Existing accountability efforts in Nigeria primarily serve as retrospective policing. To enable accountability to guide change prospectively and preemptively, we drew from a literature review to develop a framework that highlights mutually reinforcing dimensions of accountability in health systems along three counterbalancing axes. The axis of power sparks change by wielding ‘sticks’ that curb the potential abuse of power, but also by offering ‘carrots’ that motivate constructive agency. The axis of ability supports change by enabling service delivery actors with formal rules that appropriately expand their authority to act, but also the informal norms and inputs for improved performance. Last, the axis of justice orients the strategic direction of change, balancing political representation, community ownership and social equity, so that accountability measures are progressive, rather than being captured by self-interests. We consulted Nigerian government officials to understand their viewpoints on accountability and mapped their responses to our evolving framework. All government officials (n = 36) participating in three zonal workshops on routine immunization filled out questionnaires that listed the top three opportunities and challenges to strengthening accountability. Thematically coded responses highlighted dimensions of accountability within the axes of ability and power: clarifying formal roles and responsibilities; transparency, data and monitoring systems; availability of skilled health personnel that are motivated and supervised; addressing informal norms and behaviours; and availability of inputs regarding funding and supplies. Other dimensions of accountability were mentioned but were not as critical from their viewpoints: managerial discretion; sanctions and enforcements; political influence and community engagement. Strikingly, almost no respondents mentioned social equity as being an important aspect of accountability, although a few mentioned broad development concerns that reflected community perspectives. Reframing accountability as a means of sparking, supporting and steering change can highlight different dimensions of health systems that need reform, particularly depending on the positionality of the viewpoints consulted.