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PPGPortal > Home > Concept Dictionary > A > Accountability



The obligation to demonstrate and take responsibility both for the means used and the results achieved in light of agreed expectations.

(Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat. "RPP/DPR Lexicon." Estimates <>.) 


Accountability is one of the most frequently discussed concepts in public policy discourse. Several definitions for this term have been put forward, some of which are:

Les Pal (2006, p. 321) defines accountability as the quality of being accountable to another for one's actions; entailing an obligation to respond to questions and regularly report.

James Hurley defines accountability as the responsibility of an office holder to inform and explain how and how well responsibilities or powers or authority have been exercised; it also involves accepting personal consequences or sanctions for problems that could have been avoided or were not corrected in a timely fashion (Hurley, 2006)

J.C. Tait defines accountability as the means of enforcing or explaining responsibility. Hurley writes that accountability involves rendering an account of how responsibilities have been carried out and problems corrected and, depending on the circumstances, accepting personal consequences for problems the office holder caused or problems that could have been avoided or corrected if the office holder had acted appropriately. (Tait, 2000)

The Privy Council Office has stated that accountability is linked to the source of an authority, and can be thought of as enforcing or explaining responsibility, and its practice is linked to a judgment about an office holder's action. It involves rendering an account to someone on how responsibilities are fulfilled, on actions taken to correct problems and to ensure they do not recur. (Privy Council Office, 2003)

Government accountability can be designed to meet three quite different purposes that may present tensions and contradictions between and within them. (Phillips & Levasseur, 2004, pp. 454-455 )

According to Aucoin and Heintzman, government accountability can be designed to meet three quite different purposes that may present tensions and contradictions between and within them (2000, pp. 44-45). First, accountability may be aimed primarily at control over the abuse and misuse of public authority. Such regimes are generally very rule-based and rely heavily on auditing to determine whether finances were used appropriately and proper procedures were followed (Good, 2003, pp. 167-168). The second goal is to provide assurance to the public, legislatures and governments that public resources and authority were used in ways that adhere to public-service values, public policy and the law (Aucoin & Heintzman, 2000, p. 49). Because a contract takes the definition of the goals, and usually the indicators as well, out of the hands of the service providers and seeds them with the contracting authority, there is an onus on governments not only to demonstrate that the contract requirements have been met - a narrow form of accountability - but that the goals were the right ones in the first place (McQuire, 1997, p. 116). The broader public accountability regime thus includes both the front-end process of negotiating the goals and deliverables of a contract and setting performance targets and, at the back-end, the subsequent responsibility for ensuring that the contracting organizations have delivered on these. Finally, accountability may be the basis for learning and continuous improvement in public management, and this involves a degree of risk-taking and willingness to tolerate failures as part of the learning process and often a certain degree of conflict.

The strict accountability measures currently in place are overwhelmingly focused on control and on demonstrating that the rules, particularly those related to financial reporting, have been followed. There is little scope in the regime for accountability as learning, given its origins as a reaction to a crisis over what appeared to be inadequate accountability. Learning nevertheless does occur, although it may not result in the intended or in particularly positive lessons.

Hurley (2006, pp. 127-128) has defined accountability as the concomitant of responsibility and requires an office holder to inform and explain how and how well responsibilities or powers or authority have been exercised. It also involves accepting personal consequences or sanctions for problems that could have been avoided or were not corrected in a timely fashion.

In the case of collective ministerial accountability, sanction takes the form of a vote of no confidence: if carried, the Government must resign or recommend a general election (in the three cases of a defeat of the Government on a no-confidence motion since the Second World War - in 1963, 1974 and 1979 - the prime Minister recommended a general election). In the case of individual ministerial responsibility, Ministers culpable of personal misconduct or negligence or wrong doing in their area of responsibility will normally resigned or be dismissed by the Prime Minister: the sanction is political. In the case of unelected officials, negligence, improper behaviour or wrongdoing is subject to sanctions, including dismissal, but such sanctions are applied within the Government of Canada and not by Parliament.

The OECD published a Glossary of Key Terms in Evaluation and Results Based Management in 2002 with the following definition:

Accountability is the obligation to demonstrate that work has been conducted in compliance with agreed rules and standards or to report fairly and accurately on performance results vis a vis mandated roles and/or plans. This may require a careful, even legally defensible, demonstration that the work is consistent with the contract terms.

Note: Accountability in development may refer to the obligations of partners to act according to clearly defined responsibilities, roles and performance expectations, often with respect to the prudent use of resources. For evaluators, it connotes the responsibility to provide accurate, fair and credible monitoring reports and performance assessments. For public sector managers and policy-makers, accountability is to taxpayers/citizens.

(OECD, 2002, p. 15) 

Peter Aucoin (2006, pp. 21-22) has recently examined the accountability regime at the federal level in Canada. In comparative perspective, the Canadian system of accountability has some real strengths. For instance, for all its alleged and obvious shortcomings in practice, there is an effectively designed Question Period. The Auditor General has a broad mandate, at least in respect to government departments and agencies, and is very well funded. The resources available to MPs and parliamentary committees are generous by international standards. And, whatever its deficiencies, there has been an access to government information regime in place for two decades.

Yet, the Canadian Parliament has at least three major institutional characteristics that diminish the effectiveness of Parliament in holding ministers and officials to account.

First, the Senate does not have the legitimacy to hold the Government to account, even though its committees are often said to be more competent at scrutiny and review than are House of Commons committees. An elected Senate, especially one designed to minimize the likelihood that it would be controlled by the Government by virtue of the electoral system, would overcome this shortcoming. A Senate controlled by the Government is hardly a prescription for better democracy through checks and balances, even if it did shift the regional balance of power in Canada.

Second, the House of Commons has usually been controlled by the Government. And in this case, except for the Union Government in the First World War, the Government has always been formed by a single party with its MPs constituting a House majority. In this circumstance, holding the government to account is something that precious few, if any, Government MPs have been willing to do. Indeed, every Government has preferred to have its MPs help to thwart Opposition MPs from being effective in holding the Government to account.

The third major characteristic of the Canadian Parliament is the size of the House of Commons. With 308 MPs, once ministers and parliamentary secretaries are removed from the Government caucus, the number of remaining Government MPs who are willing to play a significant role in holding the Government to account has always been miniscule (even when the governing party has a large caucus, as occurred in 1968 and again in 1984). Since so few Government MPs have been willing to act independently of the Government and its whips, even only occasionally, the capacity of Commons committees to do much in the way of serious scrutiny and review has been severely compromised.

The Ontario Ministry of Finance notes that a distinguishing feature of accountability is that it cannot be delegated.


Aucoin, P. (2006). “Improving Government Accountability,” Canadian Parliamentary Review, 29 (3), pp. 20-26.

Hurley, J. (2006). “Responsibility, Accountability and the Role of Deputy Ministers in the Government of Canada,” pp. 115-155, in (Gomery) Commission of Inquiry into the Sponsorship Program and Advertising Activities, Restoring Accountability, Research Studies, Volume 3. Ottawa: PWGSC.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (2002). Glossary of Key Terms in Evaluation and Results Based Management. Paris. Retrieved on June 25, 2008, from

Pal, L. (2006). Beyond Policy Analysis: Public Issue Management in Turbulent Times. Third Edition. Toronto: Nelson – Thomson.

Phillips, S. and K. Levasseur (2004). “The snakes and ladders of accountability: Contradictions between contracting and collaboration for Canada’s voluntary sector,” Canadian Public Administration, 47 (4), pp. 451-474

Privy Council Office. (2003). Guidance for deputy ministers. Available online at

Tait, J. C., chair. (2000). A Strong Foundation: Report of the Task Force on Public Service Values and Ethics. Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Management Development.

Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat. "RPP/DPR Lexicon." Estimates


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