Senior public sector managers, deputy heads of departments and parliamentarians need to maintain a sound understanding of the role of effective oversight to positively influence public sector decision making and results for Canadians.
Why does this matter? As Canada and its public service heads into another period of fiscal restraint and reductions to government spending, there are calls for even more oversight. Others think the â€œoversight burdenâ€ has become unsustainable, with few measurable results shown for the investment of resources. Still others are concerned that with budgetary restraint, key oversight mechanisms, such as in the areas of program delivery and financial management, could be weakened.
So, perhaps we should be aiming for oversight mechanisms that facilitate transparency, accountability and the achievement of expected results, without burdening the system with unnecessary and costly internal red tape.
Oversight is about senior management ensuring that there are reliable and cost-effective systems of management controls to ensure accountability for resources allotted and results achieved, based upon advice, assurance and recommendations provided by internal and external bodies. It is a key component of effective governance over federal institutions and, in turn, an important contributing determinate of successful program and service delivery.
Effective exercise of oversight requires three essential elements, working as a comprehensive system:
- A clear management authority and accountability framework;
- A comprehensive, rigorous and transparent system of management controls; and
- Rigorous oversight processes, including measurement frameworks, monitoring, audits and evaluations.
The reach and scope of oversight processes and mechanisms across federal institutions is vast: from Parliamentâ€™s legislative and accountability responsibilities which occupy the attention of both Houses and their twenty-plus Standing Committees; the regulatory, policy, decision making and remediation authorities of central agencies, particularly the Treasury Board and it’s Secretariat; to the exercise of a multitude of oversight related governance, management decision making, control, monitoring, reporting and accountability functions and processes that exist within some 200 federal organizations.
All of these rely extensively upon the use of performance measurement information for the effective exercise of their oversight responsibilities. Much of this information is contained in several key government-wide planning, performance and accountability documents, such as Reports on Plans and Priorities, Estimates, Public Accounts, Departmental Performance Reports, MAF assessments and OAG Audits. To this are added many other department- and agency-specific oversight performance-related processes and documents.
There are opportunities to further enhance these processes and information, including:
- Reviewing the mandates and operations of committees and the role, impact and effectiveness of Officers and Agents of Parliament to clarify, strengthen or possibly even consolidate some of them;
- Strengthening, streamlining and/or integrating the research capacity and performance information and reporting requirements of committees, central agencies and departments (such as human resources management, financial management and audit) to help reduce reporting burdens while improving the focus on performance and accountability;
- Reviewing the Federal Accountability Act, now six years old, to assess its contribution to improved accountability, and its practical impact on departments and agencies; and
- Streamlining the work of the Treasury Board by reducing the need for consideration of routine and low-risk cases.
Furthermore, it might be possible in certain areas to streamline (or even integrate) the reporting requirements of the Estimates and Public Accounts processes, particularly the Reports on Plans and Priorities and Departmental Performance Reports (this could also be extended to the MAF as well). Greater attention to governance, values and ethics, risk management, and oversight competence and experience could help mitigate risks of potential inappropriate behavior/control failures of senior leaders, particularly in smaller federal institutions.
Departments may better leverage risk management in oversight and performance. The experience and advice of departmental audit committees can play an important oversight support role, to more efficiently address oversight expectations of deputy heads. Given the relative growth of oversight arrangements in response to parliamentary, central agency and other demands, deputy heads might well continue to review, reassess and integrate oversight mechanisms, for example, in the areas of financial reporting and contracting.
Experienced managers, senior leaders, and parliamentarians themselves will no doubt have as good or better ideas for improving oversight and the use of performance measurement. Let’s consider what we can do and act on them.
Art Stewart is an independent management consultant with over 35 years of experience in internal performance measurement, audit, financial management and strategic policy planning.
Art is past president and treasurer of the Performance and Planning Exchange (PPX), a learning and research organization dedicated to identifying and sharing best practices in results-based management. To learn more about PPX, see www.ppx.ca.