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Accountability and public governance

Public governance consists of the arrangements put in place to ensure that the intended outcomes for stakeholders are defined and achieved.

It includes, for example, institutions and processes that help stakeholders participate in debates about policy objectives, that enable policy-makers to make decisions on which policies should be pursued, and that offer stakeholders the possibility to monitor and appraise the implementation of public policies.

Good systems of public governance result in more efficient and effective use of public finances for attaining policy objectives, while flawed governance opens up opportunities for errors, abuses and a waste of public monies. Accountability therefore is an essential component of public governance.

What precisely are the features of a good system of public governance? The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) and the International Federation of Accountants (IFA) have provided an answer in their International Framework for Good Governance in the Public Sector. The framework indicates that good governance consists of the following:

  • Ensuring openness and comprehensive stakeholder engagement;
  • Defining outcomes in terms of sustainable economic, social and environmental benefits;
  • Determining the interventions necessary to optimize the achievement of the intended outcomes;
  • Developing the entity’s capacity, including the capability of its leadership and the individuals within it;
  • Managing risks and performance through robust internal control and strong public financial management;
  • Implementing good practices in transparency, reporting and audit, to deliver effective accountability.

Accountability plays a fundamental role in ensuring good governance across institutions and processes. When public officers have an obligation to explain and justify their conduct towards other public authorities, or taxpayers and citizens, they are exposed to the judgement and, possibly, the sanctions that can be imposed for any wrongdoing. In order for the accountability mechanism to work, however, certain conditions must be met, including transparent access to information, reliable accounting systems and an independent media and judiciary.

For many countries, seeking improvements in their accountability and public governance systems is on on-going process. One such case is Ethiopia, which embarked on a series of reforms of the civil service and public financial management systems in the mid-1990s, with great success. Running alongside a programme of decentralisation of public functions, the reforms resulted in the creation of a modern macroeconomic and fiscal framework that introduced many innovative components. Fiscal transfers to sub-national governments were linked to cost indicators and performance targets, consistent budget formats were introduced across jurisdictions, and financial calendars and IT systems were upgraded alongside training of thousands of civil servants in new accounting techniques and practices.

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This article is from the free online course:

Understanding Public Financial Management: How Is Your Money Spent?

SOAS University of London