At the time this article was written Henry
McCandless was a writer and consultant in accountability in Ottawa. He was
research associate with the Canadian Comprehensive Auditing Foundation from
1994 to 1996.
Public accountability is not just about
enhancing standards of public answering; it is about installing them. This article
assumes that elected representatives want to make a difference in fairness
outcomes for people; that they can see how holding to account is key; and can
overcome partisan tendencies and set about installing standards for public
accountability. Elected representatives will make fair trade-off decisions when
they have time to think, are adequately informed and put the public interest
first. Their own answering to citizens means elected representatives must be
well informed, which requires them to have sound processes for informing
The personal initiative of each elected
representative at every level of government is needed to bring about a standard
of public accountability in Canada. It is often easier for people simply to
hope for the best and then look for someone to blame when things go wrong. To
the extent citizens abdicate their civic duty to hold to account, yet
successfully ignore it as fact, elected representatives are free to do the
Consider some obvious examples of lack of
public answering in safety protection. An important common denominator in
lethally contaminated blood distribution, sub-standard drug testing, the U.S.
Challenger disaster and Westray mine operations is the failure, by those having
the responsibilities, to apply the precautionary principle. It says,
"Don’t go ahead unless there is reasonable assurance that it’s safe."
The principle has long been embodied, for example, in the drugs safety
intention of the federal Food and Drugs Act, and is only now being applied to
responsibilities such as environmental protection and fish stocks. We allowed
practice to be the opposite, which is, "Proceed unless some ‘loose cannon’
publicly and conclusively proves it’s unsafe."
The Meaning of Accountability
Academics will say that accountability is
some combination of responsibility and answering needed to prevent abuse of
power. They will usually be thinking at the macro level of governments and
legislatures. Public interest groups will say that accountability is synonymous
with government’s and corporate executives’ responsibility to make fairer
decisions affecting citizens that the interest groups are most concerned about.
In the campaign for the 1997 federal
election, the brief accountability segment of the party leaders’ televised
debate showed a lack of common understanding of accountability and the lack of
norms for public answering.
Some elected representatives may understand
that accountability implies reporting of some kind by somebody. But realizing when
they take office that they had less influence than they thought they were going
to have, many tend to view government accountability as something that can be
left to legislative auditors. Yet auditors stand outside the accountability
relationship. Rank and file public servants, trying unsuccessfully to serve
both the wants of those in power and the public interest and perceiving
themselves led by superiors who don’t "walk the talk," know they are
no longer expected simply to comply with spending directives. But they are not
sure what public and organization accountability should mean, or for whom.
Their superiors are not answering for their own performance. The problem for
citizens concerned about equity is that people in all these groups bandy about the
term "accountability" pretending that everyone already understands
what it means. Some propositions about accountability can help:
is the obligation to act.
every important responsibility there is accountability, the obligation to answer
for responsibilities. Confusing accountability with responsibility obscures the
obligation to report on the discharge of responsibilities.
accountability is the obligation to answer publicly for the discharge of
responsibilities that affect the public in important ways. The answering is
both before and after the fact. "Transparency" simply means that
something is readily visible; it does not mean answering for responsibilities.
accountability is the obligation of people in senior posts in organizations to
answer to members of the organizations for what they intend to bring about, for
whom, and what they contribute.
fairly to account means getting the needed answering at the time it is needed,
and using the answering fairly. It does not mean voting in elections. Election
campaigns have narrow aims of persuasion and are not effective or timely means
of answering to the public or of holding to account.
people as directing minds account, not intangible things like "corporations"
principal aim of public answering is to tell citizens whose needs or wants
decision-makers in authority intend to honour, why, and how, so citizens can
act to approve, alter or halt the intentions.
to a standard means that those in authority state what they plan to bring about
and the reasoning, their specific achievement objectives (not just activity
intentions) and performance standards such as those for the precautionary
principle (which clarify their intentions), the outcomes from their effort
compared to what they intended (with the variance explanations), and the
learning they gained and how they applied it. This helps prevent the abdicating
stance of, "Let’s put it behind us" whenever something goes wrong.
standard of answering imposed must reflect what is fairly within the control of
those asked to answer.
and public interest groups must assess the fairness of proposed public
answering standards and the answering. When the responsibilities are important,
the reporting is validated by audit. Audit assesses whether the answering is
fair and complete.
Those holding to account must identify the
accountable directing minds for the responsibilities. They must apply the
precautionary principle themselves, which is to say they must require adequate
answering from those in authority as the basis for trusting them. The directing
mind responsibility includes the quality of the control systems needed to
produce safety, environmental protection, probity, compliance with the law and
value for money. Inquires into blood, mining and military operations are
examples of safety responsibilities and accountabilities that should not have
Answering publicly tends to exert a
self-regulating effect on those in authority because publicly-stated
achievement objectives must be seen as praiseworthy, and misleading reports on
the actual achievement can be exposed by audit – whether by public interest
groups or professional auditors. At the same time, answering in good faith
calls for a fair response from those holding to account. Having to assess and
respond helps prevent elected representatives and citizens from denying reality
and avoiding their duty to act. Public interest groups must do more than simply
lobby and fight. They must hold fairly to account on behalf of citizens.
Holding to account is working smarter, not
Installing public answering from those in
authority should not be daunting. For one thing, public accountability is
politically neutral. It is certainly a public policy issue, but if people argue
that accountability is a politically-partisan matter, what political party
would say they are against public answering to a reasonable standard for the
discharge of responsibilities that affect the public in important ways?
Moreover, holding to account does not tell
decision-makers in authority what to do. It simply requires them to disclose,
before the fact, what they want to bring about and their reasoning, and later
to state their accomplishment. But we can expect powerful decision-makers who
do not want to account publicly to try to keep the meaning of public
accountability foggy, or to cause the term to be overused and have everyone
tired of hearing the word.
What is the duty of legislators? It is
reasonable to expect elected representatives, who make fairness decisions on
behalf of citizens, to state to their constituents:
they see as reasonable public answering from those they oversee in their role
of a governing body acting on citizens’ behalf,
action they personally intend to take to install public answering to a
reasonable standard in their jurisdiction, and
they see as their own public answering for their own responsibilities.
Disclosing Proponents’ Intentions: the
The greatest failure in public answering has
been the lack of exposure to public challenge of the specific outcomes intended
by those in authority, and the reasoning. Money budgets and results do not
supply the fairness reasoning. Central to the disclosure of the reasoning is
the explanation of who would benefit and who would bear the costs and risks.
This imperative was pointed out by University of Toronto Emeritus Professor
Ursula Franklin, in her 1989 Massey Lectures, The Real World of Technology.
Whenever someone talks to you about the benefits and costs of a particular
project, don’t ask "What benefits?" ask "Whose benefits and
But how do we apply this principle to
government’s answering to the legislature for its program and project
intentions — and to corporations’ proposals to government for benefits to the
corporations that affect fairness and the public purse? We make the
"who" question specific. We make it specific enough to have the
answer guide elected representatives’ decision-making. This means that for each
significant proposal for legislators’ and citizens’scrutiny, the proponents set
would benefit, and why,
they would benefit,
their immediate benefits would be
their benefits would be in the future
would bear the costs and risks, and why,
their costs and risks would be immediately,
their costs and risks would be in the future, and
would be accountable to whom, for what.
We can call this type of briefing statement
an equity statement.1 It can be made standard practice in
legislative review of proposed programs and projects, including legislation
review by the Senate. Proponents produce an equity statement as a
publicly-accessible document for every important proposal that should be put
before the legislature or its committees.
Citizens seldom know whose needs are being
honoured in the intentions of those in authority.2 The equity
statement says, in effect:
Here is what we propose, and why. These are the
people or groups who would benefit, immediately and in the future, in the ways
and extent we describe, and these are the people who would bear the types and
amounts of costs and risks we describe, immediately and in the future, and this
is why we think they should. And here is who would be accountable to whom, for
what. This is our view of fairness.
The main purpose of the equity statement is
to make visible, for public inspection, the fairness trade-offs embodied in any
major proposal or responsibility. Elected representatives at every level of
government have the duty of making fairness decisions on citizens’ behalf, but
they must base their decisions on adequate information. They need a simple way
of assessing trade-offs that serves as a counterweight to whatever biases or
personal information processes they bring to their decision-making.
Publicly-challenged equity statements would meet this need.
The advantage to citizens’ groups of
before-the-fact, publicly-accessible equity statements is that they are a basis
for holding both proponents and elected representatives fairly to account for
what is ultimately decided. Making equity statements accessible through the
Internet (for example, through Web links from standard locations for program
explanations) would be an enormous help. Concerned citizens could then form
their own views on the trade-offs and take their views to their elected
Equity statements are useful for a broad
range of proposals in society. Enabling Bills headed for legislatures are
obvious examples. As a specific example of proposals having important effects
on the public, government officials involved in the proposed
federal/provincial/territorial national blood agency arranged to meet in late
January 1997 with citizens representing blood user groups across Canada, to
discuss the proposed system. The participants in the Toronto forum had expected
senior officials to explain in writing before the meeting the proposed powers,
responsibilities and accountabilities of the national system and the agency, so
these could be discussed. Instead, relatively junior officials went to Toronto
mainly to explain activities and issues they had on their agenda. The user
group participants realized that the meetings of the deputy ministers across
the country at the senior public servant level, followed by those of the
ministers of health, were to be completed by April 1997. So they were angry and
frustrated. The officials were using words like "transparency" and
"accountability," but asked the user groups to define them. In this
case, the components of the equity statement that user groups wished to discuss
and challenge were in effect components of an equity statement representing
executive government intentions for the system and its accountability. But
neither they nor the officials had put together such statements for options, as
a basis for discussing proposals. As well, provincial and federal legislators
must know the answers to the "who" questions for the blood system and
who would answer publicly for the quality of the proposed management control
system and audit for the system’s safety and compliance with the law.
Similarly, in the case of Westray, proposed
mine safety standards with accompanying action responsibilities,
accountabilities and costs can be better understood if explained in the form of
an equity statement.
Equity statements would be a logical way to
present political parties’ policy proposals for election campaigns. And beyond
particular elections, the proposal to separate Quebec is an important example
of the usefulness of the equity statement. Produced by federalists and
separatists alike, equity statements would set out for public challenge their
respective assertions about the "who" question. The equity statements
would help clarify debate on the values and aspirations involved.
Internationally, equity statements apply to
governments’ and corporations’ aims for policy instruments such as the World
Bank, IMF, WTO, APEC and the new Multinational Agreement on Investments (MAI) –
and to the intentions of these agencies within their discretion.
Use of the equity statement also applies to
major environmental protection commitments – or their lack, since failure to
act is itself a decision – and to the existence of casinos and tobacco
companies. There are hundreds of important instances of decisions by people in
authority that affect the public, for which the fairness and efficiency issues
can be set out before the fact publicly, in a simple structured way. Equity
statements summed across government departments will show elected
representatives and the public whether executive government policies are at
cross-purposes, and whether there are gaps and overlaps.
As to the reporting standards, when the
executive government has an intervention or regulatory role, proponents’ equity
statements can be reviewed and signed off by public servants for validity and
completeness of the information, insofar as they can take this assessment.
Given that the proposed action would significantly affect the public (in the
sense that if people knew the effects, it could be expected to make a
difference to their decision-making), the equity statements can be put out for
public challenge by elected representatives in their role as consensus
facilitators. Public challenge helps identify benefits and costs missed or
suppressed in the proponents’ assertions, and makes visible the quality of
public servants’ assessments of the fairness of the reporting.
Given that elected representatives have a
due-diligence responsibility to be well informed for their decisions as a
governing body, public challenge of equity statements should produce higher
quality of decisions by legislatures and local government councils. It should
also produce higher public acceptance of the decisions. The practice would be
straightforward: no publicly-challenged equity statement, no decision taken by
the governing body on the proposed action or legislation. And if, in the view
of most stakeholders, the information in the equity statement points to
decision X but the decision taken is Y, those governing-body members voting for
Y can explain their reasoning to the stakeholders.
Equity Statements As Support for
In our parliamentary system and in our local
governments we already have the structures in which to house equity statements
as briefing documents for executive government proposals. At the provincial and
federal levels, we have the annual Estimates as the vehicle for governments to
propose to the legislature what they plan to achieve, and why. At the local
government level we have the municipal corporations’ budgets, for the same
purpose. Federally, the current reporting structure is even more amenable
because the Estimates have been specialized since 1982 to facilitate each department
and agency presenting their specific achievement objectives for their proposed
programs, and their results (Part III of the Estimates).
Understanding the underlying intentions is
important. For example, focusing on means and quality of the delivery stage of
government services does not address fairness policy: which citizens are to
gain what, from what social justice benefits, and who would not benefit.
Over-attention to service delivery quality can divert attention from the
underlying issue of the fairness trade-offs intended as policy. The equity
statement goes to the bone of fairness policy and makes visible what is
proposed and the reasoning. To legislators having information overload and too
little time to think, statements of what is proposed are of greater concern
than descriptions of past activity or financial statements after the fact.
A second main benefit of equity statements
is that they can be held open to present the full accountability loop in
answering for specific programs or projects. Regardless whether the executive
government’s departmental Estimates are divided into before-the-fact
"business plans" and after-the-fact reporting on achievement, equity
statements can provide the running stories on particular program objectives or
projects a legislator may be concerned about. The part of the equity statement
stating intentions would include not only the intended outcomes and the
rationale, but also the specific achievement objectives and key performance
standards that clarify for legislators the executive government’s underlying
intentions. In addition to making intentions clear before the fact, equity
statements are easily extended after the fact to include the actual results and
the explanation of why the results were different from the agreed intended
results when that is the case. As more specific information, the equity
statements for each program or project can be drawn up to show intended and
actual achievement for each of fairness intentions, efficiency, and compliance
with the law.
The statements can be further extended to
report the learning gained and applied from running the programs or projects.
To date, reporting how learning has been applied from experience costly to the
public purse has not even been discussed by governments or legislators as a
required part of public answering.
Whether for program enabling legislation or
project funding, equity statements would include proponents’ assertions of who
would be accountable to whom, for what.
If senior public servants and ministers say
these proposals are too complicated and will cost too much, elected
representatives can point out that the information to be reported is no more
than those in authority need themselves in any case, to do their jobs properly.
What they know, they can report, in language one’s next-door neighbour can
understand. And if they are not well informed, it is their duty to be well
Expectations for Parliament
Helped by equity statements, legislatures and
Senate review of proposed legislation can specifically include the adequacy of
provisions for public answering. Legislatures can require standard sections in
Bills to deal specifically with the obligation to answer to a standard. It is
not far-fetched or unconstitutional to argue that the Governor General and
Lieutenant-Governors should say, "No debated public answering provisions,
The tenure of political parties as governing
parties over the next decade will be decided in large measure by the quality of
their public answering for their intentions reasoning as well as their results.
The power of the few who govern each of the parties will increasingly be based
on the quality of their own public answering for their responsibilities. If the
answering is poor, backbenchers will distance themselves from the front bench.
Without public answering installed to a standard and buttressed in legislation,
trust in our institutions can be expected to fall further. That means society
does not work properly. The idea is to increase public trust in our
institutions, and adequate public answering is a large part of the means.
1. The equity statement was introduced in an
earlier Canadian Parliamentary Review article, "The Elected
Representative’s Role in Public Accountability" (Spring 1994). In that
article I used the term "equity schedule," which was too much an
accountant’s term for the purpose intended.
2 For example, in a June 1996 article in
Vancouver’s Georgia Straight, journalist Terry Glavin writes: ‘For all the
company-sponsored mob scenes over Ottawa’s alleged surrender of salmon to
Aboriginal people following the supreme Court of Canada’s 1990
"Sparrow" decision, Weston and Pattison’s share was greater than the
entire sockeye allocation to all the Aboriginal communities of British Columbia
combined. (Galen Weston and Jimmy Pattison being the owners respectively of
B.C. Packers and Canadian Fishing Co.).