“Democratic accountability” seems to be an invention of the last 50 years.
It is one more ideological maneuver in the centuries old intellectual effort of aligning an ideology propounding political equality with support for the oligarchical practice of elections.
In “What democracy is… and is not” Philippe C. Schmitter and Terry Lynn Karl put things this way:
Modern political democracy is a system of governance in which rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens, acting indirectly through the competition and cooperation of their elected representatives.
Absence of specific meaning
In 1956 Robert Dahl wrote in his book A Preface to Democratic Theory:
The absence of specific meaning for terms like “majority tyranny” and “faction” coupled with the central importance of these concepts in the Madisonian style of thinking has led to a rather tortuous political theory that is explicable genetically rather than logically. [...] At the formation of the Constitution, the Madisonian style of argument provided a satisfying, persuasive, and protecting ideology for the minorities of wealth, status and power who distrusted and feared their bitter enemies – the artisans and farmers of inferior wealth, status, and power, who they thought constituted the “popular majority”. [... W]hatever its defects of logic, definition, and scientific utility, the Madisonian ideology is likely to remain the most prevalent and deeply rooted of all the styles of thought that might properly be labeled “American”. [...] Ideologies serve a variety of needs – psychological, socio-economic, political, propagandistic – that transcend the need of pedants for scientific cogency. [Chapter 1, section XIV]
The extent to which analogous statements can be made regarding the theory of democratic accountability is remarkable. An important component of accountability theory is keeping the term “accountability” vaguely defined. This is well demonstrated by Schmitter and Karl who, despite the centrality of accountability to what they highlight as their definition of democracy, never explicitly say what it means and in fact only use the term a handful of times throughout the article1.
Instead, the article uses a diffuse argumentation methodology that is typical to the “accountability” literature. Schmitter and Karl manage to incorporate into their discussion not only the accountability definition above, a general approval of Schumpeterian theory, and Robert Dahl’s list of conditions of democracy, but also significant elements of what Schumpeter called the “classical” theory – for which his own theory was offered as a direct substitute. For example, it is asserted in the article that
[d]uring the intervals between elections, citizens can seek to influence public policy through a wide variety of other intermediaries: interest associations, social movements, locality groupings, clientelistic arrangement, and so forth,
[t]he most common and effective way of protecting minorities [...] lies in the everyday operation of interest associations and social movements. These reflect [...] the different intensities of preference that exist in the population and bring them to bear on democratically elected decision makers,
there are many channels of representation in modern democracy. The electoral one [...] is the most visible and public. [...] Yet the sheer growth of government [...] has increased the number, variety and power of agencies charged with making public decisions and not subject to elections. Around these agencies there has developed a vast apparatus of specialized representation based largely on functional interests[.] These interest associations, and not political parties, have become the primary expression of civil society in most stable democracies, supplemented by the more sporadic interventions of social movements.
The authors seem unconcerned with aligning the existence of those supposed mechanisms of “democratic influence” and “representation” with their earlier assertion that democracy is defined in terms of “accountability”.
From the little that can be learned about accountability from the paper, it seems that if it can be taken to have any meaning at all then it is a rebranding of the old rewards-based theory of electoralism (unpopular officials will be punished by being voted out of office). “Accountability” is a respectable label for a model describing elections as a transaction based on distrust, exploitation, manipulation and (mostly empty) threats. However, democratic accountability theory does introduce the novelty of turning what was classically considered to be a tool (the threat of losing an upcoming election was supposed to spur officials into producing better policy) into an end in itself (“holding government accountable”). Thus, democratic accountability theory dispenses with the substantive criteria of the quality of policy in favor of the formality of replacing officials with other officials.
In the section “what democracy is not”, Schmitter and Karl warn their readers that
[d]emocratization will not necessarily bring in its wake economic growth, social peace, administrative efficiency, political harmony, free markets or “the end of ideology.”
In fact, no substantive policy outcomes are expected. The promise of democracy is purely procedural (again, with some notional implications attached):
[W]hat we should be hoping for is the emergence of political institutions that can peacefully compete to form governments and influence public policy, that can channel social and economic conflicts through regular procedures, and that have sufficient linkages to civil society to represent their constituencies and commit them to collective courses of action.
Other than being considerably less coherently presented, then, the accountability theory of democracy differs from Schumpeter in metaphysics rather than substance. Like him, Schmitter and Karl define “democracy” as being essentially a system based on electoral competition (they do refer to “other mechanisms of competition” but their discussion is so diffuse that it is difficult to know what they actually refer to or why it is a democratic feature). Unlike Schumpeter, however, they attribute some mystical force of “accountability” to that system. In this way, Schumpeter’s positive theory is turned into a normative theory. If “accountability” is Good, and elections are a mechanism (possibly the only mechanism) for accountability, then the electoral system is Good (possibly the only good government system).
The definition most commonly used by American social scientists is that of Joseph Schumpeter: “that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.” Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. We accept certain aspects of the classical procedural approach to modern democracy, but differ primarily in our emphasis on the accountability of rulers to citizens and the relevance of mechanisms of competition other than elections.
Later mentions again do not attempt an explication of the term and the expressions used seem to be no more than thinly veiled references to elections:
Like all regimes, democracies depend upon the presence of rulers, persons who occupy specialized authority roles and can give legitimate commands to others. What distinguishes democratic rulers from nondemocratic ones are the norms that condition how the former come to power and the practices that hold them accountable for their actions.
Representatives – whether directly or indirectly elected – do most of the real work in modern democracies. Most are professional politicians who orient their careers around the desire to fill key offices. [...] The central question [is] how these representative are chosen and then held accountable for their actions.
Rulers may not always follow the course of action preferred by the citizenry. But when they [don't,] they must ultimately be held accountable for their actions through regular and fair processes.