Perhaps it’s a legacy of the infamous “fudget budget” of 1996, but British Columbians want their accountability in writing.
The election of Gordon Campbell’s Liberals in 2001, and a subsequent 18-month review of core services, introduced a chain of accountability and transparency measures that Dana Hayden, Deputy Minister, Strategic Policy, Office of the Premier, calls “the most dramatic” of her 20-year public service career.
Amendments to the Budget Transparency and Accountability Act and the introduction of the Balanced Budget and Ministerial Accountability Act set out the main elements: a three-year government strategic plan, three-year service plans outlining the objectives of each department, measurable performance standards and targets for all key programs, and annual department progress reports. There were also a few unique twists – a legislated requirement for balanced budgets and a fixed budget date.
Then, BC went a step further: annual letters from the Premier to ministers detailing expectations of each minister, and a performance letter from the DM to the Premier to each deputy minister setting corporate objectives for which each is responsible. The province’s Crown Corporations not only produce three-year service plans and annual reports, now each minister and chair of the board sign a shareholders’ letter of expectations identifying performance objectives and strategic priorities. And the Public Accounts Committee of the legislature adopted eight reporting principles to assess the validity of services plans and annual reports.
To underline the importance of executive accountability, ministers’ cabinet salaries were tied to performance: 10% is withheld pending the fulfilment of annual performance and budget targets in their ministry, and a further 10% is tied to the entire cabinet’s achievement of government-wide performance and budget targets. DMs and ADMs are also subject to a 5% holdback pending the realization of department and government corporate priorities.
The challenge of balancing budgets and re-thinking fiscal responsibility meant staff reductions, which “certainly got everyone’s attention.” But Hayden admits they also set off a “cultural change – to make good managers out of people. BC’s public service is now much more focussed on achieving outcomes within budgets.”
One result of that transformation was a recent upgrade by Moody’s Investors Service of the province’s credit rating to triple-A. Only Alberta and the Government of Canada can boast similar status.
In Alberta, accountability is no less thorough. Each ministry delivers a three-year business plan, aligned with the government’s business plan, which in turn is aligned with a 20-year strategic plan. “We’ve worked hard to ensure alignment between the various plans,” says Dale Silver, an Alberta assistant public service commissioner. “One overall goal was that every employee has a line of sight from their jobs to the government business plan. Additionally, the process we use to assess DM performance is reviewed annually by an external review committee.”
The province also initiated its own unique feature in its auditing process with Measuring Up, an effort to answer the question: What outcomes did the government achieve? The project goes beyond the usual financial reporting to assess if a program achieved the outcomes it said it would achieve, or is at least progressing toward its goals.
Additionally, in October 2005, the public service began a review of its vision and values. One finding, Silver noted, is that, regardless of position, 92% respondents to the values renewal initiative held accountability as one of their core values. It became one of four values – the other three are respect, integrity and excellence – formally introduced to employees in the summer of 2006. “In doing so, the value of accountability was highlighted as part of how employees do their day-to-day work,” Silver said. “To assess how we are doing in living our values, we have incorporated questions into our annual employee survey that will measure the perception of how colleagues, managers and senior management are viewed in accordance with our values.”
That emphasis is no surprise to Tony Dean, Ontario’s secretary of the cabinet and clerk of the Executive Council. “Public servants are more than ready for this. They’ve got a tremendous amount of pride and passion in what they do. Do public servants want to be accountable? Damn right they do. Do they want to do a better job? Do they want to be seen to be making a difference? Absolutely! And to have that become more transparent is something many would invite. As leaders, we have to ensure they have the tools and resources available to them to do that.”
Like BC and Alberta, Ontario has been rethinking accountability. Its latest endeavour, new legislation governing the public service, includes measures to establish a conflict-of-interest framework to clarify accountabilities for ministry and agency staff, whistleblower protection, and clear procedures to authorize the Integrity Commissioner to investigate and publicly report on allegations of wrongdoing.
As accountability measures increase, however, innovation often pays a price. All three executives acknowledge the risk of impairing creativity. “We need to promote a sense of risk taking and entrepreneurship,” Dean said. “Public servants preserve important elements in our system of democracy – they provide a bond or a glue in the system, but occasionally it’s our job to apply some solvent. Public servants in modern organizations understand that.”
Selling the vision
While grand visions and missions look good in annual reports, buy-in is a tougher sell to program mangers and staff if it is not readily apparent how the vision applies to their tasks.
BC introduced personal development plans, including descriptions of personal accountability, for specific outcomes and evaluations. Though the plans are now almost universal, Hayden acknowledged “evaluations have been a much tougher conversation to have.” The province recently completed a corporate HR plan that “commits us to provide every employee with an annual performance review that ensures their contribution to their department’s goals is evaluated and constructive feedback given to let employees know expectations and recognize and reward high performance.”
“I think we have to get much more serious,” Dean said. “We’re fairly good at establishing performance measures. Historically, I don’t think we’ve been good at honest and tough appraisals. We owe it to our public service colleagues, to let them know when they are meeting expectations – and missing them. Most people want this feedback and will take the steps necessary to close those gaps.”
Accountability for employees in the Alberta public service begins at the recruitment stage with thorough reference and credential checks. “We have a solid process, an oath of office, a code of conduct and ethics, but we see accountability as part of our everyday actions,” Silver said. “If there is wrongdoing, we have a variety of ways for employees to have it addressed. But we also need to pay attention to ‘right doing’, and that’s why supervisors and managers have an important responsibilit