The public service has become more Ottawa-centric and less nimble, and government operations thicker, after a decade under the Accountability Act.

If we have learned anything about government reform measures, it is that they rarely solve the problems they set out to address, and all too often they create new ones. To be sure, the Federal Accountability Act set a very ambitious bar. It sought to overhaul Ottawa’s approach to conflict of interest rules, election financing and lobbying, as well as bureaucratic oversight and accountability requirements.

On the latter goal, the government of the day looked to the private sector for inspiration on how to make the bureaucracy more efficient and more accountable. The objective was to unleash an entrepreneurial culture in government, give managers more freedom to manage operations, and then hold them to a higher level of accountability. The Accountability Act was introduced shortly after Justice John Gomery’s commission tabled its reports, in the aftermath of the Liberal sponsorship scandal. Even before the Gomery reports were released, prime minister Paul Martin’s 2004 budget re-established the Office of the Comptroller General of Canada and strengthened the internal audit process.

The Accountability Act put in place several other important reform efforts, including designating deputy ministers or their equivalents as senior accounting officers in all departments and agencies, directing that all programs be evaluated over a five-year period, and creating the position of Parliamentary Budget Officer.

The measures were touted in the 2006 budget speech as a way of helping Canadians to “trust their government and know their tax dollars are being well spent.” In reality, the changes made government operations thicker, adding new management layers increasing the cost of government overhead; made morale problems in the federal public service worse; and muddied accountability requirements. The federal government bureaucracy has become even more Ottawa-centric.

Accounting officers were first introduced in Britain by the Gladstone government in the mid-nineteenth century. I remember participating in discussions in Ottawa when the government was contemplating introducing the accounting officer concept. A senior official from a central agency insisted that introducing the concept in Canada would be a “train wreck in the making.” Well, it hasn’t been a train wreck, but there haven’t been any obstacles in the road either.

In Britain, the accounting officer concept makes the permanent secretary personally responsible for the management of his or her department. In addition, the accounting officer is made responsible for making sure that the estimates presented to Parliament are consistent with the department’s statutory authority, that its operations achieve high standards of propriety, that basic public service values are upheld, and that value for money guides managers’ work. British accounting officers are given the instructions to follow if their ministers embark on a course of action that is not consistent with the aforementioned values. They are asked to consult with the treasury and seek a written instruction from the minister before proceeding with the minister’s wishes.

The accounting officer concept introduced under Canada’s Accountability Act is considerably watered down from both the British version and the proposal prime minister Stephen Harper promised during the 2005-06 election campaign. In Canada, the accounting officer is the deputy minister and must operate within the framework of ministerial responsibility. They do not have the same type of personal responsibility over departmental management as their British counterparts. This means that nothing much has changed, and I cannot think of a single example where the concept has had any appreciable impact on the accountability relationship between departments, ministers and Parliament.

What has changed is the program evaluation industry in Ottawa within departments and in consulting firms. The government now spends nearly $100 million a year, employs 500 full-time public servants and contracts some 93 percent of its program evaluation work to outside consultants.

And that evaluation industry has failed to deliver. Even the Office of the Auditor General, arguably the most vocal supporter of the program evaluation function, maintains that it has fallen far short of expectations. We know that precious few program evaluation efforts have generated program termination or reforms. In brief, the program evaluation function provides politicians with excellent opportunities to tell the electorate that they are doing something to make government more effective and efficient, but it does not accomplish much else. It is not too much of an exaggeration to suggest that it has done little more than keep public servants and consultants busy turning a crank that is not attached to anything.

The program evaluation function has done little more than keep public servants and consultants busy turning a crank that is not attached to anything.

The Accountability Act also erred in insisting that all programs should be evaluated over a five-year cycle. It borrowed a page from Peter Drucker, the management guru to the private sector, when he argued that “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” There are things in government that one can measure – for example, the number of public servants required to process passports, income tax returns, and the like. But there are things that government simply cannot measure. How can one possibly evaluate all the work of a department like Canadian Heritage, as it tries to manage conflicting goals and too many demands on its resources?

There are now far more agents of Parliament in Ottawa than there are in other Westminster-style parliamentary systems. Instead of addressing the matter, the Accountability Act added still more officers of Parliament, including the Parliamentary Budget Officer. The PBO was established under the legislation to “ensure truth in budgeting.” I am certain that the message that they are not as credible, and cannot be trusted to tell the truth, was not lost on finance officials.

All parliamentary officers view their reporting relationship as being geared more to the media than to Parliament. In recent years new officers of Parliament have been created without any effort to define a constitutional niche or to clarify how they fit into the existing constitutional framework. It is not clear how they are to be held accountable and by whom. They do, however, generate a great deal of work for the Ottawa bureaucracy. This explains, in part, why we have witnessed the transfer of many public sector jobs from the regions to Ottawa. Some 35 years ago, 72 percent of federal public service positions were in the regions – today the number is down to 57 percent.

Meanwhile, if anyone wanted more evidence of how the public and private sectors are different in both important and unimportant ways, one need only to look at the mechanics of the Accountability Act measures.

While the private sector manages to the bottom line, the public sector has much different goals. Its managers look to the demands of the prime minister, ministers, Parliament, courts, interest groups and what the media have to say, rather than just to profit-minded shareholders or owners. In the private sector, it does not much matter if you get it right only 50 percent of the time, so long as you turn a handsome profit for the firm. In the public sector, it does not matter much if you get it right 99 percent of the time if the 1 percent you get wrong casts your minister, your department and you in a negative light in the media into the future. Trying to make the public sector look like the private sector – an impossible goal – has sapped the morale of the federal public service.

Trying to make the public sector look like the private sector – an impossible goal – has sapped the morale of the federal public service.

The Accountability Act failed to recognize that the public sector needs its own diagnosis and remedy. Rather than strengthening accountability in government by focusing on lessons learned and on traditional public sector financial audits, the measures it sponsored have continued to feed into what has come to dominate the political discourse in Canada – managing the blame game. They have provided fodder for the always hungry 24-hour news cycle, social media and the hyper-partisanship that now permeates Canadian politics and Parliament.

What does the Federal Accountability Act have to show for its 10 years? Rather than address fundamental questions confronting our parliamentary system and our public service, it turned to Band-Aid solutions by borrowing bits and pieces from the American political system – notably the Parliamentary Budget Officer and the obsession with private sector approaches. Accountability has not been strengthened, while the government has grown thicker, government operations more expensive trying to service an ever growing number of oversight bodies, and morale in the public service has plummeted. It has shifted the locus of control management from where the bulk of programs and services are delivered, at the regional level, to Ottawa, where the blame game is played out.

One can only applaud the Clerk of the Privy Council’s recent call for the public service to be better at taking risks, introducing change and making it stick. To give life to his commitment, he will have to revisit the many layers of oversight bodies and accountability requirements put in place in Ottawa over the past 15 years.

This article is part of The Federal Accountability Act: Ten Years Later special feature.

 


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