The proposed Federal Accountability Act is the government’s response to the Auditor General’s damning report on the management of the now cancelled sponsorship program. Prime Minister Harper stated the purpose of the Act is to restore trust in government and to provide a framework that holds government to account for its activities.
The legislation is designed to increase accountability by creating new oversight organizations designed to “catch the bad guys.” Consequently, the emphasis is on ferreting out the “misconduct” (to use the Auditor General’s word) of elected officials and public servants by having eight new parliamentary agencies investigate various kinds of wrongdoing. The agencies will: track any conflicts of interest of elected and public officials; encourage whistleblowing; report on lobbying activities; provide an additional source of information about the country’s financial state; and regularize the appointment process for Governor in Council positions.
But the emphasis on identifying individual misconduct is only a partial answer to the challenge of holding government to account. Accountability should link the outcomes of government activities, especially its programs, to the way in which resources have been deployed in meeting its goals and their ultimate effectiveness. In this way, ministers and their officials are held to account and answerable to Parliament.
To this end, it is crucial that governments collect and analyze all forms of information including performance measures to provide evidence of the effectiveness of their wide-ranging programs.
Conceptually it is simple to tie accountability to performance. First, it is important to explicitly state the ultimate objectives for each and every program so that parliamentarians know what government intended to accomplish when it approved the expenditures. Next, there is a need to determine a “logic model” that links explicitly the program inputs (costs and number of people), the activities and the program outputs to long-term objectives. Third, there must be a series of performance measures that capture the program’s outcomes.
Ironically, for the last five years, the federal government has been developing an increasingly sophisticated performance management system that is designed to inform Parliament how well programs are operating. The sometimes under appreciated Treasury Board Secretariat has built an impressive “Reporting Cycle” that provides parliamentarians with a vast array of information and outcome measures.
In particular, the annual Report on Plans and Priorities (RPP) provides departmental details on a strategic outcome and program activity basis that looks at resource requirements over a three-year timeframe. These documents are accompanied by the Departmental Performance Report on results and accomplishments for the recently completed fiscal year as they correspond to the RPPs. Moreover, the Management Accountability Framework (MAF) establishes accountability for deputy ministers to ensure that the “conditions of good management are in place in order to achieve results for Canadians.”
Adding a further layer of complexity, since 2003, the TBS has been fine-tuning an integrated management framework that attempts to provide a large number of performance measures for Parliament. For example, during the autumn of each year, Parliament is provided with a number of very crucial documents: the economic and fiscal update, supplementary estimates, Canada’s performance report, departmental performance reports, public accounts and the annual financial report for the Government of Canada. As well, the Auditor General typically publishes more than 30 studies per year on a wide range of government activities.
The availability of so many reports for Parliament suggests that, in terms of increased accountability, the public service has already done much of the “heavy lifting” by developing performance measures for most of its program, human resource and management activities. But there is no formal parliamentary process or system that wraps the performance measures into an accountability framework.
In fact, the Auditor General noted in her November report that too few programs are given sufficient review by Parliament, and rarely are major changes made to existing programs. She is concerned that programs are ladled on top of one another with little consideration to replacing one for the other or merging programs to achieve efficiencies. In the end she concludes that, “there is no comprehensive or systemic review to assess the effectiveness or relevance of ongoing programs.”
Given the availability of performance measures, the Federal Accountability Act could be used to create a “logic model” that would link objectives, activities and outcomes. If this were done, the legislation could look beyond the “catch the bad guys” approach and establish an enduring accountability regime that would restore trust in government and hold governments to account.
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(firstname.lastname@example.org). The Jarislowsky Chair website is www3.management.uottawa.ca/jarislowsky.