What is accountability?

Accountability exists in a relationship between two parties where one has expectations of the other, and the other is obliged to provide information about how they have met these expectations or face the consequences of failing to do so.

There are two components of accountability:

  • Answerability – which means providing information and justification for how one’s actions align with expectations; and
  • Enforcement – which means being subject to, and accepting the consequences of, failing to meet these expectations.

Because accountability in an organisation will involve multiple parties, it is important there is clarity about who is accountable to whom and how. The way this accountability is achieved will generally be set out in an organisation’s governing documents, such as its constitution, and any laws that apply to it. For example, an NFP may be required to provide an annual financial report to its regulator and the penalty for failing to do this may be a fine.

It is important that the documents and policies that enable accountability are made available to relevant stakeholders. Subject to necessary confidentiality, usually this is done by providing such information on the organisation’s website, but it should be available on request at a minimum.

For accountability to be achieved, there must be transparency.

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What is transparency?

Organisations are transparent when they enable others to see and understand how they operate in an honest way. To achieve transparency, an organisation must provide information about its activities and governance to stakeholders that is accurate, complete and made available in a timely way.

Transparency enables accountability.

This does not mean all information should be made publicly available. There are certain types of information that may not be provided publicly such as private information (such as client records) and ‘commercial in confidence’ material (such as tender submissions).

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To whom are boards accountable?

The board is entrusted by its members to govern on their behalf. As a result, the primary accountability of boards is to their members.

There are several ways that boards can demonstrate accountability to their members. For example, by answering members’ questions at general meetings and holding open and fair elections for board members. One of the ways boards are held accountable is through upholding their duties which are discussed in Principle 2: Board roles and responsibilities

Boards may also be accountable to other sources including:

  • Regulators, police and the courts;
  • Government and non-government accreditation bodies;
  • Clients and customers;
  • Financial institutions such as banks;
  • Funders and government departments through funding and service agreements; and
  • Other individuals and organisations through contracts for service or employment.

It is important that boards understand to whom they are accountable and that they are satisfied they are meeting any obligations they have to them.

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