The Harper government’s recession fighting (and government saving) budget heralded an unprecedented flurry of spending in a vast range of areas. In response, Michael Ignatieff announced that, despite its many policy flaws, the Liberals would, rather than defeating the government on a confidence vote, hold the government to account for its successful implementation of the program objectives.
To those who have been following the progress of efforts to make performance measurement a parliamentary responsibility, Ignatieff’s promise to have three accountability sessions in Parliament during the next year comes as a welcome surprise. One can debate if this is good politics or not, but it clearly introduces an important element – bringing government spending under closer public scrutiny.
While Canada has initiated many efforts to measure government performance (often at the behest of the Auditor General), the work has often come up short on finding a way to tie performance to an accountability regime. For example, in 1995, the Treasury Board boldly released a new performance publication, “Reporting to Canadians,” that linked 18 performance indicators to the full range of federal government activities. This annual effort is designed to help parliamentarians and interested citizens appreciate the degree to which various federal government programs contribute to the betterment of Canadians along these selected performance measures.
But there has been only limited interest even from the opposition-led Public Accounts Committee that could make very effective use of the information.
During the compressed time frame that Ignatieff has imposed on the government, it cannot reasonably be expected to demonstrate outcome results that show the budget measures are making a difference. Instead, the only reasonable expectations should be whether the government has put in place mechanisms that demonstrate to Parliament’s satisfaction that the billions of dollars are targeted to help those who are eligible for funding.
In this recessionary climate, all three levels of government must fight the temptation to shovel money out the door without the appropriate systems that ensure the money is going to qualified recipients. There is the distinct possibility that the conditions are emerging for the creation of a “perfect storm” of massive wasteful and inefficient spending.
The urgency to spend quickly, the pressure from interest groups to speed the approval process (and minimize the oversight), the legitimate need of suffering individual citizens for immediate assistance, the broad based consensus that massive government spending is the right solution, and the weak set of current financial management systems (that the current government has repeatedly failed to update) has created a potentially wasteful situation.
Based on experiences with similar efforts to move quickly, this budget has the potential to produce wasteful spending decisions and instances of mismanagement, unless measures are taken that mitigate the risk.
When governments streamline procedures to move more quickly, it is inevitable that more errors will be made. And that opposition parties will exploit the mistakes for political advantage. Readers will recall the so-called 2000 HRDC “billion dollar boondoggle” related to a grants and contributions program. This program, that was relatively simple to deliver, almost destabilized the ChrÃ©tien government and more importantly took up a lot of parliamentary time as the opposition played games with the careers of public servants and cabinet ministers.
Mr. Ignatieff has correctly identified the issue as one of accountability. However, the accountability, given the shortness of time, will have to be directed to holding the government to account for “doing things right” instead of “doing the right things.” In preparing for the three judgement days (to be held in March, June and December), the government could help keep Canadians informed by doing the following:
- Ask the Parliamentary Budget Officer to provide Parliament with its views on what it considers would be a reasonable set of implementation indicators.
- Discuss with the Auditor General what evaluation criteria would be reasonable in these circumstances.
- Seek advice from government evaluation experts (Mr. Harper has an established practice of setting up advisory committees when he is faced with difficult decisions).
Michael Ignatieff’s promise to hold the Government to account for its ability to implement this budget is a unique opportunity for Canada to make advances in performance measurement and to provide Canadians with an appropriate level of value for money.
David Zussman holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa (firstname.lastname@example.org).