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Government Accountability Essay, Research Paper

Accountability of Our Government

Accountability is the essence of our democratic form of government. It

is the liability assumed by all those who exercise authority to account for the

manner in which they have fulfilled responsibilities entrusted to them, a

liability ultimately to the Canadian people owed by Parliament, by the

government and thus, every government department and agency.

One of the fundamental principals of a democratic society is the

government must be accountable to the people. Such accountability in Canada is

exercised through Parliament. Every Minister is ultimately accountable for

their portfolio to Parliament and therefore in turn responsible to the Canadian

electorate. The realization of this responsibility is undertaken upon the

assumption of office. Accountability within government is a measure that is

used to control the abuse of power by those elected as government

representatives. “The government must be able to control and protect its own

membership to be able meaningfully to accept responsibility for its direction

and impact as a government.” Without accountability we are left with a powerful

political structure that has the ability to act without conscience or redress

and this does not represent a modern democracy. With any discussion which

focuses on responsibility within parliament, one can see the varying levels of

accountability and the difficulties which arise when attempting to describe

power, within the Canadian political system. Accountability in the public

service can be studied from two different perspectives. The civil servant who

represents the bureaucratic sector and the minister indicating the political

sphere. The issue of accountability raises several key questions and queries

for social scientists. Is the power of the civil servant increasing while

ministerial responsibility is decreasing? What effects if any does this have on

the bureaucratic system? How does Parliament excise legislative control over

the bureaucracy? In essence, who is accountable to the Canadian people?

Ministerial Responsibility

Ministers in Canada are elected senior members of parliament who are

appointed to a departmental portfolio by the Prime Minister. These offices are

the constitutional head of all public agencies, ranging from Department of

National Defense to Department of Human Resources. Each portfolio has a deputy

minister and a team of senior civil servants who advise the minister on a

variety of issues ranging from administrative procedures to policy implication.

Because a minister is usually not specialized in his portfolio he usually has to

rely heavily on information acquired from his senior officials. Therefore

Ministerial responsibility is closely tied to bureaucrats.

It may prove beneficial, at this time, to outline general procedures for

policy making and implementation. Cabinet is the form in which new governmental

polices are developed. These policies are then conveyed to individual

departments through the ministers. The implementation and feedback of these

policies is then the responsibility of civil servants.

There are two main types of ministerial responsibility: Collective and


Collective responsibilities refers to the accountability of Government

to Parliament. The collective cabinet responsibility ensures the solidarity of

Government. “Ministers must be supportive of all cabinet policies while at the

same time quell criticisms of individual departments.” With collective

responsibility a minister must be supportive of all cabinet policies regardless

of individual concerns especially in public. The government can therefore

present policies to Parliament with one collective voice. This solidarity

enables government to defend individual minister in the House of Commons and

protect its right to govern.

The government’s collective responsibility is to have the confidence of

Parliament at all times. If at any time this confidence is questioned the

governing party must be subjected to a vote in Parliament. Failure to win the

vote requires the government to either resign or dissolve Parliament.

Collective responsibility enables the government to rise, put forth policy and

resign as one collective unit.

Three related rules form the doctrine of collective responsibility: that

government should stand or fall as one “administration” (and not re-make itself

out of the same assembly and try to win a vote of confidence); that the

administration speaks formally to Parliament with one voice, and that ministers

collectively resign or the government asks for dissolution if defeated in the

Commons on matters of confidence.

This is one measure in which Government can be held accountable to the

people. Difficulties will arise in trying to convince back benchers to

essentially vote themselves into the unemployment line, however if the

government fails to pass a ?substantial’ bill nowadays that is consider a vote

of non-confidence. Opposition parties also use this accountability measure to

heighten public awareness of questionable government practices or policies.

Individual ministerial responsibility can be divided into two sub-

components. First a minister must answer to Parliament for any wrong doings

that is done by their department while at the same time defend the actions of

their department. These two elements combined ensure that Ministers are

ultimately held accountable for their portfolios. This is especially held true

when matters that are done properly under his instructions or in accordance with

governmental policy.

Usually what happens though, if a departmental mistake is brought to the

attention of a Minister he usually denies any foreknowledge therefore asserting

no personal blame. Whenever an issue is brought up that has hard evidence

concerning Ministerial knowledge, the minister would usually blame it upon his

officials and answers to Parliament with the fact that the individual

responsible will be disciplined. This is not to say that there have been

times in Canadian history where a Minister has made an serious error concerning

his department and has been disciplined accordingly. Politics usually takes

take control over such issues. Rather or not the issue is important to voters,

the magnitude of it and popularity of the Minister. As S. L. Sutherland

indicates “Resignations are not a perfect indicator of the quality of

accountability mechanisms in responsible government…”

The problem arises are describe earlier, the convention of collective

responsibility will usually take effect. Therefore this mechanisms of

accountability may very well only damage the credibility of a Minister. If this

is the case it goes without saying though, at time of elections, the court of

the public opinion will pass judgement. “A minister can’t possibly know

everything which is done in the Department by every last civil Servant and

therefore it would be folly to try and pretend that the Minister will beheld

accountable and must resign when somewhere down the line at the end of a

corridor the ten thousandth person committed something illegal or contrary to

Government standards or norms.”

One political convention is that when a public servant makes a serious

mistake, he remains ?faceless’ to the public eye. This convention has it roots

in the principal of political neutrality. This is suppose to enable the civil

servant to carry out the actions of their minister despite their own political

views and public opinion on governmental policy. It is the Minister’s duty to

respond to Parliamentary request concerning the actions of his subordinates but

they cannot name the official or officials who may have cause a mistake. It

goes without saying that since civil servants enjoy this privilege and career

advancements are based upon merit, any political waves that they may of created

will definitely have weight to some degree. There are of course have been

exceptions in history of where a Minister has decided to wave this right of

anonymity . Two notable cases include 1989 episode which involved the minister

of transport, Benoit Bouchard and in 1982 where the deputy minister of finance


In reality a minister cannot be held totally accountable for the actions

of their departments. With the trend of downsizing the cabinet in recent

governments, and cabinet shuffles the norm, there is no way that a minister can

ever be specialized in accordance to the portfolio that they hold.. A minister

cannot be expected to know the daily operations of his portfolio. Therefore he

must rely heavy on his senior staff. Thus, policy implementation especially

from a minister recently appointed, is constituent on what he is told from the

senior permeant staff. Therefore Ministerial responsibly is closely tied to

department senior officials. In fact in the history of Canada there only have

been two ministers who have resigned over mal-administration of their portfolio.

Henry Stevens resigned for the Bennett Conservative government in 1934 because

the Prime Minister publicly condemned Stevens’ actions as chair of the Royal

Commission of Price Spreads and Mass Buying; and John Fraser resigned from the

Mulroney Conservative government in 1985 because he had intervened in the

departmental inspection process.

The second compound of Ministerial responsibility is that a minister

must explain the actions of their department to Parliament. This is done

through question and answer period. The minister is the “constitutional

mouthpiece through which department actions will be defended or repudiated and

form whom information is sought. The minister is the sole representative to the

House and the focus in the House for those seeking answers and redress.” This

accountability is the most important element to the Canadian public. It allows

the media, opposition parties and ultimately the voter to obtain information

concerning current governmental policies. It should be noted though that

minister do not have to respond to question nor give reason for not responding.

Because Minister are constitutionally accountable for their departments this is

the exception and not the norm. This conventions allows backbenchers, and

opposition parties to address concerns that their constituents may have that

where not satisfactory answered through the normal bureaucratic channels.

As the opening quote indicates all elected officials must be held

accountable if the government waste public funds, break the law or violate

citizen’s rights. Voters want someone to be held accountable and if the

ministers do not take public blame than it usually falls to the public servants.

However, political conventions that protect civil servants identity raises the

question as to rather or not they excise power without a true accountability.

It comes down to three things that government can do to regulate bureaucratic

influence. “Debates, questions, and other procedures in the legislature;

Reliance on certain ?watch dog’ agencies that report directly or indirectly to

the legislature; and the use of legislative committees.”

Deputy Minister Accountability

Departments are the public agencies that are central to the government

and responsible for the daily operation of this body. The departments are

portfolios formally headed by individual ministers. “Departments are thus

distinguished from any other type of governmental body by the fact that each is

legally under the direct control of a responsible minister.” Due to time

constraints and a heavy work load ministers have the support of deputies to

shoulder some the managerial aspects of the portfolio. “Ministers are members

of a political party, constituency representatives, members of the Cabinet and

its committees and members of Parliament.” Deputy ministers are appointed by

the Prime Minister and are in charge of the administration of the policies

handed down the minister of the particular departmental office. The deputy’s

concerns, in fact, should mirror those of his minister and must be held

directly accountable to him. In all cases they are responsible for exercising

the minister’s authority.

What happens if a deputy minister is in conflict with the policies he

must administer at the request of the minister? Regardless of what policies a

minister delegates to a deputy minister and whether his deputy supports the

proposals or not, the minister is held personally accountable to Cabinet,

government, Parliament and the Canadian electorate. “Ministers therefore must

be able to assure themselves that actions carried out under their authority are

in accordance with the requirements of the responsible exercise of power.” In

the chain of command the minister is ultimately responsible for the actions of

his support staff including his deputy minister. The deputy minister is

accountable, but, it is the office of the minister that undergoes the public

scrutiny if a conflict ensues or a policy fails.

The Public Servants

Then the question becomes, who holds the real political power? The

answer is simple, the public servants. These servants are responsible for the

implementation of departmental policies and are held directly accountable to

only a small number political members. They are the ones who determine who will

get what limited government resources and how governmental policy will be

implemented which will have an effect on future governmental policy. In order

to make public servants accountable authority must be exercised over them by

those higher in the chain of command. The difficulty arises when it comes time

to assign individual responsibility to public servants for administrative

mishaps because of the fact that so many public servants are involved in the

decision making process. Public services have continued to grow in size as with

this increased growth so to have their responsibilities grown in complexity.

Who are the public servants accountable to?

Public servants are directly accountable only to political and

administrative superiors, the courts and to any internal governmental

authorities (e.g. central agencies) to which accountability is required by law

or the administrative hierarchy. They are not directly accountable to the

legislature, to pressure groups, the news media, or to the general public.

However, they are generally required to explain their decisions to these


Acts of Parliament is one method of control over public servants.

However the problems arises that senior officials have influence over the

content of legislation. Formally, the Minister and Cabinet make a policy and

Civil Servants are responsible for the implementation of that policy. Although

in effect it is the Civil Servants who have an enormous amount of influence over

the development and implementation of policy, therefore it would be unthinkable

to hold the ministers personally accountable in this sense. This does not by no

means implies that a Minister can not be held accountable at all.

Legislative Control

Parliament uses five methods to excise control over the bureaucracy.

They are: ?watchdog’ agencies; ombudsman (provincially); Public Service

Commission of Canada; Auditor General and Parliamentary Committees. This paper

will look at the two most common in the public eye: The Office of the Auditor

General and Ombudsman.

Watchdog agencies such as the Office of Auditor General assist

legislators in the accountability of bureaucrats. In particular the Auditor

General keeps track of bureaucratic expenditures to ensure that monies are spend

and properly recorded as allocated by Parliament. In addition this person

reports on the effectiveness of social programs, environmental and economic

polices. It should be noted that the Auditor General is the only person who is

allowed to report directly to Parliament without having to go through a Minister.

The Auditor General must submit an annual report to Parliament on his findings.

Because of the political neutrality of this office, this report is usually

welcomed by the media as a detailed assessment of governmental policies. While

at the same time it provides the opposition in Parliament much creditable

evidence to governmental waste.

Another watchdog agency would be that of the Ombudsman. Although

currently this office is only on the Provincial level. The Ombudsman

investigates any complaints about improper administrative treatment in the

bureaucracy. If a complaint is found to be valid then it is this persons

responsibility to inform the bureaucracy of how to correct the situation. It is

important to not that an ombudsman does not posses authoritative power over

civil servants but rather they ?influences’ bureaucrats to make changes.


This paper took a detailed look at accountability in the public sector

and political conventions associated with this subject. It has shown the

limitations of both collective and individual ministerial responsibility;

outlined bureaucratic power; and briefly touched upon legislative control.

A minister is formally held accountable to the actions of their

portfolio. But because of ministerial dependancy upon senior civil servants and

political conventions that in essence protect the government, this

accountability is not more than a moral responsibility. The power of the civil

servant is increasing becoming broader as Ministerial portfolios are combined

with the modern trend of downsizing cabinet. The influential power of the civil

servant is increased as ministers are becoming unspecialized in their portfolios.

The only effective legislative accountability is done through the office

of the auditor general. With their annual reports, they give Parliament an

insight as to the effectiveness of governmental policies. Although Parliament

has no effective way to sanction a Minister or department who’s interpretation

of governmental policy differs from their own. This is not to say that

government is beyond the means of total control. History has proven, and will

continue to prove, that in a democratic society such as Canada, that ultimately

ministers and Parliament are held accountable in the public eye at the time of



Horn, Murray J. The Political Economy of Public Administration. Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Kersell, J.E. Control of Administrative Behavior. Canadian Public

Administration. v. 19. 1976.

Law Reform Commission of Canada. Political Control of Independent Administrative

Agencies – a study paper, Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada. 1979.

Marshall, Geoffrey. Constitutional Conventions: The Rules and Forms of Political

Accountability.Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984.

Marshall, Geoffrey and Graeme C. Moodie. Some Problems of the Constitution. 5th

ed. London: Hutchinson University Library, 1971.

Royal Commission on Financial Management and Accountability. Final Report. Hull:

Supply and Services Canada 1979.

Siegel, David and Kenneth Kernaghan. Public Administration in Canada. 3rd ed.

Toronto: Nelson Canada, 1995.

Sutherland, S. l. Responsible Government and Ministerial Responsibility: Every

Reform is its Own Problem. Canadian Journal of Political Science, v. 24 March


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