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ARCHIVED - Review of the Responsibilities and Accountabilities of Ministers and Senior Officials - Meeting the Expectations of Canadians


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5. Framework for Strengthening Accountability

Introduction

The doctrine of ministerial responsibility is an elegant and robust means of supporting responsible government. The experts consulted in the preparation of this report were virtually unanimous in their endorsement of the doctrine's key concepts and principles. They did not feel that the doctrine of ministerial responsibility (as set out earlier in this report) was broken. The accountability regime in Canada has evolved and is now at the point where noted political scientist Peter Aucoin has said, "Canada has a number of accountability mechanisms that are as good as, if not better than, those found in the jurisdictions against which Canada is usually compared."[39] As indicated, this evolution has occurred both in relation to political accountability to Parliament and managerial accountability to the Treasury Board. In general terms, over the course of many decades, the accountability regime has been refined so that there is now:

  • more clarity in the assignment of responsibilities;
  • more transparency in the operations of government;
  • more focus on results than on inputs;
  • more effective oversight of and sanctions for mismanagement; and
  • a stronger reflection of public service values.

However, those consulted also stressed that there is room for improvement. They indicated that the practice of accountability is inadequate in key areas because of the complexity of modern government, the lack of capacity in some of the core institutions (such as Parliament and the Treasury Board), the lack of clarity or understanding in key areas of responsibilities, and, in a few areas, insufficient commitment or leadership. Accountability must be strengthened. Practices must improve continuously.

5.1 Framework for strengthening accountability

The framework for reform set out below is based on the core principles of ministerial responsibility and how they have evolved in Canada. It takes into account the current challenges facing Parliament, ministers, deputy ministers, and the Treasury Board as they execute their roles in the accountability regime. It clearly sets out the objectives that the government wants to achieve and the values that will enable it to achieve them.

The framework will do the following:

  • support Parliament in its role in holding the government to account by encouraging Parliament to enhance its capacity for scrutiny and by working with Parliament to improve the quality of information on government plans and performance and how they are reported;
  • support ministers and deputy ministers in carrying out their responsibilities and improve management performance by reinforcing the assignment of responsibility and accountability, particularly in areas of financial administration; ensuring that those who are responsible have the capacity to fulfil their duties; strengthening financial management and oversight, particularly in high-risk areas; and strengthening the accountability reflex through reinforced public service values, greater transparency, and decisive action when things go wrong; and
  • strengthen the Treasury Board's role in ensuring solid managerial accountability by clarifying managerial responsibilities set out in the policies of the Treasury Board; by enhancing the availability, quality, and use of expenditure and performance information; and by advancing the Management Accountability Framework as the basis of accountability within departments and across government.

The government has acted to strengthen accountability with an ambitious set of measures. Before giving further life to this framework, the government will carefully consider the recommendations of Mr.JusticeGomery, as well as those of parliamentarians. It will take a responsible, measured approach, minimizing the risks of destabilizing the whole operation of government and maximizing the opportunities to tackle the real challenges confronting the accountability regime.

5.2 Support Parliament in its role in holding the government to account

Parliament is master of its own procedures, and the government should not dictate to the House of Commons or Senate how to handle their affairs. Nevertheless, the weight and prominence given to the accountability function (as opposed to Parliament's role in representing constituents in advocacy work with government or in the House and in committee votes), is of critical importance.

When parliamentary practices were assessed against the threecore criteria of an accountability regime, the experts consulted did not feel that there were any significant challenges in the area of Parliament's role in the assignment of responsibility. They identified areas where greater clarity could be brought to who was responsible for what, but they felt that that responsibility lies, in the first instance, with the executive, not the legislative, branch of government.

It was pointed out that Parliament has a somewhat blunt instrument for sanctioning mismanagement. It cannot apply personal sanctions to individual ministers (beyond political censure), and withdrawal of support for the government (via a vote of non-confidence) is a significant threat only in the case of minority governments. None of the people consulted, however, called for changing the convention whereby Parliament does not personally sanction public servants. Political sanctions meted out by Parliament do have real effect, and the cost of undermining the executive role of government by involving Parliament in personal sanctions is too high a price for our system of responsible government.

The real focus was on the inadequacy of the mechanisms whereby Parliament holds ministers to account, including Parliament's capacity for scrutiny and the quality of the information reported to Parliament.

Increase Parliament's capacity for scrutiny

As the Lambert Commission put it, "Under our system, Parliament must be the beginning and the end of the governmental process. It must scrutinize and approve all legislation and all proposals for the raising of revenues and the expenditure of funds, and must watch over the Government's implementation of the proposals to which it has assented. We think that Members of Parliament have not been adequately fulfilling their duty of forcing the Government to account for its administration."[40]

Parliament itself has spoken on this issue. In 1985, the Report of the Special Committee on Reform of the House of Commons noted that none of the functions of a committee structure (scrutinizing Estimates, considering legislation, undertaking investigations) is carried out in an ideal way by members, who are heavily burdened with constituency work and many other demands on their time and energy.[41] In 2003, the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates published a report titled Meaningful Scrutiny: Practical Improvements to the Estimates Process, which highlights many measures that parliamentarians themselves could take to strengthen their accountability.[42] A study conducted by parliamentarians representing different political parties and co-chaired by Carolyn Bennett, Deborah Grey, and Yves Morin concluded that "Parliament has lost its ability to scrutinize government activity" and that "most Parliamentarians admit that they are simply overwhelmed."[43]

Finally the Auditor General, in her November 2004 report, stated that members of Parliament may want to consider "the need for greater parliamentary scrutiny of government spending to ensure that the government is accountable for its operations."[44]

The observations of the experts consulted for this report included the following:

  • Members of Parliament face enormous time pressures that detract from the time available for their accountability responsibilities, and the resources allocated for their accountability responsibilities are only a small part of the total budget.[45]
  • While extremely dedicated, the Library of Parliament staff that supports committee members is too small for the amount of work required, explaining perhaps why committees make relatively few substantive recommendations regarding the Estimates.
  • Committees are increasingly submitting minority reports rather than working to seek a consensus on their recommendations whereby all sides make compromises. This practice accentuates the partisan approach that is being taken to committee work.[46]
  • The partisan nature of questioning is seen by some participants as a missed opportunity to examine management and expenditure performance properly. Indeed, some of those consulted felt that the Public Accounts Committee too often addresses policy issues at the expense of management, accountability, and performance issues such as propriety, regularity, efficiency, economy, and effectiveness.
  • The House of Commons is expected to review and approve approximately $65billion of government program spending in about eightweeks through the Estimates process at a time when many committees are dealing with important legislation at the same time that the Estimates are referred to them, resulting in insufficient time for proper scrutiny of the Estimates by Parliament.

Improve reporting to Parliament

Those consulted also identified challenges relating to the way in which the government supports Parliament in its responsibility for scrutinizing performance:

  • Documents produced by government departments and agencies for parliamentarians need significant improvement to make them more streamlined, transparent, accessible, and useful.[47]
  • There is a disconnect in the nature of the documents the government uses to present its spending plans to Parliament and those it uses to report on performance. For example, the reports on plans and priorities and departmental performance reports are increasingly presented in terms of outcomes sought and results achieved, which makes it difficult to demonstrate which programs or activities reside within a parliamentary vote. Furthermore, the accrual basis of accounting used in the federal budget and its fiscal results differs from the primarily cash basis of accounting used to authorize spending appropriations.
  • Ministers are appearing before parliamentary committees less frequently than in the past. Increasingly, deputy ministers—and, sometimes, assistant deputy ministers—appear before those committees on behalf of their ministers.
  • The Main Estimates must, according to House rules, be tabled before March1 of each year. They therefore typically cannot contain the most up-to-date expenditure information because federal budgets are usually tabled in late February. This information follows in the Supplementary Estimates later in the year, usually in the fall. The net result is that parliamentarians must work with out-of-date information in approving the government's spending plans by June23.

The government has signalled its willingness to work with Parliament on matters of accountability. In Ethics, Responsibility and Accountability: An Action Plan for Democratic Reform, the government committed to increasing the role of members of Parliament, expanding the role of committees in shaping legislation, modernizing the estimates process, increasing appearances by ministers in committee work, and reviewing appointments.[48] Some important steps have been taken to improve reporting to Parliament, including the following:

  • The reports on plans and priorities and the departmental performance reports have been changed. Greater emphasis is now placed on results-based reporting.
  • A new format for the Estimates was introduced in November2004 that makes information more consistent and that includes more horizontal and summary information to aid parliamentarians.
  • Steps have been taken to improve publishing of internal audits, program evaluations, and reports of the Auditor General and other officers of Parliament.
  • The government adopted full accrual accounting in the 2003 Public Accounts, earning it the unqualified approval of the Auditor General, as well as an award for excellence in reporting from the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants in November 2004, in recognition of its leadership in this area.
  • In the 2005 budget, the government committed to develop a blueprint for improved reporting to Parliament in consultation with parliamentarians.

Although it has already taken various initiatives, the government acknowledges that it must do more to support Parliament in executing its duty of scrutinizing spending and performance. The quality of information needs to be improved. Better processes for scrutinizing reporting information must be established. Greater incentives are required in order to encourage a focus on scrutiny and accountability throughout the system. In moving forward on this agenda, the government will put a premium on forthrightness and openness with Parliament. Reporting must be accurate and complete, and the government willingly accepts the need to be respectful of and responsive to Parliament in this area. The Management Accountability Framework can serve as a guide for discussing management performance with Parliament, and better data on program results will make it clear where those discussions can focus. The government will act in this area in the firm belief that responsibility for accountability is shared and that its actions will be reciprocated by a Parliament that is committed to fulfil its roles and responsibilities. Everyone involved has a duty to act in the public interest to support and encourage good stewardship of public funds. This culture of responsibility must be nurtured in all quarters and by all involved.

5.3 Support ministers and deputy ministers in carrying out their responsibilities and improve management performance

When the practices of accountability in the ministry were assessed against the threecore criteria of a well-functioning accountability regime, most of the experts consulted felt that action was required on a range of fronts. Ministers and deputy ministers need to better understand what they are responsible for, particularly in the area of financial administration. In critical areas, the capacity of the Public Service needs to be enhanced to ensure that ministers and deputies can deliver on their responsibilities. Management information tools and processes are not always adequate, and the oversight of financial management needs improvement in certain areas. Stronger leadership is required to further nurture public service values and ethics, and decisive action is required when mismanagement is uncovered. Each of these areas will be explored below.

Although participants in the consultations called for a comprehensive agenda, they did not demand a radical change. The challenge is not to start over in a different direction; rather, it is to build on the progress to date, to entrench and reinforce good practices, and to give greater prominence and attention to management performance at all levels. This will take time, investment, and leadership, but it must be done.

Clarify the assignment of responsibility and accountability

A central requirement of any accountability system is that those who are being held to account have a clear understanding of what they are being held to account for. This understanding should be shared with those who delegated that authority to them and who, as a result, are entitled to demand an accounting. Problems can occur when there is no shared and clear understanding of what authority has been delegated or of the priorities that should be addressed. Confusion and inefficiencies can result, creating gaps in the accountability system and making it difficult to know whom to hold accountable.

The consultations and the research undertaken in preparing this report revealed several challenges associated with the assignment and delegation of authority:

  • insufficient clarity of performance expectations associated with delegated authorities, particularly between ministers and deputy ministers;
  • lack of firm boundaries on the role of exempt staff, particularly regarding their relationship to matters of public administration in their dealings with public servants;
  • insufficient clarity of the assignment of responsibility and accountability for matters of financial administration, specifically in areas where deputy ministers have received authority directly from legislation (for example, from the Financial Administration Act) or through delegation by the Treasury Board; and
  • insufficient clarity of the means by which disagreements between ministers and deputies are resolved on matters of interpretation of the application and implementation of Treasury Board policies.

The government has already taken a number of significant measures to clarify responsibilities and their understanding by ministers and deputies. For example, the guides for ministers and deputy ministers on accountability were updated and expanded in 2003 and 2004. The government has also strengthened governance and accountability in Crown corporations.[49]

But the government recognizes that more must be done. In moving forward, actions will need to be taken to provide both ministers and senior officials with clarity in their roles and responsibilities. In particular, ministers and senior officials must be given the authority necessary to adapt and to lead change. To the degree practical, the areas of confusion over responsibilities must be cleared up. It must be transparent to all who is accountable for what and to whom. In any assignment of authority and requirements of accountability, the essential principle of a non partisan, professional public service must be preserved and strengthened. Disagreements over how best to implement a policy, however rare, must be resolved in a manner that keeps accountability clear but does not undermine the necessary relationship of trust between ministers and deputy ministers nor the core democratic principle of ministerial accountability to Parliament.

In this regard, many academics and some parliamentarians have argued for the introduction of an accounting officer, long established in Britain. The specific responsibilities of the accounting officer and the means by which he or she would be held accountable could vary widely. The House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Accounts has recommended one version, which includes the following features:[50]

  • a personal duty of signing the financial accounts described in his or her letter of appointment;
  • a personal responsibility for the overall organization, management, and staffing of the department and for department-wide procedures in financial and other matters;
  • ensuring there is a high standard of financial management in the department;
  • personal responsibility for all authorities, whether delegated or directly held;
  • ensuring the financial systems and procedures promote the efficient and economic conduct of business and safeguard financial propriety and regularity;
  • ensuring compliance with parliamentary requirements in the control of expenditures, ensuring that funds are spent only to the extent and for the purposes authorized by Parliament;
  • the personal responsibility for negligence and wrongdoing does not diminish over time;
  • accountability before the Public Accounts Committee for the performance of his or her duties and for his or her exercise of statutory authorities; and
  • in cases of disagreement with a minister regarding the administration or operation of the department, the minister would need to override the deputy with a letter, which would be sent to the auditor general and the comptroller general.

It should be noted that the responsibilities of accounting officers are very similar to those of a deputy minister under the Financial Administration Act and Treasury Board policies. Similar to accounting officers, deputy ministers are responsible for financial regularity and propriety; economy, efficiency, and effectiveness; and financial and management systems for departmental programs and public property. Further, deputy ministers regularly appear before parliamentary committees to provide information and explanations concerning the administration of the department and programs under their authority.[51]

Some believe that the accounting officer model is well-suited to the Canadian context, believing it will clarify to Parliament who is responsible for what management decisions, provide deputy ministers with the "administrative space" to exercise their managerial responsibilities to the fullest while at the same time serving their ministers, and codify the means of resolving conflicting positions between ministers and deputies in a manner that makes it clear who is responsible. Others have argued strongly against the idea. They believe it does little to change the current responsibilities and accountabilities of ministers and deputies, save the introduction of a letter to override the judgment of a deputy in cases of disagreement. Critics of the concept feel this would seriously undermine the trust relationship that is necessary between ministers and their deputies. Critics also believe that it would be extremely difficult to maintain a distinction between the responsibilities of ministers and those of the accounting officer. Under the intense pressure of parliamentary scrutiny, they feel that non-partisan, professional public servants will be forced to defend themselves and risk becoming politicized in the process.

Ensure that those who are responsible have the capacity to fulfil their duties

Individuals who have certain responsibilities must not only have the authority to carry out their responsibilities but also the capability and capacity to do so. Ministers must be assured that the public servants supporting them have the necessary skills and resources to accomplish what they are being asked to do. During the consultations carried out for this review, some participants stated that new employees and managers require better orientation to their positions in order to empower them to do their jobs properly. They also indicated that, in critical areas of government operations—such as the financial management and audit community, the program evaluation community, the procurement, materiel management, and real property communities, and the human resources community—core skills need enhancement and, in some cases, certification standards are warranted. More effective recruitment initiatives are necessary to attract talent to some of these critical areas of operations.

Consultation participants also expressed concern about the tenure of senior officials. Although the average tenure for a deputy minister is three and a half years, many serve less, raising questions as to whether that is sufficient time to see major management initiatives through to conclusion. In this context, questions were raised about the core competencies expected of deputy ministers and whether adequate emphasis was placed on management and administration in their selection. Maintaining, throughout the appointment process and at all levels, the non-partisan, professional standing of all public servants, particularly deputy ministers, was deemed to be of utmost importance.

Steps have been taken to help modernize and renew the Public Service. The Public Service Modernization Act is intended to enable the government to build further capacity and attract new talent. It will help integrate human resources planning into business planning and build a new relationship between management and labour. It will reduce the layers of rules and processes that encumber human resources management, while safeguarding the essential principles of merit. The new Canada School of Public Service will make career-long learning for all employees a real possibility and help enable the government to upgrade managers' skills, both for leadership and for sound operations. Senior officials will be more informed about the management expectations set out in the Management Accountability Framework and in Treasury Board management policies and therefore be better able to carry out their responsibilities. Exchange programs are also being enhanced, in keeping with the notion of a diverse and open institution that relies on new ideas and innovations.

The government has begun to strengthen capacity in core areas of financial administration. It has announced its intention to develop certification standards for departmental comptrollers and chief audit executives. A core learning curriculum will be developed in consultation with educational institutions, professional associations, and unions. It will focus on these areas: orientation for new employees; leadership skills for managers; and specialized needs of key functional communities, such as finance, internal audit, and human resources. Under the auspices of the Committee of Senior Officials, reviews are underway of the core competencies of all senior officials to ensure that the appropriate balance is given to selecting public service leaders.

In its recruitment and retention initiatives, the government is committed to supporting a productive and principled public service and to maintaining its neutral, non-partisan status. An investment in knowledge is an investment in adaptability and will help ensure a sustainable and relevant public service. As the government moves forward, it will focus on the core skills needed for success and sound management. Innovation and creativity will be embraced as the best ways to serve Canadians. Strengthening capacity through careful recruitment and training will allow for renewal and flexibility in the Public Service. Continuous learning, which will be the hallmark of the Public Service, will help build into the system the agility needed to deliver and implement complex programs and policies and will help give public servants the confidence to challenge the established way of doing things if it hinders better service to Canadians.

Strengthen financial management and oversight, particularly in high-risk areas

The Auditor General has expressed concern that financial control is weaker than it should be in government, especially given the complexity of this function. In the course of the consultations for this report, a number of other issues arose. Participants pointed to a lack of timely, comprehensive, whole-of-government management and expenditure information. They identified a need for more focus on the fundamentals of financial audit, as well as a strategic approach to financial stewardship that targets risk areas. Financial management and audit capacity across government was considered stretched, sometimes leading to inadequate planning and decision making. In general, it was felt that a renewed focus on financial controls, monitoring, and enforcement mechanisms is needed to reinforce the stewardship of public funds.

Significant measures have already been taken to enhance financial management:

  • In December 2003, the Office of the Comptroller General was re-established at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat as a distinct office under a newly appointed comptroller general, who has deputy head status. A network of comptrollers, who report functionally to the comptroller general, will be put in place across departments to strengthen financial management and accountability.[52]
  • In March 2004, the government committed to auditing all annual financial statements of departments and agencies by 2009.
  • The Auditor General's five-year special audits of Crown corporations will be tabled in Parliament and posted on the Auditor General's Web site.
  • An assessment of the audit capacity across government is underway.

In moving forward to strengthen financial management and oversight, the government will be guided by a number of objectives, most importantly prudent stewardship of public funds. As the government said in December2003, every dollar counts. Propriety and regularity in the handling of public funds are not merely desirable—they are imperative. The economy, efficiency, and effectiveness of program spending must be of equal concern to ministers, deputies, and all public servants who serve under them. Strong leadership will be required, and senior officials will be expected to lead by example. Rigorous controls must be founded on steadfast values. Deputy ministers must understand that they hold primary responsibility for management capacity and performance in their respective departments and that they will be held to account for it. Deputies will need to be supported by objective and independent advice on the performance of the financial administration systems under their responsibility. To be effective, this advice needs to come from within departments. Deputies need information management tools that enable them to manage "smarter."

Reinforce public service values and transparency

On its own, a clear understanding of the doctrine will not ensure an effective accountability system, nor will the simple implementation of mechanisms—however robust—of holding the government to account in Parliament and across government. A strong "accountability reflex" is also needed among all players.

As a foundation, it was felt by those consulted that public service values and ethics need to be better promulgated and reinforced through guidance on how to translate them from principles into concrete actions. Beyond this, actions undertaken in public or in conditions of relative transparency were thought to stand a greater chance of living up to these values and these expectations of rules than those that are hidden from view.

During the consultations for this review, the opinion was widely expressed that insufficient transparency makes it difficult to scrutinize management practices and identify risks and problems early. Consequently, too much time is spent on corrective action and too little on prevention. Those consulted believe that increased public transparency provides a powerful means to encourage better management, administration, and public accountability.

Several human resources practices in the Public Service seem to undermine rather than reinforce the accountability regime. For example, some of the experts consulted stated that too little attention is paid to public service values and ethics in setting the criteria for assessment and promotion; others thought that the problem lies in the high turnover at senior levels, which means that people are not always available to account for their actions, leaving others to answer for them.

The government has acted to strengthen the accountability reflex. Building on the seminal work of the Task Force on Public Service Values and Ethics, the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service was released in 2003. Conflict of interest laws, lobbyist registration rules, and the revised Conflict of Interest and Post-Employment Code for Public Office Holders have also made an impact. A public integrity officer was appointed, and legislation was introduced in the House of Commons in 2004 to protect public servants who disclose wrongdoing.

A good control system can be reinforced and complemented by public transparency. Indeed, transparency, visibility, and open communications are key instruments for promoting greater public and parliamentary accountability.[53] If parliamentarians and Canadians at large have direct access to information on expenditure management and performance by the government, they will be better able to hold the government to account and less reliant on self-reporting by departments and agencies. For that reason, the government recently tabled in Parliament A Comprehensive Framework for Access to Information Reform and has sought the views of parliamentarians on this important matter. The government has also signalled its intention to eventually include all Crown corporations under the scope of the Access to Information Act. Other steps already taken include the mandatory proactive disclosure of the following:

  • the travel and hospitality expenses of ministers, parliamentary secretaries, political staff, and senior public servants as of April 2004;
  • the government's own goods and services contracts over $10,000 in value as of November 2004; and
  • re-classifications of public service positions as of November 2004.

These measures and those that would form an action plan for reforming accountability all find their roots in the core values of the Public Service. They put a premium on integrity and trust, recognizing, among other things, that if public servants are to rely less on centralized rules and regulations, they will need to have a deepened understanding of the values and purposes underlying those rules and regulations. Values are reinforced by best practices and, if public servants are to be empowered to act, they need to see these values given expression in the actions of their leaders. Performance against the Code should be a key determinant in assessment and promotion. It is appropriate that government and the Public Service are held to the highest possible standards. In turn, the government should expect the highest ethical performance from everyone who receives public funds through grants, contributions, or contracts.

The government recognizes the virtues of greater transparency for reinforcing this commitment to public service values. More could be done to make government more transparent, while respecting appropriate safeguards for protecting confidentiality and individuals' privacy. A more open government will enable those who are making judicious choices to do so with confidence and conviction and will serve as a check on those who might be inclined to make poor choices.

Act decisively when things go wrong or when mismanagement occurs

While many of those consulted felt that the accountability regime in government is working reasonably well, they also recognized the importance of the deterrent effects of knowing that mismanagement will be appropriately sanctioned.

It is easier to judge the appropriateness of the consequences of an act or omission when everyone involved knows the details of the regime of rewards and sanctions. Individuals are also more likely to regulate their behaviour if they understand the consequences associated with it. Consultation participants felt that the sanctions regime is neither well developed nor well publicized and that it is therefore weaker than it could be. This perceived weakness is said to have contributed to the impression among the public and among public servants that the consequences associated with mismanagement are insufficient in some areas.

In this context, participants felt that the absence of a clear definition of mismanagement as it applies to both ministers and deputy ministers challenges the effectiveness and credibility of the sanctions regime. While many intuitive definitions exist, no consensus exists on any single one. It is hard to know whether appropriate action has been taken against poor performance or maladministration when there are no clear, consistent, and obvious benchmarks or standards for such action.[54]

As was emphatically pointed out by the Task Force on Public Service Values, "The public service should be animated by an unshakeable conviction about the importance and the primacy of law, and especially the law of the Constitution, and about the need to uphold it with integrity, impartiality and judgement. Functions that bear upon the rights, duties and public purposes of Canadian citizens can only be carried out with legitimacy and equity within a framework of law and due process."[55] There can be no tolerance for rule-breaking in government, but cases of mismanagement must be dealt with judiciously. Here, the government will be firm and decisive. As always, it will be important to be just and to be seen to be just. That said, accountability should not be reduced to simply blaming individuals publicly. Remedial measures to address mismanagement must allow for learning and for improvement. The sanctions regime should be structured and applied so as to encourage managers to comply with government direction in a manner that is consistent with the law and with public service values.

5.4 Strengthen the Treasury Board's role in ensuring solid managerial accountability

The Treasury Board's place in ensuring solid managerial accountability in government is central. However, in his study, Gordon Osbaldeston reported that, according to deputy ministers, "their accountability to the Treasury Board is not as clear as their accountability to the Public Service Commission," and that "deputy ministers have mixed views about the nature of their accountability to the Treasury Board."[56] The recent round of consultations confirmed this. The means by which the Treasury Board identifies how deputy ministers have exercised the authority delegated to them are not very precise. In addition, there are no explicit requirements for accountability sessions between the Treasury Board and deputy ministers to discuss progress on files and projects.

Streamline Treasury Board management policies

Accountability is weakened when administrative responsibilities are delegated without specific reference to either tasks or positions. Treasury Board management policies, which assign responsibility and set management expectations for ministers and deputy ministers, have developed over decades. Policy instruments and guidelines number in the hundreds. During the consultations for this report, participants surmised that the complexity of government results, to a significant degree, from working through the rules imposed by the Treasury Board and its Secretariat. The lack of coherence and consistency within the suite of management policies is partly a function of its evolution, but it also reflects insufficient co-ordination in the policy development process and results in overlap, duplication, and sometimes contradiction between individual instruments. The rules emanating from the Treasury Board are often misinterpreted and sometimes ignored, and most senior executives would admit that they simply do not know about some rules. Those consulted feel that too many policies impose unnecessary constraints on departmental operations.

To hold individuals accountable for their performance in fulfilling delegated responsibilities, it must be clear, through the Treasury Board's management policies, who is charged with doing what. The government will simplify and streamline the Treasury Board's suite of management policies in order to:

  • set out what is expected of ministers and deputy ministers to ensure the appropriate control mechanisms are in place and monitored, provide the basis for increased use of authority, and indicate the appropriate response when cases of mismanagement are identified;
  • focus reporting requirements and ensure that meaningful performance information is provided; the requirement to monitor compliance in key risk areas is strengthened and the Treasury Board is notified in cases of mismanagement and that the corrective actions required have been taken; and
  • support deputy ministers and managers in meeting policy requirements through an appropriate combination of tools, training, and internal communications.

There is, however, a significant cost to rigid centralized control: such control undermines the responsibility of those in charge of the policies and programs and reduces the overall efficiency of an accountability regime. Any effort at streamlining management policies, therefore, will make it clear that accountabilities for management must rest with the department and that responsibility for rigorous oversight of management systems must rest with central agencies. It is not prudent to change the entire management accountability regime just because a few individuals operate outside the rules. What needs to be done is to ensure that those rules are tightly focussed on real issues, are clearly understood by all who operate under them, and are closely monitored for compliance, particularly in high-risk areas.

Improve management information systems

The experts consulted for this review also agreed virtually unanimously that information management systems and the data collection processes that feed them are not serving the Treasury Board and its Secretariat well in the execution of their oversight role. More information and less regulation would actually strengthen accountability. During the consultations, participants noted that development of whole-of-government management information was vital, would require a long-term commitment, and would demand a significant investment in leadership and resources.

Work is currently underway:

  • The new Management, Resources, and Results Structure, which will provide information on how departments allocate and manage resources under their control to achieve intended results, has been approved by the Treasury Board and is being implemented.
  • The Expenditure Management Information System is being developed, which will provide the Treasury Board with much better and more timely expenditure and management performance information and which will aid in the oversight of and reporting on departmental performance.
  • The Financial Information Strategy is improving the stewardship capacity of departments, promoting more intelligent risk management, providing a foundation for more comprehensive financial information, and augmenting government-wide decision making.

These are significant tools in reinforcing program accountability in departments and across government. The most effective control systems are "smart"—strategically incorporating risk-based review, as well as auditing and information systems. Deputy ministers, who are responsible for the quality of management in their department, will be supported in enhancing these systems and held to account for how they are used. Parliamentarians will be provided with more comprehensive data to support their role in holding the government to account.

Hold departments to account for management and program performance

As the management board of government, the Treasury Board's primary duty is to provide departments with a clear sense of the government's management expectations and to provide Parliament with the assurance that effective internal management systems are in place. Recently, a number of measures have been taken to enhance the Treasury Board's capacity to fulfil this responsibility. Foremost among those is the Management Accountability Framework. It sets out the basis for a more coherent, consistent, and comprehensive accountability regime. It encapsulates the essential elements of good public-sector management, drawn from several years of careful review and assessment. It builds on the approach to the role of the management board articulated in Results for Canadians and the lessons learned from the Modern Comptrollership Initiative.

The Management Accountability Framework is being used to articulate a vision of sound public management and as a means of underscoring the core principles of managerial accountability. It is also being used as the basis for the assessment of management performance within departments, particularly in the context of bilateral discussions held between the secretary of the Treasury Board and deputy ministers. These assessments, among other things, are considered by the clerk of the Privy Council, in consultation with the Committee of Senior Officials, in making recommendations on the performance ratings of deputies to the prime minister. Public service managers also use the Framework as an integrated model for management improvements. In the future, it will be the basis for reporting on whole-of-government management performance. The goal in moving forward is to reinforce the message that ministers and deputy ministers are accountable for the management of their departments, while the Treasury Board and its secretariat are accountable for oversight to ensure that the appropriate control systems are in place and that the necessary management practices for using those systems are being routinely followed. Under the new accountability regime, the Treasury Board will gradually focus less on the specific transactions in which ministers and deputy ministers are engaged. Nonetheless, more active involvement by the Treasury Board will signal a shift from the management credo of "let managers manage" (which was central to the Glassco Commission) toward a management philosophy of "ensuring that managers manage well."

Core principles will guide the Treasury Board as it evolves in its role. It will make every effort to avoid entrenching or adding to hierarchies within decision-making processes. Empowerment and responsibility must be cultivated at the lowest practical level. This can be successful only if all parties acknowledge and live up to the expectations for due care and attention. Hence, appropriate oversight by the Treasury Board, bolstered by smart information management systems, must accompany the necessary shift in emphasis from rules and processes to principles and results. Information on management expectations and management performance, more than regulation, will be the means by which the Treasury Board ensures good management.

5.5 Conclusion

Parliamentarians, ministers, and public servants all have a critical role to play in supporting and strengthening the accountability regime. To the greatest extent possible, for the public good, they need to work together constructively in fulfilling their specific responsibilities, respecting the roles of others. The doctrine and practice of ministerial responsibility is key to our national political institutions. Getting it right is crucial, and agreement on fundamental principles is needed in order for that to happen.

Specifically, in improving the application and practice of the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, certain core principles of the accountability framework must remain constant. Even in the complex and changing environment within which government operates, they remain relevant and will guide the government as it moves forward to strengthen accountability.

  1. Parliament's role in holding the government to account, on behalf of the people of Canada, is reaffirmed as a primary responsibility.
  2. The government also has a responsibility to ensure the proper use of authority by establishing efficient and clear internal accountability mechanisms.
  3. The cornerstone of our system of responsible government is the doctrine of ministerial responsibility. Both ministers and officials also have a duty to serve in the public interest, as interpreted by law and the duly elected government.
  4. For accountability to be effective, authority and responsibility must be clearly assigned, with appropriate rendering of account, corrective action as required, and consequences as appropriate.
  5. As members of both the legislative and executive branches of government, only the prime minister and ministers should be directly accountable to Parliament.
  6. Insofar as public servants operate under the authority of statutes that assign powers to ministers, they must do so on behalf of and under general direction of the ministers of the government.
  7. Statutory powers for financial and human resources administration, which relate closely to the principles of neutrality, merit, and propriety in administration, should be exercised by deputy ministers.
  8. The Public Service must continue to be professional and non-partisan. Hiring and promotions must be based on merit. The non-partisan independence of the Public Service must be respected in the treatment received by senior officials before parliamentary committees.
  9. Parliamentarians, ministers, and public servants all have an obligation and a duty to fulfil their responsibility and honour their accountability to the fullest. When answering to Parliament or the Treasury Board, ministers and deputy ministers, as appropriate, are expected to give as accurate and complete an answer as possible.
  10. The government has the duty to provide Parliament with the information needed to do the job of holding the government to account.
  11. Accountability in government is meant to promote democratic control, compliance with policies, and continuous improvement in management performance; it should not be equated with blame.
  12. While the House of Commons retains the ultimate sanctioning power to vote no confidence in the government, Parliament's role in accountability should not be extended to imposing consequences on senior officials