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Accountability and responsibility defined

Stephen Keith McGrath (Faculty of Business, Education, Law and Arts, University of Southern Queensland, Springfield, Australia)
Stephen Jonathan Whitty (Faculty of Business, Education, Law and Arts, University of Southern Queensland, Brisbane, Australia)

International Journal of Managing Projects in Business

ISSN: 1753-8378

Article publication date: 17 April 2018

Issue publication date: 17 May 2018




The purpose of this paper is to remove confusion surrounding the terms responsibility and accountability from the general and project management arenas by creating “refined” (with unnecessary elements removed) definitions of these terms.


A method of deriving refined definitions for a group of terms by ensuring that there is no internal conflict or overlap is adopted and applied to resolve the confusion.


The confusion between responsibility and accountability can be characterised as a failure to separate the obligation to satisfactorily perform a task (responsibility) from the liability to ensure that it is satisfactorily done (accountability). Furthermore, clarity of application can be achieved if legislative and organisational accountabilities are differentiated and it is recognised that accountability and responsibility transition across organisational levels. A difficulty in applying accountability in RACI tables is also resolved.

Research limitations/implications

Clear definition of responsibility and accountability will facilitate future research endeavours by removing confusion surrounding the terms. Verification of the method used through its success in deriving these “refined” definitions suggests its suitability for application to other contested terms.

Practical implications

Projects and businesses alike can benefit from removal of confusion around the definitions of responsibility and accountability in the academic research they fund and attempt to apply. They can also achieve improvements in both efficiency and effectiveness in undertaking organisation-wide exercises to determine organisational responsibilities and accountabilities as well as in the application of governance models.

Social implications

Refined definitions of responsibility and accountability will facilitate building social and physical systems and infrastructure, benefitting organisations, whether public, charitable or private.


Clarity resulting in the avoidance of confusion and misunderstanding together with their consequent waste of time, resources and money.



McGrath, S.K. and Whitty, S.J. (2018), "Accountability and responsibility defined", International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, Vol. 11 No. 3, pp. 687-707.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited

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