by that party, to another. Nevertheless, they recognise that a wave of evolution and considerable change has swept through accountability in the corporate world “as accounting

25 practices are reactive and develop mainly in response to changing needs at any given time”


Axworthy (2005) explains that accountability answers the question of who reports to whom for what. He links accountability to responsibility and feels that to be responsible is to be answerable. Consequently, he surmises that answerability requires that an account be tendered to those to whom an account is due. This is further consolidated when he notes that Flinders (2001), in his study of the British Home Office, concludes that only an element of culpability represents the distinction between accountability and responsibility because the former is generally a report of the activities of illustrating an account of their activities and the manner in which they discharged their duties (p.3).

Jayasinghe & Soobaroyen (2009, p.997) explain that the “perceptions of accountability” have permeated accounting literature. They originate with a definition and interpretation of accountability by Sinclair (1995, p.219), embrace “debates in developing appropriate accountability mechanisms, principles and frameworks for non-profit organizations”, and culminate in studies relating to the formulation of “accountability characteristics” with Edwards & Hulmes (1995). In addition, Roberts, (1991, 1996) deliberates on “formal versus informal, and upward/vertical versus downward/horizontal”, while Jacobs & Walker (2004) reflect on “socialising versus individualising”, and Unerman & O’Dwyer (2006) consider

“relational versus identity.”

Broad conceptualisations of what constitutes accountability are provided by many researchers (Arunachalam, 2011; Messner, 2009; McKernan & McPhail, 2012, etc.). These conceptualisations are summarised in Table 2.1.

26 Table 2.1 provides a rough sketch of the journey undertaken by accountability. From its humble beginnings of being a mere tool of giving account and practicing stewardship, accountability has progressed slowly to mean being accountable to society. Along the way it has assimilated components of moral values, fair and equitable judgment, of being dialectic and advocating social and environmental responsibility. However, the concept of accountability in isolation has no effect, and provides neither benefit nor advantage to anybody. The increased demands and obligations placed upon accountability require it to acquire a reliable tool for undertaking its new roles, integrating relevant information and disseminating the correct messages to the correct recipients. The most appropriate apparatus would be the practice of accounting, which is discussed in the next section

27 Table 2.1

Concepts of Accountability

Studies in social and environmental accounting literature . . . [which] generally agree that organisations are accountable to society at large for the impacts of their activities on the natural environment and society, and that accountability involves reporting to communities.

Cooper, 1992; Gray, 1992; Henderson, 1991; Lehman, 1995;

Lehman, 1999; Maunders & Burritt, 1991; Harte & Owen 1987;

Gray et al., 1996 Radical accountability in which the interests or values of the individual are

subordinate to the interests or values of society.

Shearer, 2002 Giving an account is one means by which individuals are constituted as moral

agents in communities and develop concern for the common good, human

solidarity and basic respect…the development of new forms of …accounting which have “enabling, empowering and emancipatory”

(p. 365) potential to create a “fairer and more just society” (p. 365).

Schweiker, 1993; Bebbington, 1997

Fairness in accountability in the public sphere [means] that if there is more than one underlying set of values and assumptions in society, more than one should be given visibility during the reporting and deliberation processes.

Pallot, 1991

To rethink democratic accountability in terms of 360-degree accountability involves thinking in terms of webs of mutual responsibility and obligations that bind people in promoting the common good.

Behn, 2000

Explores the operational dynamics of 360-degree accountability under conditions of decentralised, collaborative and participatory policy making.

Coalition…between citizens, government, regulators, businesses, environmentalists and other interested parties can produce accountability to a broad array of

interests via informal institutions for decentralised, collaborative and participatory governance arrangements and policy making.

Weber, 2003

Communitarian model of accountability assumes the existence of accountability relationships in the public sphere involving the community, state and corporations [whereby] information is provided to the community on the environmental and social impacts of corporate activities.

Lehman, 1999

Conceptualise accountability as a dialectical activity involving answering,

explaining and justifying by one party while those holding them to account engage in questioning, assessing and criticizing.

Aucion & Heintzman, 2000; Bohman, 1996; Bovens, 2007;

Mulgan, 2000


Proponents of dialogic accounting [i.e. an] approach [which] emphasises the (a) development of accountability in the form of critical enquiry and dialogue between stakeholders and entities, [which is] (b) grounded in deliberative and agonistic models of democracy that incorporate critically reflective dialogue and effective participatory forms of decision making and accountability [with] (c) the aim…to facilitate pluralistic debates for evaluating alternative courses of action.

[Therefore] in a broader sense, a democratic dialogue in the public sphere can be conceived as a form of accountability.

(a)Bebbington et al., 2007;

(b)Brown, 2009;

(c)Dillard & Roselander, 2011

Accountability is said to be a broader concept than stewardship…[a] form of principal agent [contractual] relationship. Accountee gives the power over resources along with instructions about actions and rewards to the Accountor . . . [who] is supposed to take certain actions and refrain from others in managing the resources given to him to meet certain objectives, and to account to his principal by giving information about his actions to him.

Hameed & Yaya, 2005

Differentiation between two forms of accountability: 1) hierarchical, whereby the type of accounting information and analysis should be “dictated by the categories supplied by accounting information”, and

2) socializing, which develops an awareness of the individual as a member of an ongoing community.

Roberts, 1996

To hold certain expectations about what this person or organization should be able and obliged to explain, justify and take responsibility for.

Cooper & Owen, 2007

Advocating social and environmental reporting practices. Gray, 2002; Shearer, 2002; Unerman & Bennett, 2004 The idea of accountability has become ubiquitous in private and public contexts. Munro & Mouritsen, 1996

The idea of accountability is notoriously difficult to pin-down. Sinclair, 1995

Accountability involves “the giving and demanding of reasons for conduct.” Roberts & Scapens, 1985 Various types, forms, and styles of accountability. Ahrens, 1996

Practices of accountability have been employed to shape commitments, actions, and conceptions of the self.

Roberts, 1991; Willmott, 1996

The corporation as a moral agent. Schweiker, 1993; Shearer, 2002

To be accountable for our activities we need both “to explicate the reasons for them and to supply the normative grounds whereby they may be ‘justified’.”

Giddens, 1984 Association of accountability with responsibility. Bovens, 1998

29 Therefore, in summary, accounting commenced with a duty of transcribing, recording and reporting. It then acquired the status of being responsible and progressed to include values, morals and ethics in its practice. It stands today as a multi-faceted discipline incorporating economic, social and environmental factors in its reporting. However, accounting has a larger role than merely being a tool for reporting financial results. The conceptualisation of “accountability” in accounting includes a responsibility to account for many things, both quantitative and qualitative, with the latter referring to quality of life, the social and environmental impact of actions and corresponding reactions. The practice of accounting must uphold the very tenets of accountability to all stakeholders irrespective of power, politics or influence. It must be composed of objectivity, morality, integrity, fairness and equity.

Having concluded that an element of inadequacy prevails in the practice of accounting in relation to the discharge of its role as a tool for accountability, we now examine and evaluate the features, characteristics and perspectives that must be incorporated into the practice of accounting for it to be accepted as a vehicle for accountability.