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What is accountability and public governance?

Accountability is essential for the efficient use of public finances and relies on a good system of public governance. Let's explore.
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What is 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.

What is accountability?

Good systems of public governance result in the 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 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.

Ensuring good governance across institutions

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.

Seeking improvements in accountability and public governance systems

For many countries, seeking improvements in their accountability and public governance systems is an ongoing 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 the training of thousands of civil servants in new accounting techniques and practices.

If you’d like to learn more about understanding public financial management, check out the full online course from The University of London, below.

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Understanding Public Financial Management: How Is Your Money Spent?

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