The public servant (typically deputy minister) of a government entity who has a legal obligation to appear before House and Senate committees to answer questions on the management responsibilities in section 16.4 of the Financial Administration Act
(Accounting Officers: Guidance on Roles, Responsibilities and Appearances Before Parliamentary Committees, PCO, 2007)
The PCO Guidance (2007) states that "the new accounting officer provisions of the Financial Administration Act (FAA) designate deputy ministers and deputy heads of designated government entities as the accounting officers for their organizations. Accounting officers have a legal obligation to appear before committees of the Senate and House of Commons and answer questions on the management responsibilities set out in section 16.4 of the FAA.
This legal obligation operates within the framework of ministerial responsibility and accountability to Parliament. Ministers, and they lone, are accountable to Parliament for all actions of the executive including management. Although the accounting officer is legally bliged to appear, he or she appears in support of the Minister’s accountability. Hence, it remains appropriate for Ministers to testify before committees on management matters.
Section 16.4 does not create new management responsibilities. Deputies have long had these responsibilities; they are listed to establish the scope of areas for which accounting officers are legally required to appear and answer questions. Concerning matters outside the scope of the four areas, it remains appropriate for committees to work with the department or organization to determine the most appropriate person or persons to appear before the committee. This would not necessarily be the accounting officer.
Should the accounting officer appear concerning his or her broader responsibilities as deputy, he or she appears on behalf of the Minister and should take guidance from the Minister on the most appropriate approach."(Accounting Officers: Guidance on Roles, Responsibilities and Appearances Before Parliamentary Committees, PCO, 2007)
This conception of the role is slightly different from that used by the Public Accounts Committee, as described in its March 2007 Protocol for the Appearance of Accounting Officers. The differences of view on the role can be seen in the November 2007 Citizen editorial and Professor Sharon Sutherland's comment. Ottawa Citizen: "Justice Gomery went so far as to suggest that a natural evolution in the duties of federal deputy ministers was to adopt the idea of “accounting officer” from the British tradition, one which has existed for more than 100 years. This is an add-on to the job description and it means deputy ministers take responsibility for the management of their departments. The buck stops with them...At least in theory. Queen's professor Ned Franks, one of the experts on governance in Canada, has recently warned that the Privy Council Office, the prime minister's department, is attempting to undermine the accounting officer model. Mr. Franks makes a compelling case that the PCO would like nothing more than to reduce deputy ministers to glorified press secretaries for parliamentarians.”
Sutherland: “The editorial writer is not well informed on the context. The workings of the British accounting officer have very few similarities to what was done here in federal Canada in the Federal Accountability Act. He or she makes some calls on the basis of broad concerns that are called in the UK “value for money.” For example, the accounting officer responsible for the funding of the Millennium Dome asked to be ordered to make the first payment – did not believe the project was viable. Their concerns are much more focussed and verifiable than much of what is raised by the OAG in its performance measurement/management reports, even if not strictly bean counting.”
The concept of “accounting officers” has been used for some time in the British civil service. According to Franks, in Britain, an accounting officer (i.e. the permanent secretary of a department) is held fully and personally responsible and accountable before the Public Accounts Committee for their financial administration for the department. These responsibilities include ensuring that proper financial procedures are followed, that public funds are well managed, and “in the consideration of policy proposals...ensure that all financial considerations, including any issues of propriety, regularity, or value for money, are taken into account, and where necessary brought to the attention of ministers” (Franks, 1997, p. 631).
The accounting officer model dates back to the mid-1800s, when permanent secretaries were personally responsible for all public funds spent by the department and were required to sign for the accounts of the department. If the department to overspent what it had been allocated, the permanent secretary was required to pay that amount back to the government out of his personal finances. Later, the concept was broadened to the point that as part of their financial stewardship accountability function, accounting officers must have the necessary management process in place to ensure good financial management.
As the accounting officer of a department, the permanent secretary is explicitly responsible for giving an account of human resources management and a number of other broad management responsibilities. In other words, being designated as the accounting officer carries with it the responsibility of being the manager of the department and being prepared to give a public accounting of that management. As required in the British government's guidance to accounting officers, “the essence of an accounting officer's role is it personal responsibility for the propriety and regularity of the public finances for which he or she is answerable for the keeping of proper accounts; for prudent and economical administration; for the avoidance of waste and extravagance; and for the efficient and effective use of all available resources” (Government Accounting 2000, Annex 4.1, p. 2).
PCO, 2007, Accounting Officers: Guidance on Roles, Responsibilities and Appearances Before Parliamentary Committees.
Franks, C. E. S. “Not Anonymous: Ministerial Responsibility and the British Accounting Officers.” Canadian Public Administration, Vol. 40, No. 4, Winter 1997, pp. 626-652.
Malloy, J. and S. Millar (2007). “Why Ministerial Responsibility can Still Work,” pp. 105-122, in B. Doern, ed. How Ottawa Spends 2007-2008: The Harper Conservatives – Climate of Change. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.