”œNever credit to conspiracy what simple incompetence can adequately describe.”
”œTrust is the coin of the realm.”
Friends of the Harper government are divided on how they got their version of government accountability reform so badly wrong.
Some believe that the prime minister’s genuine rage at Liberal abuse of power for partisan purposes and his disgust at the role that lobbyists played in helping them got in the way of his strategic judgment. Others say that the party never really cared more about accountability than about tapping the populist rage at Gomery and incompetent government overspending. Therefore the policy response was always going to matter less than the political symbolism.
There is also a school that believes the bad choices are the responsibility of cynical mandarins who took advantage of a green government, pushing them to propose measures on spending control that would never work ”” and therefore could be ignored ”” and to water down the Tories’ commit- ment to openness in government, as every bureaucracy has always pushed its political masters.
But there is a sad, almost universal recognition among government insiders and their supporters among veterans of the Mulroney government that the Harper team has seized the wrong end of the stick on each of the key dossiers: freedom of information, campaign finance, control of influence peddling, government spending control and performance accountability.
The Harper government is the latest in a parade, going back to the Pearson era, of federal governments that have attempted to tame the twin nightmares of every modern democracy: lousy management of program spending, and a broad conviction among voters that insiders get favours from government.
Whatever its motivations, the 255-page Accountability Act is a long, contradictory and, in the end, impossi- ble menu. The policy ingredients and flavours clash, the costs and portions don’t match, and the promises of gastro- nomic bliss are hilariously improbable. It’s a menu drafted by a chef with no kitchen experience and a shaky knowledge of English.
Policy tools appropriate to criminal investigation are promised to improve performance management ”” kind of like a corporate executive calling the police to boost his sales force’s achievement of sales targets.
Political participation by corporations and unions is to be banned, and this is proclaimed as a ”œmore open” campaign finance system. George Orwell had strong words for this abuse of political language.
Creating a privileged class of ”œgrandfathered” lobbyists by cutting off access to the trade for most new potential competitors is hailed as a way of reduc- ing the influence of insiders. Perhaps ”œold lobbyists” were thought to be more virtuous than newcomers.
The political background for this massive new attack on lobbying and dilatory or corrupt civil servants is well known. Citizens across the old democ- racies are furious at their governments’ ineptitude. In Canada, this rage exploded when we learned of the Liberals’ corrupt attempt to use public money to buy the partisan support of Quebec voters.
Although Adscam and Gomery, and all that they have come to represent, are targets eminently worthy of Canadians’ anger, the Harper govern- ment’s response focuses on prevent- ing and then punishing corruption, when the real issue is more often political trickery and bureaucratic incompetence.
In opposition, no government gaffe is a juicier target than ”œmissing rev- enues,” ”œsecret contracts for friends,” and ”œout-of-control spending.” But Canada’s real accountability scandal is the weak performance of its governors in program management and delivery ”” driven by far more complex failures of leadership than corruption.
What the Harper package gets confused, as have many of its prede- cessors, is this: Canadians are not angry with their politicians and civil servants as criminal predators in a kleptocracy. They’re mad because they fail consistently at what they were elected to do: deliver efficient and effective government. Yes, that government must also be transparent and open, but first it must be simply competent.
When viewed through the lens of the PMO, the lurid tales of ”œover- spending” and ”œcontracts for the boys,” so seductive in opposition, appear very different. In a poorly man- aged, $200-billion spending machine, such gaffes are impossible to predict, prevent or defend ”” so you delay deny, and change the channel as quickly as possible.
Bureaucracies, public and private, Canadian and Congolese, therefore hoard information by instinct. Information ”” statistics, gossip, policy plans ”” is the only currency of power that matters. As an insider, one spends one’s information reserves far more cautiously than you dispense the end- less river of taxpayers’ dollars if you want to survive the political and bureaucratic wars. Even if the informa- tion being denied the light of day is harmless, you don’t offer it up pub- licly, ”œfor free.”
Enter Sir Humphrey, the oleagi- nous permanent mandarin of Yes, Prime Minister television fame ”” the two-decade-old character still so close to political reality that he is quoted ironically in government offices around the world.
Well, Prime Minister, I know that you committed to severe new scrutiny on government spending in opposition. And, I am aware of the party platform commitment to freedom of information but…well, it’s just that, Prime Minister, I believe you will come to see there are some things in government that you really might want to think about the wisdom of sharing with the…[spoken with heavy distaste]…the media.
Every significant federal govern- ment since Diefenbaker has come to power attacking corruption and promising more ”œefficient manage- ment” of the public purse, and then been pilloried over its own ”œscandals”: Pearson ”” Munsinger et al.; Trudeau ”” excessive patronage, sloppy spend- ing control; Mulroney ”” a dozen min- isters fired for offences, mostly trivial, plus tacky pocket-lining by some acolytes; Chrétien ”” Gomery.
Does this pattern reflect a reality of corrupt government?
According to Transparency International, the global corruption monitor, Canada ranks just below Singapore and the Scandinavians as benefiting from some of the cleanest governments in the world. No one who has done business involving gov- ernments elsewhere ”” including the United States ”” would claim that Canada is less than squeaky clean by global standards.
So what’s the problem?
First, governments spend more than promised on high-profile pro- grams, especially in new sectors, because they deliberately lowball the cost forecasts to build public accept- ance. However, the lesson of Watergate and all of its scandalous children is that it is never the original fiscal fib or inflated claim that kills you, it’s always the cover-up. Along comes the next auditor general’s study and kaboom, you have an ”œout-of- control spending scandal.”
Second, governments are just bad at cost containment and at fighting ”œscope creep.” This is neither an ide- ological nor a partisan flaw, it’s endemic to modern government. Government procurement red tape, flawed internal accountability sys- tems and Cadillac specs combine with poor contract management skills to produce horror stories like an $800 air force toilet seat.
Third, conflicting goals, bureaucrat- ic politics and ”” in Canada, especially ”” intergovernmental feuds produce incompetent project management and overlapping spending, followed by ama- teurish attempts at cover-up or blame shifting. As veteran consultants say, ”œBad clients deliver bad projects ”” but good billings.”
Recently, Donald Savoie and oth- ers have added a new ingredient: defeatism and declining morale in the senior mandarinate. Battered by too many years of public contempt and ministerial tomfoolery, squeezed by successive program budget cuts and wildly oscillating but ever- escalating political demands, the executives whose performance is the key to efficient government take refuge in process, paper trails and procrastination.
But as one long-time Ottawa watcher, a businessman active in government procure- ment for decades, said privately recently, ”œOut of the hundreds that I have known, I only ever met one civil servant I wouldn’t trust with my wallet,” referring to a famous defendant in the Gomery fiasco.
A recently retired senior mandarin, reflecting on the changes over his career, said, ”œThe most painful frustration was the growing inability to protect, let alone reward and promote, the creative, the risk-taker, the envelope pusher that every healthy, innovative organization needs. In a system driven by fear, where you trust no one, obsessive about avoiding even the most trivial mistake, mediocrity rules, rot is inevitable.”
Here lies the first problem with most government ”œclean-up” legisla- tion, and Harper’s is simply the latest to use a now clichéd approach: the cure was devised for an entirely differ- ent disease.
You bring in financial investiga- tors and forensic auditors to uncover who stole the money, not to unscram- ble why a program failed to deliver what was promised. Even the currently fashionable schools of ”œperformance auditing” or ”œmanagement by results” have been judged failures in delivering any real change in performance.
Here is the sad assessment of the previous auditor general, Denis Desautels: ”œWe found some progress…but ”˜managing for results’ was clearly not the norm…Public ser- vants are not inclined to produce information that might embarrass their ministers.” Or as senior Ottawa sage Doug Hartle told Donald Savoie: ”œIt is a strange dog that willingly car- ries the stick with which it is beaten.”
It is ”œAlice in Audit Wonderland” to think that by increasing the num- bers of bean-counters and layers of spending approval one can prevent politicians from trying to spend their way out of political unpopularity, or into re-election.
Reasonable people may differ over the decision of the Harper govern- ment to kill the gun registry, and the politically adroit manner they choose to do it. But the program as an example of a serious ”œaccountability crime” is hard to improve upon. There is no more dev- astating example of a PMO determined to abuse the machinery of government for political purposes than the chicanery surrounding the long gun registry of the Chrétien government, as the auditor general has reported ad nauseam. Recall the background that led to the debacle: a government eager to appear tough on public safety at a time of heightened public anxiety following the 1989 Montreal massacre adopts a policy that it knows cannot possibly to deliver the benefits promised.
Rifles, even assault rifles, are not the enabler of urban Canadian street crime; handguns, stolen and/or smug- gled, are. Even the most ardent gun- control advocates privately admitted the registry should have excluded legitimate users: hunters, farmers, northerners, First Nations People and so on. What would have made sensible policy was less good politics: it would- n’t have looked as tough.
Justice officials, police, and federal bureaucrats knew that the promise of an up-to-date, reliable national data- base of all long gun owners was a pledge too far. Technology advisers to the federal government warned that the tracking, monitoring and cross-checking machinery accessible to all governments and their police forces was an improbable Rube Goldberg creation. The collection of computer parts, software jiujitsu and detailed manual checking of millions of files would take years to assem- ble, debug and deliver.
Political staffers and minis- ters desperately hoped that the chasm between what was prom- ised and what was delivered, between the lowball budget and the real runaway cost, would show up on the next sap’s watch. It fell, once again, to the auditor general to cry foul.
Think of the negative impacts this one ”œpolicy cheat” has had on atti- tudes and confidence in government:
Those who believe in tough gun control see a cynical government failing to deliver on its promise.
Legitimate rifle owners see a gov- ernment incompetently and arbi- trarily punishing their innocent use.
Those already skeptical about the government’s ability to manage anything more complicated than a lemonade stand have further proof.
Gun crime ”” involving almost exclusively handguns ””is still ris- ing, further enraging an anxious citizenry.
Police and public security officials are trapped between an admirable policy goal ”” reduced gun crime ”” and defending the wrong policy tool. Their credibility is impugned as they look foolish.
It’s not hard to understand, there- fore, the combination of disgust and ennui, occasionally erupting in elec- toral revolt, with which voters regard their governors’ performance. The modern public sector’s failure to spend tax dollars as competently and efficiently as reasonable voters expect creates a crisis of confidence across the developed world.
The remedies are elusive, because the roots lie in conflicting expec- tations of government; in politicians’ and bureaucrats’ attempts to reconcile the impossible conflicts ”” increasing- ly driven by an ”œenforcement mentali- ty” or a ”œlow trust/low expectation culture” internally. Since the 1980s, a large international literature ”” with several Canadian analysts, notably Peter Aucoin and Donald Savoie, as pre-eminent contributors ”” has grown. It seeks to understand what mechanisms of salvaging confidence and improving performance by gov- ernment might be developed. It is not an optimistic academic discipline.
That politicians of all stripes bear a great share of the responsibility for this huge gap between expectations and government performance is indis- putable. Here is a surprisingly candid and cynical Paul Martin on the irrita- tion of mandarins about the incoher- ence of the Chrétien government’s famous Red Book promises, as quoted by David Good:
Don’t tell me what’s in the Red Book…I wrote the goddamn thing. And I know a lot of it is crap. The goddamn thing was thrown together…things weren’t…thought through.
That is the policy chair, then finance minister, then PM of the gov- ernment of Canada describing the seminal political guidebook for the first two terms of his government!
So how has the Conservative Party approached this holy grail of modern democracies: accountable and capable government? Well, not with humility: the government communications machine’s hyperbole trumpets were on full blast for the launch: ”œWe are creat- ing a new culture of accountability that will change forever the way busi- ness is done in Ottawa.” Such overblown nonsense sounds almost Martinesque.
Let us look at the four key dimensions of what this omnibus bill attempts to do: ”œclean up” government spending, campaign finance and lobbying, and improve openness and transparency.
On freedom of information or openness, the reviews are not even mixed. According to our guru of open government, John Reid, Canada’s information commissioner, the Bill is ”œthe most retrograde step” since the first legislation in 1983! The Canadian Newspaper Association, not surprisingly, a decade-long champion of better ”œFoI” performance by gov- ernment, described it as ”œdangerous.” The Bill adds an array of new excuses for government to withhold public information and punts the Reid rec- ommendations to yet another Commons committee for study.
What went wrong? In addition to every government’s normal dis- closure discomfort, an important new incentive for politicians to hide public information has grown in recent years: the media have become more con- frontational in relations with govern- ment in the past 30 years. Governments began to develop defensive means of message delivery that avoid a pre- dictably negative media filter. Thus was born the age of the government spin doctor and supercharged government ”œmessage management.” Thus spun, the media came to distrust government’s versions of events more deeply, increas- ing the mistrust on both sides. To defend their credibility, the media focus even more on the negative process story or spin behind a government claim, rather than on the substance of the pol- icy or political message.
This accelerating downward spiral means governments attempt to con- ceal more, and the media hype minor transgressions into major headaches with a mounting level of hostility, which has reached its apogee with the Harper government.
The two sides’ positions can now be summarized as: ”œWhy should we tell them anything?” and ”œWhy should we believe anything they tell us?”
Historically, as John Reid points out, the Government of Canada has had wide discretion in what to disclose under freedom of information. Some documents are understandably secret ”” national security, tax data. Other exclusions are bewildering if not hilar- ious parodies of government paranoia: farm crop data, how many coins are in circulation, the numbers of pensioners and their pensions, decisions of some federal labour tribunals.
Critics of modern democracies note that bad policy often makes good politics, and that good policy increasing- ly defeats governments. It is good oppo- sition politics to be in favour of ”œopen government.” In government, in today’s atmosphere, it is probably poor policy to voluntarily expose one’s inevitable warts. It’s good politics to keep the media and the public in the dark about bungled pro- grams. It would be a brave official who argued that it might be better policy to seek the right lessons from a failure, and to acknowledge the learning publicly.
”œInfluence-peddling” ”” handing out jobs and contracts, offering to tilt a government decision or seeking political cash for future favours ”” is as old as democracy. It’s much less com- mon than in days gone by, and much less common than media coverage might cause a concerned citizen to believe. But even a small number of low-level sleazeballs have a huge impact on confidence in public deci- sion-making. All governments need to be vigilant about insiders succumbing to the temptations of affluence that power provides.
The Harper package approaches this facet of accountability with attacks on campaign finance and lob- byists. Sadly, here again, the medicine does not attack the disease and may even have fatal side effects.
The old cliché is true: cash is the mother’s milk of politics. Money flows into political campaigns and politicians’ pockets for two reasons, and two reasons only: to support a political vision or to seek influence. Often the two motives are hard to separate, even in the mind of the donor. The various claims of alterna- tive motivation for political cheque writing ”” ”œwe give to support the democratic system” ”” don’t bear seri- ous consideration.
From this hard reality flow only two policy questions: how much power of the state needs to be employed to ensure a level playing field, and how much to limit the cor- ruption of the system by flagrant influ- ence peddling or purchasing?
A fundamental conservative value is that great caution should be exercised about the use of the law to intervene into private choice. No private choice is more sacred than one’s partisan choic- es. Using state power to intervene very harshly into the life of political parties and their supporters is hardly a vindica- tion of that cautious conservative value. Doing it by propounding unenforceable legislation to further that agenda is even more seriously damaging.
It is demonstrably not possible, for example, to prevent money from entering the system if a donor is deter- mined that it should. No law invented in any democracy has been successful at imposing such a hermetic seal on political finance.
The millions collected by Helmut Kohl were monies that rich individuals and corporations wanted to contribute in a campaign finance system much like the one we are creating. The German parties receive huge public subsidies, and corporate donations are illegal. Tony Blair’s reputation has been seriously damaged by the news that his party took massive ”œloans” from similar sources, because real con- tributions were illegal.
The Nixon slush fund, of Watergate fame, made up of Howard Hughes’ packets of $100 bills in a White House safe, was created to receive money for- bidden to be accepted legally.
Jean Chrétien stuck a final finger in the eye of his successor by rushing an ill-thought campaign finance bill through Parliament, because he knew it would throw a spanner into the high- spending Martin campaign machine.
The Harper Accountability Act pro- poses to limit donors further and to cap contributions at $1,000. Such a system is simply not sustainable given the cost of political campaigns today. And to most Canadians ”” especially Canadians with a conservative view of the role of government ”” it is simply not appro- priate to ask taxpayers to fork over greater and greater sums to fill the gap.
Under such improbable rules, it is only a matter of time before a Canadian political safe is found, filled with paper bags of money. It is entire- ly predictable that a politician’s career will be ended by the revelation that a family member received an unacceptably large gift from a supporter.
To believe otherwise is to place Canada, and Canadians’ ability to maintain a virginal political finance value system, above the experience of the rest of the world.
It was little remarked that the US Supreme Court, in the last presidential campaign cycle, pressed by US cam- paigners sweating under the restric- tions on donor limits there, made an astonishing decision about the age of ”œadult consent” where giving money to politicians is concerned.
It is now 12 years of age.
I don’t know many 12-year-olds with enough of their own cash to be of interest to political fundraisers. However, I do know a fair number of grandkids, cousins, nieces and nephews of wealthy donors.
The creators of the first Canadian public campaign finance regime recog- nized it made sense to attempt two things only: first, to force on candi- dates and parties an early declaration of who gave money to them, and how much. Second, to vigorously limit what they spent on campaigning. This realis- tically conservative approach made Canada’s political finance regime a model in the world for 30 years.
The Harper government and the opposition parties in committee should reflect deeply before pushing the Canadian political finance system further down this new interventionist road. It has led to considerable humil- iation and disgrace for the political players ”” and their citizens’ view of them ”” in every other country that has travelled it before them.
Then there is the anti-lobbyist jihad.
In the current febrile atmosphere, defending the practice of lobbying is probably an exercise in headbanging. So much nonsense about this issue has entered popular mythology; please excuse just a few paragraphs of masochistic counterspin.
Hiring an intermediary to plead your political cause is a practice to which Plato refers. The 18th century lobbies of Westminster were the first to see a profession of these ”œsuppli- cants for hire.” Lobbying grew fastest in 19th century America, as the com- plexity of dealing with dozens of state and municipal governments and the exploding array of government agencies overwhelmed the capacity of American business to pro- tect its interests.
Government has become more frustrating, time-consuming and multi- layered in Canada, as elsewhere. An NGO, a foreign investor, even a mid- sized Canadian business attempting to promote a cause to govern- ment without an expert guide, a road map through the Byzantine corridors and a meticulously planned mes- sage and strategy is a fool.
Our firm sometimes plays this ”œexpert sherpa” role for clients attempting to mount the heights of the bureaucracy. We are paid for our insight, our communications skills and our knowledge of the often opaque and circular process of public decision-mak- ing. We coach clients about how, where and when to make their best case.
We are not selling a key to the back door of government or a shortcut to the minister. Those hustling such magic bullets and snake oil exist, but they usu- ally get exposed as frauds. For every magic bullet salesman among the now vast army of professional lobbyists, there are thousands who provide valu- able assistance with integrity.
However, as the clients are often powerful, and as the officials to whom they are appealing do have the gift of wealth and favour in their hands, it is essential that their relationships be rig- orously monitored and fully disclosed. And they are, with increasing profes- sionalism and granularity, in Ottawa and in most provinces and major cities.
But to require, as the Accountability Act proposes, that every policy dis- cussion with an ”œinterested outside party” be posted on a Web site, that every shared coffee or meal be similarly reported and that every meeting, how- ever casual, be minuted and disclosed is, perhaps, a little excessive…and will be ignored.
After an initial flurry of simulated compliance, these requirements will be observed in the breach by most. For the timid, they will mean that you avoid contact with outsiders, if at all possible. For the tricksters, they will mean more elaborate avoidance dances. But the ironic and unintended consequences of this excessive zeal will cascade down from these initial impacts like crosscut- ting mountain streams.
First, we have the now infamous ”œfive-year” rule. This effort to prevent former public officials and political staffers from moving into a job where they can use their expert knowledge moves the ”œsanitization” bar from one year, which it is in most places and two in a few others, to an unheard-of period of banishment. The US Senate just passed an anti-lobbying package moving its hibernation requirement to two years from one, amid much prediction that the courts would not uphold it.
Experts here agree that a Charter challenge will no doubt strike down this ”œgood political message delivering a bad policy outcome.” Judges in every democracy continually strike down ”œnon-compete,” ”œprofessional exclu- sion” clauses. Asked to choose between a state’s or an employer’s right to enforce non-compete rules for its bene- fit and an individual’s right to carry on trade, the judiciary typically defends individual freedoms.
Until then, though, it means that existing lobbyists are protected from almost any new competitors with current knowledge of gov- ernment. Combined with bureaucrats’ nervousness about meetings, let alone making any decisions under this regime, this will drive up lobbyists’ fees handsomely.
For those who worry now about how much productive work gets done in the average bureaucratic day, the multiplication of the layers of approval and the form-filling and pos- terior-covering this bill requires create quite a disturbing new prospect.
Will this acceleration of a monastic suspicion of contact with those outside the walls of official Ottawa ensure greater probity on the part of public officials? For some, perhaps; for others it will be paralyzing. For the cor- rupt few it will increase the temptation to sell access: the price for opening these more impenetrable gates to government can now be set even higher. Not some- thing most Conservatives, let alone most citizens, would see as a useful achievement of policy.
Sadly, again, these reforms will buttress, not banish, the privilege of insiders. Only richer, more patient, better-connected supplicants will be able to afford the lobbyists and cam- paigns that would be required under this proposed regime.
So, on openness, on better govern- ment, on campaign finance and lobby- ing this package creates as many new problems as it solves. If one sees the decline in confidence in government and democratic politics as a generational secular trend, this package may push that trend line down further over time.
Accountability is the keystone of democratic conviction. We have strayed far from it with the unchecked growth of ”œexecutive-led” government. There has been a breakdown of ministerial accountability in recent years in Canada, most egregiously under the Chrétien rules: ”œNever explain, never complain, never apologize.” The bureaucracy does not perform with the efficiency and accountability ”” though not often with a deliberate absence of integrity ”” that we have every right to expect of our pub- lic servants. Governments’ ability to spend sparingly, wisely and with desired outcomes and impacts is weak and get- ting weaker.
All these frustrations with how our politicians and their administrations function are rooted in real fail- ures. The solutions proposed by the Accountability Act address few of them and will make some worse:
Armies of accountants armed with new weapons to frustrate creative approaches to program delivery are no response to sagging govern- ment productivity.
Any plumber will attest that screw- ing tight a pipeline tap when you can’t stem the flow at the other end will, with absolute certainty, generate leaks and explosions else- where. It’s as true of political finance pipelines as of any other.
Creating new limits to access to information about government, under the guise of accountability, increases cynicism and builds pop- ular anger about the ”œaccountabil- ity shuffle.”
Creating new limits to access for lobbyists does not benefit those cit- izens who feel excluded from deci- sion-makers. It makes their exclu- sion more absolute, by making access more expensive and difficult.
Some principles of cultures that work are known. Francis Fukuyama, the controversial American conserva- tive academic, in a profound analysis of the reasons why some cultures con- sistently outperform others over long periods focuses on trust. Low-trust societies have built-in costs and ineffi- ciencies; high-trust cultures soar on shared values and behaviours.
As Fukuyama wrote in his 1995 classic work, Trust: ”œA high trust society can organize its workplace…with more responsibility delegated to lower lev- els…Low trust societies must fence in their workers with a set of bureaucratic rules…A low [trust society] will suffer from pervasive corruption of its public officials and ineffective public adminis- tration.”
Based on the need to rebuild a cul- ture of trust and professional integrity, we know several key principles essential to real reform. Donald Savoie and many others have outlined them many times:
Simplify: cut layers of meaningless management, arcane ritual and foolish procedure.
Assign ownership: designate who has lead responsibility for a pro- gram or file, attack blurred lines of responsibility, cut the spaghetti of dotted-line accountabilities.
Set public deadlines: make projects and programs announce budgets, deliverables and deadlines, and pub- licly monitor progress toward them.
Reward frugality: bureaucracies will always seek to spend what they are permitted. Reward man- agers who don’t.
But the key instrument for real progress toward these goals is universal- ly recognized: reinvigorate Parliament. The Commons was created to supervise the king’s spending. MPs need the staff, research tools and powers to reassume that largely abandoned role.
In First Democracy, a marvellous comparison of Athenian and American democracy, Paul Woodruff, an American observer, outlines the key ingredients of effective democracy across the centuries.
Among them he insists on ”œreason- ing without knowledge,” which he describes as follows: ”œThe outcome of most public decisions cannot be known in advance. Still reasoning without knowledge can be done well or done poorly. Doing it well requires open debate. Doing it poorly is the fault of leaders who silence opposition or pre- tend to an authority that does not belong to them.
”œWhat is most reasonable to believe is what best survives an adver- sary debate in which each side makes the best case that it can.”
Open debate and access to infor- mation are essential to accountability; silence and secrets defeat it.
To this Woodruff connects the con- cept of ”œcitizen wisdom,” which he defines as the citizens’ obligation to use their wisdom to pass judgment on their leaders. In Athens, experts were often outvoted by citizens with little formal education. This is not the ”œrule of the mob,” as Woodruff points out, but a sacred tenet of democracy: ”œordi- nary people have the wisdom to govern themselves.”
So citizens have the ability, even in defiance of expert claims, to be part of the accountability process.
These two essential democratic beliefs ”” that citizens, not experts, are sovereign, and their wisdom, even if unschooled, must be respected ”” lie at the very core of democratic accounta- bility.
”œAh,” you say, ”œit’s one thing to allow the helots to vote on sending an armada to Sparta; it’s entirely different when you are considering how to manage global warming in a complex interactive modern world.”
Yes, the scale and the conse- quences are different, and for that rea- son it is even more important that the citizens remain sovereign. Democracy today requires therefore, to an even higher degree, that citizens have the ability to hold their governors and the bureaucracy accountable: that they not be permitted to hide behind experts, advisers or Sir Humphreys.
As voters have become angrier about a slide toward arbitrary bureau- cratic autocracy, capitalists have decid- ed they need more popular control. How ironic that it is rich investors who have led the way to a revolution in gov- ernance and accountability. Their response to a breakdown of accounta- bility and integrity in business has been to win greater corporate democracy!
Sarbanes/Oxley in the US, for all its current excess, is not a triumph of the experts over the citizen or institutional investor. It is, rather, an unheard-of empowerment of investors, aided by the power of their expert legal and financial advisers, over the interests of profession- al managers and executives. Bizarre dis- tortions of corporate democracy ”” you must vote for all the directors on a man- agement slate of candidates or none, for example ”” are falling like tenpins.
The path forward, marked by thou- sands of years of democratic history and experience, combined with a modern understanding of human motivation and why some cultures are more success- ful than others, is clear. It is a path based on trust as the essential foundation of confidence and therefore accountability. It requires regular open debate about goals and objectives, means and resources ”” secrecy guarantees deceits and cheats, and ultimately failure.
Accountability requires a culture where honest failure is not confused with criminal intent. A culture where the essential risks of innovation and creativity are managed by leaders who are as confident in punishing incompe- tence and malicious intent as they are in rewarding courageous performance.
The Harper government still has a choice about these issues. It can adopt, through amendment of the original bill, a policy which truly reflects conservative values: values of personal responsibility, genuine transparency, old-fashioned ministerial accountability and independ- ent scrutiny of government perform- ance. It can opt for a legacy of a few one-day campaign events, razzing on popular anger about governments that promise much and deliver little, or a place in history that rewards it as the first Canadian government to make a sincere and effective effort at reform.
It could choose to begin to reassert values of respect, trust and integrity in the civil service, personal accountabil- ity for ministers and genuine perform- ance monitoring by independent experts using transparent criteria.
In the words of their own self- promotion, they could opt for a legacy that ”œwill forever change the way Ottawa does business.” Or they could adopt the Accountability Act as it is.