The last 10 years has seen a new course charted for government accountability in First Nations communities, where citizen-centered governance is taking centre stage.
In the federal government, policies are being tailored to support a shift in the accountability of First Nations governments more toward their members rather than exclusively to the federal government. As public servants and policymakers, it is essential that we continue to support First Nations in developing the frameworks necessary to manage this increased member involvement. To perform this ongoing task, we need to look across sectors such as education, social programs and land management.
The World Bank’s 1997 World Development Report listed voice and partnership as a key element that assures good governance. With many First Nation governments working to improve their citizen-centered focus, we are witnessing community members raising questions about whether they play a sufficient role in influencing decisions. Communities like Westbank First Nation in British Columbia are already leading the way by involving and engaging community members.
Many of the current and developing federal policies that aim to support community engagement like in Westbank First Nation relate to the notion of transparency. The First Nations Financial Transparency Act, which received Royal Assent on March 27, 2013, supports a shift in accountability through greater transparency. Having publicly accessible annual audited consolidated financial statements provides First Nation members with important information to understand how their community is being administered by their leaders and to make informed decisions at election time.
The First Nations Land Management Act (FNLM) is one example of a government initiative that gives First Nations much greater control of decision-making within the community instead of going to the federal government for those decisions. Participating First Nations can enact their own laws to manage land, and subsequently operate at the speed of business to unlock economic development opportunities.
Through the FNLM, communities such as Whitecap Dakota in Saskatchewan have created land codes that are ratified by their members and that allow them to work the way that is right for them.
Whether formal or informal, strong relationships are the foundation of every aspect of our work with First Nations, such as negotiations, funding processes, reporting relationships, and ongoing communication. These relationships also allow for dialogue where issues can be raised. This helps the federal government identify areas in need of reform and modernization.
For example, the administrative burden faced by our recipients has led to a thorough modernization of the government’s reporting requirements. The department has been making steady progress on a three-track approach that not only involves reducing the administrative burden but also matching solutions to the needs of funding recipients, and shifting accountability away from reporting to government and toward accountability to communities. A promising area of progress is AANDC’s pilot projects with several First Nations to develop simpler reporting and shift toward accounting to the community. Five of these initiatives are with Abgeweit, Madawaska Maliseet, Millbrook, Swan Lake and Wagmatcook First Nations. All First Nations are being asked for less reporting.
Aboriginal governments face many challenges, some of which are familiar to anyone in public administration, and some of which are unique to the realities of Aboriginal Canada. Finding and retaining key personnel is always a challenge, as is keeping their skills and knowledge up to date. Getting good reliable information into the hands of decision-makers at the right time is always crucial. Finding the right governance solutions that balance the role of elected leaders with the role of professional administrators is never easy, especially in small communities. Knowing where to turn for reliable professional advice in a sea of “consultants” of uneven competence can be intimidating. Developing good internal controls without paralyzing an organization in rules and red tape is always a challenge.
Looking back, there has been tremendous progress building capable and accountable Aboriginal governments and service organizations. There are now tens of thousands of well trained and highly motivated “Aboriginal public servants.” Modern telecommunications, the internet and social media have helped overcome the barriers of distance and geography. Every year dynamic new leaders emerge on the scene. Members are better informed and more engaged. New partnerships are springing up like dandelions with other governments, post-secondary institutions, professional organizations and foundations.
The headlines will always be captured by the rare examples of governance and management failures. The real story, hidden in plain sight from most Canadians, is more encouraging. More attention must be paid to capacity and governance in the years ahead. On a foundation of stronger governance, the solutions that will create better outcomes are being built.