A new chapter in accountability – Canadian Government Executive

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May 7, 2012

A new chapter in accountability

CGE Vol.13 No.2 February 2007

Canada’s Performance 2006 is the sixth annual report to Parliament on “the federal government’s contribution to Canada’s performance as a nation, highlighting both strengths and areas for improvements.” If the report had been stamped secret, stuffed in a brown envelope, and slid under the door of a select number of journalists, it would have been a front page story – filled with intrigue, finger pointing and demands for action. Instead, this remarkable online document gives Canadians (and Parliamentarians) the opportunity to consider the broad question of where Canada is going as a nation, and what the right policy mix might be that will improve our quality of life.

The Accountability Act is now law. It created eight agencies of Parliament and amended almost 100 laws. As a consequence, Canadians can now look to their Members of Parliament to help hold their government to account for its activities.

While Parliament was debating the various provisions in the Act, the Treasury Board Secretariat was very busy assembling an almost unnoticed series of Canadian performance reports that form the core documents for a far-reaching accountability framework.

As a starting point, the report provides an overview of how the performance of individual federal departments and agencies contributes to “broader, government-wide outcomes in the key policy areas of economic, social and international affairs.” What makes this work so valuable as both reference document and accountability tool is that the easy-to-access electronic report presents the performance outcomes of all programs in each department and agency.

TBS has also grouped the thousands of program outcomes into 13 different “outcome areas” so readers can link program inputs (dollars, resources) to the impact that these programs have on the economic, social and international sectors. These 13 outcome areas are further subdivided into 30 societal indicators such as cost competitiveness that provide “an assessment of the quality of life in Canada and a context for federal government performance.”

And how did Canada do in 2006 in terms of our three key policy areas? Overall, based on the 30 indicators contained in the 13 outcome areas, Canadians should be feeling relatively buoyant about the country and its prospects. For example, in the economic sector the employment rate has increased significantly over the past 10 years; educational attainment, real disposable income and the real gross domestic product have also increased during that period.

The obvious weak links in our economic future lie in our declining innovation measures and the quality of our environment (air quality, greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity).

In terms of social affairs, Canadians are healthier, enjoying steadily increasing life expectancy and self-rated health status. They report experiencing a more vibrant Canadian culture and heritage and are more favourably disposed to a diverse society that promotes linguistic duality and social inclusion.

Finally, with regards to international affairs, all the indicators are positive. The world has fewer armed conflicts today than at any time over the past decade, Canada is spending more money on development assistance (foreign aid), exports are increasing to most markets and Canadian investment abroad is increasing.

This back page does not give me the space to discuss each of the outcomes but it gives me an opportunity to challenge readers to visit the TBS website and feast your eyes on the available data (www.tbs-sct.gc.ca).

Moreover, the publication of this sixth report should give Canadians pause for some reflection of where we want to go in this post-Sponsorship environment.

First, it is time to move our attention away from blaming politicians and public servants for everything that appears to have gone wrong. The criminal justice system is fully equipped to prosecute those who are dishonest, so our attention should turn to asking whether our tax dollars are being spent on those activities that meet intended objectives.

Second, TBS continues to constrain federal departments with too many rules. At this point, departments are subject to 46 distinct policies, 109 directives, 99 standards and 44 guidelines – too many rules for any organization to comprehend, let alone administer, with any degree of consistency and confidence.

Third, those who advocate more accountability now have the chance to make some demonstrable progress, by moving away from the “gotcha” mentality contained in the $100 million Gomery Commission report. MPs have the opportunity to signal a new chapter in government accountability. All that is needed is the motivation and time commitment to pay attention to the government’s Performance Report and the information that is contained in the thousands of pages of supporting documentation.

David Zussman holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management in the Faculty of Social Sciences and School of Management at the University of Ottawa. He can be reached at zussman@management.uottawa. The Jarislowsky Chair website is www3.management.uottawa.ca/jarislowsky.

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