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2002 December Report of the Auditor General of Canada

December 2002 Report—Chapter 9

Exhibit 9.1—The elements of accountability

Accountability is a relationship based on obligations to demonstrate, review, and take responsibility for performance, both the results achieved in light of agreed expectations and the means used.

A relationship

Accountability involves two (or more) parties in a relationship that features certain obligations.


All parties in an accountability relationship have obligations that imply responsibilities and consequences. In addition to the obligations inherent in the relationship (to demonstrate, review, and take responsibility), others can come from outside (such as legal, professional, contractual, and hierarchic obligations) and from an internalized sense of integrity.


Demonstrating performance involves proactively reporting what results have been achieved and the appropriateness of the means used; it requires honesty, openness, and transparency. In a hierarchic relationship, this obligation is on the subordinate party.


Review involves analyzing and reflecting on the reported results and the means used, and then taking appropriate action. Each party has an obligation to review. Those accounting should review to learn what is working and what is not, and should adjust their activities accordingly. Those holding to account should direct or call for any needed change. If performance is good, this could simply mean reconfirming current activities or could entail individual rewards. If performance is weak, corrective action would be expected. Review and adjustment of unacceptable performance might involve sanctions on individuals. Review can also result in revising expectations or adjusting other elements of the accountability relationship.

Take responsibility

Taking responsibility emphasizes answering for and accepting responsibility for what has or has not been accomplished and for the means used in the effort.


A key focus in accountability is on the results (outputs and outcomes) accomplished or not accomplished.

Agreed expectations

The agreed expectations stem from either a formal or informal agreement on what is to be accomplished. In a hierarchic situation, one would expect a degree of discussion between the two parties as to what is reasonable and feasible, placing an obligation on the superior party to be clear about what is expected.

In light of

This emphasizes that performance is comparative. One is called on to compare what was accomplished with what was expected. Effective accountability requires disclosure: setting out beforehand what is expected and then reporting against those expectations. It also requires learning: looking in light of the expectations at what was accomplished or not, and what has been learned that will improve future performance.

The means used

How one delivers public services, uses authority, and handles public money are more than means of achieving results: they are ends in themselves, important reflections of public sector values and ethics. It is expected that the means used treat people fairly, are undertaken with propriety, and reflect good stewardship—that is, provide best value for money and respect the environment.