Accountability is today’s most popular buzzword, political slogan and discussion topic from barber shops to television screens. Public accountability is discussed but rarely understood and means so many things to so many people. Any discussion on accountability raises questions like what is accountability, who is accountable, what for and to whom?

First, accountability, in it literal meaning, is to give account, or the process of being taken to account. Public accountability has two facets. One is answerability and the other is sanction. Answerability is giving of answer, explanation and justification of one’s actions. Sanction comes into play when the accountable one is negligent or deviant. Sanction takes two forms; remedy and punishment. A citizen wronged by public servant can claim remedy. In a fair system, the delinquent official also faces punishment for wrong action. The punishment can again be departmental as well as criminal.

Who is accountable? In any society, people are answerable to each other through a number of associations like family, business and social relations. In the public service context, the government is accountable to citizens on whose taxes it functions. The modern relationship between government and citizens is that of principal and agent. Government is the agent which has to work according to wishes of the principal i.e citizens. Government in this relationship operates through institutions, starting from federal government down to the street level public servant, who are respectively accountable for their functions. The next question is what are public servants accountable for? Government departments and public servants are accountable primarily for two things. First is the exercise of authority entrusted to them as agents and secondly, for the use of resources and funds kept at their disposal for exercise of authority.

To whom they are accountable? Government and its functionaries are accountable theoretically to public. But the public is practically a fiction and hardly consulted except for elections. Next step is that the government is accountable to the peoples’ representatives i.e parliament. In Pakistan, the constitution provides that the government and cabinet are answerable to parliament. Such arrangement gets trickier in parliamentary democracies like ours, where legislative and executive systems are merged. Developed democracies have found a solution in having multiple levels of answerability for all tiers of government. An ideal answerability system is on three levels; upward, horizontal and downward.

A public servant should be answerable to those above the chain of functions. In Pakistan, the only form of accountability is upward accountability and has become just another name of control. It implies that those accountable will do whatever that controller will ask and at all other times will be free to exercise their sweet will. Upward accountability is also fashionably called internal accountability and remains ineffectual because same controlling supervisors are given accountability powers. The mantra of control in the name of internal accountability is rooted in colonial self-righteous tradition and just refuses to go away.

Horizontal accountability is answerability to those at the equal level but with different mandate. For example a department can be made answerable to an external committee having representation from civil society and private sector. In police and local governments laws, there is provision of public safety commissions and complaint authorities which are never made operational. Official forums like the Judiciary, Ombudsman, Auditor general, Public accounts committees and other committees are instances of horizontal accountability. In USA, Government Accountability Office (GAO) and Office of Management, and National Audit Office (NAO) in UK are institutions for external or horizontal accountability. In our system, this parallel accountability is collectively and unanimously scorned and spurned by public servants and relentless institutional and informal efforts are made to defeat its purpose. If any law provides for such forum, it is made sure that the forum is stuffed with pliant and ex-officio members so that the question of answerability does not arise.

Downward accountability is getting increasingly popular in developed countries. The need arose after arrival of new public governance through corporatization, partnerships and deregulation of public functions. Citizens in such situation become customers. Public service departments like health, education, social service and even police and security are judged by the customers they serve and their accountability is ensured through surveys, feedback and monitoring. Such like accountability is a still a far cry in our system where public servants’ disdain and aversion is evident by sheer absence of citizens from any answerability mechanism for even basic services.

Sanction or prosecution is second face of accountability coin. Enforcement agencies like NAB are meant for sanction or prosecution. Many departments specially dealing with law enforcement and security have their own persecution wings as well. Almost all departments have provision of departmental penalties ranging from warning to termination from service.

In Pakistan, accountability even on paper is restricted to violations. The answerability part deals with violations associated with misconduct and the sanction part with crime and corruption. The departmental violations remain buried in maze of appeals and hardly a public servant ends up out of the system. Corruption can be dealt at the source or the end. A corrupt transaction is normally in the form of a bribe for service or theft of government funds. The prosecutions for these are few and far between. The end part of corruption is asset accumulation. One can gauge the seriousness of the process from the fact that while parliamentarians’ assets are published and debated, the bureaucrats asset details are kept secret and never subject to scrutiny.

Nowhere there is the provision or possibility of neutral external accountability of performance of public servants or agencies about what were their targets, how many resources they used and how many targets they met and whether the process was fair and equitable. Pakistan’s bureaucracy and public servants are perhaps the least accountable amongst contemporary public services and have successfully managed to hide in plain view under the garb of political control.