V Responsibility and accountability

This section provides a brief overview of the exercise of the responsibility and accountability of heads of agencies, as defined by statute and by convention.

1. Introduction

Parliament exercises the general power of the federal government through its authority to legislate. The two Houses of Parliament, the government of the day and the Crown decide how the power of the federal government is to be used and by whom. This assignment of powers in legislation is the first and most important building block of responsibility and accountability, because responsibility flows from authority.

Parliament assigns the powers of the federal government in three ways that are relevant here: to Ministers individually; to the Governor in Council and its statutory committees; and to the heads and boards of arm’s length agencies. These assignments of power define the responsibilities and accountabilities of all elected and non-elected officials for the exercise of the powers conferred by statutes. Even where powers are assigned to collective bodies, such as the Governor in Council or the board of an arm’s length agency, Parliament has insisted that a particular individual be accountable. The personal accountability of office holders is an essential part of responsible government.

2. Responsibility, Accountability and Answerability of Heads of Agencies

Parliament has deemed it appropriate to assign certain categories of powers to persons operating at arm’s length from the government of the day. Usually these are powers of a regulatory, commercial, research, advisory or professional grant-giving nature, and the substantive and management powers conferred on them for carrying out the objects of their statutes. In such cases, the powers are usually vested directly in a board or a chief executive officer.

Ministers are almost always assigned one or more specific statutory duties in respect of agencies. With few exceptions, they are required to receive and table in Parliament an annual report. They are also required to recommend to the Governor in Council appointments to the governing boards of agencies. The majority of these appointments are not made by the Ministers directly. For all bodies that depend on public funding, Ministers are required to approve estimates submissions.

Ministers may also be assigned specific powers. They may, for example, have the authority to refer a matter for inquiry or study by an agency. They may have certain defined powers of direction; these are sometimes exercised directly by the Minister, and sometimes through the Governor in Council.

The heads of arm’s length agencies are responsible for the exercise of powers conferred by Parliament for the fulfilment of specific statutory objects. They account both to Parliament (principally through its committees) and to Ministers for the way in which they have discharged their responsibilities.

The head of an arm’s length agency will render account to Parliament in a variety of ways. The head of the agency will produce an annual report for the Minister to provide to Parliament, which will be referred to a parliamentary committee. The head will appear before a parliamentary committee to defend the agency’s estimates. The head of the agency will explain and defend the actions taken by the agency pursuant to its statutory mandate. The head will also appear to provide evidence to committees carrying out special studies and investigations.

The head of an arm’s length agency will also account to the Minister through whom the agency reports to Parliament. Accountability to the Minister has two dimensions: specific, in the sense of actually reporting to the Minister in support of any relevant statutory provisions, such as reporting the results of a study or investigation commissioned by the Minister; and general, in the sense of providing information necessary for the Minister to fulfil the Minister’s constitutional responsibility to provide information to the House of Commons.

When errors occur, the head of an arm’s length agency will demonstrate his or her accountability by informing the Minister, testifying if necessary to the appropriate parliamentary committee and by taking appropriate remedial action.

Contact for further information

Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet
Machinery of Government
Privy Council Office
Telephone: (613) 957-5491