Speaking Notes of H. E. McCandless as Witness before the Legislative Review Committee on Bill C-2

The author was called upon to speak to the Commons committee on the Bill called the Accountability Act that subsequently passed without accountability provisions.

Speaking Notes of H. E. McCandless as Witness before the Legislative Review Committee on Bill C-2

30 May 2006

This morning I wish simply to put before you the concept and logic of public accountability, and how it can increase fairness in society and citizen trust in authorities. Without that trust, society doesn’t work properly.

My aim is to try to show you how you can act to Prevent harm and injustice, such as the lethally-contaminated blood of the 1980s, and management control failures such as in HRDC and sponsorship. Audit and commissions of inquiry are after the fact, when it’s too late.

As to my credentials, I have been a rigorous student of accountability for over 15 years, and author of a book for citizens on the subject, A Citizen’s Guide to Public Accountability: Changing the Relationship Between Citizens and Authorities. I was a Principal in the Office of the Auditor General of Canada for 18 years, and my MBA is in organizational behaviour, which is about cause and effect in management processes.

In the Audit Office I served as the Auditor General’s Parliamentary Liaison Officer to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, so I know pretty well people’s roles and duties.

If we turn to the concept of public accountability and why it is a society imperative, lets assume for a moment that we don’t know the difference between conduct, responsibility and accountability.

So a simple logic sequence may help. If an executive government intends something that would affect the public in important ways, in fairness it should tell the public what it intends and why it intends it. This means accounting to the public. An obvious example is a government’s policy intention.

Next, the executive government should publicly explain its intended performance standards, which clarifies what it intends to achieve. Hospital emergency waiting times are an example.

Then we want to know whether government thinks it has met agreed performance standards, and to tell us the outcomes from what it did and how it applied the learning available to it. These affect competence trust.

But then we apply the precautionary principle, and ask for audit of their fairness and completeness of what government reports.

The combination of these accountings, plus audit, helps us determine our level of trust in the government: we know better what the government intends, why it intends it, and what it is actually doing. MPs can then better control what’s going on, and citizens can better see the role of MPs in holding to account.

Accountability doesn’t mean responsibility, the obligation to act, and it doesn’t mean conduct, the actual doing of something. The mid-1970s Independent Committee on the Mandate of the Auditor General of Canada authoritatively defined accountability as the obligation to REPORT on responsibilities.

And public accountability isn’t new; it’s been a mainstay in the business world for centuries. The Public Accounts of Canada are a governmental off-shoot of financial reporting.

One reason you are not already swimming in public accountability is that authorities don’t like to account unless they are made to. Corporations were. So you have had nothing to work with. Executive governments have thus far controlled whether standards for accountability reporting get installed in the law, and thus far they haven’t been.

But we first need a useful and comprehensive definition of public accountability to work with. Here is what I have proposed:

“Public accountability is the obligation of authorities to explain publicly, fully and fairly, before and after the fact, how they are carrying out responsibilities that affect the public in important ways.”

(Don’t worry if you have to go into four-wheel drive to absorb the definition. It has to be rigorous to withstand barracuda challenge.)

But then you say, “So what are the benefits of public accountability?”

First, MPs and citizens get information they need but wouldn’t otherwise have. Access to information requests are no substitute, and were not meant to be.

But perhaps even more important, the obligation to account PUBLICLY — so long as it is audited for its fairness and completeness — exerts a self-regulating influence on officials that works in the public interest.

The requirement to account is unassailable because it is non-partisan, tells no one how to do their jobs, and is simply the requirement to explain. It asks for no more information than officials need themselves to do their jobs properly. And what they know, they can report.

My last comment is on legislating accountability. If we are serious about something we legislate it. But a Bill entitled accountability that is not about accountability allows people to continue confusing responsibility and conduct with accountability. That means that we won’t get full and fair public accounting.

Moreover, adding more and more monitoring, policing and audit instead of accountability obligations will likely turn off good people from entering the civil service — people who would willingly account for their performance as a self-control, IF they knew their accounting would be used competently and fairly.

But there is one thing your Committee could recommend that doesn’t mean adding accountabilities across the board in Bill C-2. In whistleblowing protection (32 pages of the Bill) you could recommend the short provision that ministers and deputies report annually to the House their own protection performance standards and whether their claimed protection is actually working. This kicks in the self-regulating influence.

You could also recommend that a House committee be struck to examine principles and standards for true government accountability that we could install as the Government of Canada Public Accountability Act. It would cover off accountabilities within the executive government. and from the executive government to the House.

I have left with the Clerk of the Committee what I consider basic elements of such an Act, and also op-eds of mine that Dr. Keith Martin advised would be easier for you to read than my other work such as my book, a copy of which I have left with the Clerk. But there are chapters in the book on MPs holding to account.

Since I was called to the Committee only last Thursday noon (26 May) I unfortunately have not had time to have my Committee exhibit documents translated. However my articles on federal government accountabilities in the Canadian Parliamentary Review are as well in the French Edition of that journal.

Thank you for your time, and I hope I have been of help.

Leave a Reply