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Essay/Term paper: Accountability of our government

Essay, term paper, research paper:  History Essays

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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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