Stop improving accountability!

The thrust of Donald Savoie’s critique of what the government has been doing to improve accountability in the civil service is that we are working from the wrong metaphor. Government is not a business. Consequently, everything we have done since about the 1970s has decreased accountability and effectiveness. In particular, the Auditor General needs to have his wings clipped. The officers  whose powers Parliament has created and expanded since the 1980s have created a culture of “feeding the beast”, stuffing it with reports, to no increase in real accountability.

His program, as I interpret it:

  1. reduce the powers of the Auditor General and abolish the Parliamentary Budget Officer;
  2. restore Treasury Board to its former role of controlling the expenditure budget;
  3. get rid of “associate” deputy ministers and associate positions generally;
  4. return to a culture of frugality;
  5. Insulate the deputy minister cadre from being appointed by the Prime Minister.

I agree with all but (5) above.

My program of government reform involves taking every statute related to the management of government since 1970, along with every watchdog, office of improver-general for the status of fill-in-the blanks, and abolish it. The civil service is overburdened with watchdogs, and every watchdog creates at least a thousand new jobs answering to the watchdog. If, after abolishing a few government offices,  some persistent evil appears to need remedying, we should think very carefully before adding new permanent institutions when political scandal and questions in Parliament usually suffice to clear things up.

Above all, government needs to be understood as a “guardian” institution, in the sense in which Jane Jacobs spoke of guardian and market values. The morality of the market is about business, cash, transfers of wealth, exchanges. Behaviour suitable to the market, such as paying for services rendered, is corruption when it is practised in a guardian institution. A suitcase of cash may clinch the deal.  In a market situation it is entirely proper, yet in the case of guardian functions, such as adjudication, police work, government procurement, it is corruption.

It may seem self-evident that the Auditor General and the Parliamentary Budget Officer are Good Things. I assure you their offices need occasional trimming. Reports to outsiders do not generate accountability; they generate ass-covering. Answering to one’s boss for the expenditure of money, and so on up the chain to the Minister in Parliament, or the deputy minister to Treasury Board, that is accountability.

In addition to the Auditor General and the Parliamentary Budget Officer,  my list of scared cows in need of slaughter and profound rethinking are:

  1. The Privacy Commissioner and the Privacy Act;
  2. any concerted action for increasing the representation of any races, ethnicities, or women in the public service;
  3. The Public Service Commission in its entirety;
  4. any office intended to improve management, accountability, and representivity created since 1970.
  5. the regulation of Canadian broadcasting.

Readers are invited to add their sacred cows, preferably with reasoning attached.