Parliament is a political forum in which a small group of partisan politicians
called the Prime Minister and Cabinet is given the authority and resources
to define and implement public policy. They do this subject to the requirement
that they regularly account for their actions before the publics elected
representatives. This article looks at the traditional concept of accountability
as well as some recent innovations such as the work of various officers
Parliaments role is mainly to examine and to react to the governments
policies and actions. This point was well made by John Stuart Mill who
wrote Instead of the function of governing, for which it is radically
unfit, the proper office of a representative assembly is to watch and control
the government. 1 Watching and controlling has clearly become a huge,
if not impossible, job for Parliaments given the scope and complexity of
government activities today compared to 1861 when Mill wrote.
Modern legislative scholars would say that Parliaments perform a number
of official and unofficial functions within the national and provincial
political systems. In more old-fashioned terms, approving legislation
and spending, providing scrutiny of policies and administration and providing
specific redress of grievances are the historical tasks usually attributed
Watching and Controlling Modern Governments
I want to focus on the last two tasks scrutiny of administration and
redress of grievances. These are clear expressions of the watching and
controlling function of Parliaments written about by Mill. I will focus
first on the relationships between Parliaments and bureaucracies.
Watching and controlling activities by Parliaments reflect the uneasy relationship
presumed to exist between democracy and bureaucracy. There is the fear
that, if left unchecked, bureaucracies can become arrogant, uncontrollable,
self-interested, unresponsive and ineffective. Yet societies are forced
to rely upon large public organizations with specialized knowledge and
skills to achieve productive actions. These facts of life account for
our ambivalence (for some people it rises to the level of hostility) towards
I am not going to debate whether the negative stereotype of public bureaucracies
is accurate or whether the fear of all-powerful bureaucracies is justified.
My view is that both images represent gross exaggerations. Also, not
all public organizations are the same in terms of being amenable to top-down
political direction and control or in terms of their responsiveness to
society and individuals. Designing mechanisms of control and scrutiny
need to recognize these differences.
Given the vast scope and shifting contours of modern governments, watching
and controlling have become difficult, indeed impossible tasks for Parliaments
to perform comprehensively on their own.
Recognizing this, Parliaments were forced to depend greatly upon controls
within government and on the professionalism of the public service to ensure
integrity and fairness in the exercise of public power. They also increasingly
sought the assistance of independent agencies serving them to stretch their
limited capacity to oversee the decisions and actions of ministers and
public servants and to provide complaint mechanisms for individual citizens.
Put simply, independent parliamentary agencies are meant to serve two broad
functions: first, to deal with individual complaints about a lack of fairness
involved with various types of actions and inactions, and second, to promote
improved performance and appropriate standards in the delivery of public
programs and services. The two functions are complementary and parliamentary
agencies are not doing their whole job if they stop at resolving individual
complaints and fail to analyze patterns of decision-making which need improvement.
Clearly, unaided Parliaments could not provide the necessary continuous
surveillance of the vast range of administrative decision-making and actions
affecting individual citizens. Parliamentarians have always used casework
on behalf of constituents to oversee the bureaucracy. When problems were
blatant or left unresolved, matters could be raised in Question Period
or in committees when Estimates were being examined. These efforts were
useful as a spot check on the exercise of bureaucratic power. By providing
a visible person to whom citizens could take complaints, constituency
service activity puts a human face on big government. However, the
casework approach relied upon the willingness and capacity of individual
parliamentarians to secure information, explanations and changes to the
decisions of permanent officials. Eventually, Parliaments concluded that
the right of citizens to fair treatment should not be as variable as the
political redress mechanism left open.
The creation of various parliamentary agencies helped to make a few citizens
feel less isolated and alone in dealing with large, often intimidating
Parliamentary agencies have also stretched the limited organizational capacity
of legislatures to provide scrutiny of the operations of departments and
agencies. Agencies have provided Parliaments with valuable countervailing
information necessary to hold public organizations accountable, especially
given the development within governments of a sophisticated communications
apparatus intended to put the most positive spin possible on their performance.
I start from the premise that the rise of independent parliamentary agencies
has been positive. In important and significant ways they have strengthened
democracy and accountability. Parliaments in this country could not fulfill
their responsibilities in any meaningful way without the assistance of
the auxiliary agencies established mainly over the past three decades.
So that is the good news.
The Surveillance Challenge
Just because parliamentary agencies serve noble causes on behalf of Parliament
does not mean that they are perfect institutions, or that their relationships
with other institutions and with citizens are ideal. I want to raise two
The first and broader challenge involves the intersection and interaction
of the changes taking place within governments and the public services
of this country and Parliaments.
Many forces, developments and specific events have caused the public to
lose a great deal of trust and confidence in governments. Politicians
found themselves living in a dog house of suspicion to the extent that
they even began to doubt their own democratic credentials and capacity
to demonstrate leadership and responsible behaviour in public office.
Increasingly, they have set up bodies to police their own behaviour.
The rise of the reinventing government movement and the new public management
approach to public sector reform both reflected and reinforced the anti-politics
mood which had been growing since the 1970s.
In the slogan made popular in the USA, the public wanted governments which
worked better and cost less. Working better included adhering to higher
ethical standards. In combination the loss of confidence in the political
process and the rise of new public management have led to a focus on managerial
solutions to what are essentially political problems.
A clear example of this trend is the creation of new, and the strengthening
of existing watchdog bodies to regulate and oversee the behaviour of
public officials, whether they are elected or appointed.
The latest example of this tendency is the Federal Accountability Act which
by my count will create eight new monitoring bodies and will strengthen
the mandate and add resources to several existing monitoring bodies both
inside government and serving Parliament.
Watching (surveillance) and controlling (regulation) have become a significant
growth industry within the public sector. The main players in this relatively
new accountability industry are familiar: auditors (both internal and
external) general and specialized ombudsmen, conflict of interest and ethics
commissioners/commissions, information and privacy commissioners, whistleblower
protection officers, human rights commissions, lobbyist registrars, election/party
financing officials and the list goes on.
There is an irony and several concerns associated with the rise of the
new regulatory/surveillance industry operating in the public sector.
The irony is that governments were supposedly becoming smaller and reducing
their regulatory presence in the private sector. Yet, simultaneously they
were developing an extensive, complicated and specialized internal regulatory
apparatus for the public sector.
The concerns associated with the new accountability apparatus involve the
potential for unforeseen impacts on the performance of governments. In
the most general and simple terms we need to ask the question: will the
new regulatory/surveillance industry lead to too much checking and not
The concerns arise from the fact that the new regulators represent different,
not always consistent values like cost minimization (Auditors General)
versus humanity (Child Advocates). The new regulators work relatively
independently from one another and there is no attention paid to the cumulative
impact of the requirement to anticipate and to comply with the reports
and recommendations of the various oversight bodies, only some of which
are connected to Parliament.
The new regulation within the public sector appears to be based on the
idea that in a democracy there can never be too much accountability. An
alternative view would be that too many accountability mechanisms impose
direct costs of compliance and also stifle creativity and risk taking because
of the fear that mistakes or simply unforeseen events will be criticized
and negative consequences will follow for the organizations and individuals
involved. Notwithstanding rhetoric to the contrary, the prevailing approach
to accountability is based on the gotcha mentality of detecting wrongdoing
and pinpointing blame. Multiple watchdogs contribute to this mentality,
whether they mean to or not, because public reports of problems or abuses
always end up being amplified, distorted and sensationalized in Parliaments
and in the media. More positive or balanced assessments tend to be ignored
or crowded out by all the negative publicity.
This leads me to ask the question: Are governments at risk of weakened
performance due to a new contagious, insidious, creeping disease I call
MAD (multiple accountabilities disorder)? An early indication of the onset
of this disease is a condition called "hardening of the auditors"! At present,
MAD is not a politically respectable disease which is discussed in polite
company, but we need to begin discussions of the cumulative impacts of
the new regulations in the public sector.
Another consequence of the new regulation is to provide more opportunities
for ministers, central agencies and even senior public servants to place
the blame for abuses of authority, misspending or program problems on the
shoulders of career public servants further down the line in departments.
This happens for example, when Auditors General stop short of criticizing
policy design and blame deficiencies in program performance on mismanagement.
The federal Auditor Generals report on the HRDCs grants and contributions
program was an example where the Auditor avoided direct criticism of policy,
but blamed program officials for what was mislabeled in Parliament and
the media as a billion dollar boondoggle of law-breaking and unaccountable
spending. The fact that when the dust settled only $60,000 of undocumented
spending was found did not change the public perception that a massive
fraud had taken place.
Another consequence of the growing surveillance apparatus is the gradual
loss of anonymity for senior public servants. Public servants may not always
be named (although it is happening more frequently than in the past) in
investigative reports, performance audits, annual reports from parliamentary
agencies and during the course of parliamentary committee hearings, but
their identities are often known to people in government, in Parliament,
advocacy groups and in the media. There can be real damage to their reputations
and their careers from the new investigative processes. Putting parliamentary
agencies within the scope of access to information/freedom of information
acts, as has been recently suggested, could lead to the premature release
of tentative findings and create even greater risks for public servants.
There is a submerged and opaque quality to those processes. We do not
know how thorough, procedurally and substantively fair and balanced such
processes are. Are public servants entitled to due process when they deal
with investigative bodies? If they are the subject of a negative report,
what recourse do they have? Even if they are not named, how do they recover
their reputations and the trust of others who know they have been the target
of an investigation? I once interviewed a group of access to information
coordinators in federal departments. A minority of them felt they had
been pushed around by aggressive staff from the Information Commissioners
office which regularly issued annual reports full of high octane rhetoric
about a bureaucratic culture of secrecy. Such passages provided wonderful
fodder for parliamentary theatrics and the media machine, while more tempered
and balanced observations went unnoticed. Access coordinators felt trapped
between the publics right to know and the departments obsession to protect
its reputation. Even if the coordinators managed to stay out of trouble,
theirs was in many respects a lonely and thankless job with no clear career
ladder to climb. Front line public servants make the protective laws work,
they deserve our respect and are entitled to support and fair treatment.
Redress of Grievances
Redress of grievances refers to processes for appealing decisions, dealing
with delays, inaction, arbitrariness, bias and even incompetence. It involves
getting things put right. Of course, redress mechanisms do not always
find in favour of people making complaints or bringing an appeal. Yet,
redress processes should provide people with the assurance that they have
been properly and fairly treated or that a disputed decision has been made
in conformity with the relevant rules.
In the same way that Parliaments have increasingly relied upon other bodies
to supplement their scrutiny efforts, they have also given over the redress
function to specialized agencies. Most of the work of parliamentarians
on behalf of their constituencies and constituents is done informally behind
the scenes through contacts with ministers and public servants. Parliamentarians
only deal with a small percentage (perhaps 10 percent) of their constituents.
Apparently constituency service is expected of Parliamentarians because
surveys tell us that most constituents would not reward helpful MPs on
that basis alone. In the United Kingdom a Fabian Society Report suggested
that MPs spent too much time on constituency work which they were ill equipped
Canadian parliamentarians are strongly attached to constituency work because
it allows them to do something helpful and most are shut out of any significant
role in lawmaking and spending decisions.
Only a tiny minority of the problems citizens encountered in their dealings
with public bureaucracies were brought to the attention of their elected
representatives. Use of the courts to remedy problems was also not satisfactory
because of the time and costs involved and the fact that often the problems
were not strictly legal in nature. Most departments had internal appeal
mechanisms, or even semi-independent appeal bodies, but they were seen
as part of government and therefore lacked credibility with citizens
in terms of providing a fair hearing of their case. The multiple potential
mechanisms for putting things right was confusing for citizens. For
example, rigidly separating complaints from appeals meant there were two
redress mechanisms with different mandates and organized in different ways.
The growth of ombudsmen schemes of various kinds was meant to deal with
these problems. The popularity of the ombudsman concept was based on the
relatively low cost of such offices, the informality of their procedures,
the flexibility of their potential remedies and the accessibility and lack
of cost for complainants. Not only are there general ombudsmen in most
governmental systems, there are also specialized ombudsmen for particular
fields, such as the health ombudsman in Québec. The ombudsman represents
a rare case in which an institution created in the public sector eventually
became quite common in the private sector. Not all ombudsmen are fully
independent of the organizations they oversee; the ombudsman for Canadas
military is an example of this situation.
As mentioned above, the functions of resolving complaints and promoting
high administrative standards are potentially complementary. In the big
picture individual cases are obviously important (especially to those
individuals adversely affected by bureaucratic action or inaction, but
they may not lead directly and immediately to changed procedures and rules.
Only if ombudsmen analyze and publicize the patterns of maladministration
will individual cases produce a cumulative impact in terms of the adoption
of good practices. In the real world of limited financial and staff
resources, ombudsmen have to make trade offs between complaint resolution
and standards promotion. Outreach and education are a third activity which
also requires resources. My sense is that for most ombudsmen the complain
function has to take priority.
The fact so little is spent on making the public aware of the office guarantees
it will not be used in all the cases where it could be helpful. The Dutch
National Ombudsman writes a column in a best-selling newspaper, runs advertisements
on TV (showing a woman walking in the crowd and asking people to call if
they have a problem) and runs a regular opinion survey on public awareness.
The surveys reveal that young people and people from economically and
socially marginal groups are least likely to be aware of the office. Careful
thought must be given to how program departments and ombudsmen communicate
with the most vulnerable segments of society who depend to a greater extent
on public programs and lack the sense of personal efficacy to insist on
the respect and benefits to which they are entitled. Ombudsmen must realize
the power imbalance which exists between citizens and bureaucracies. They
must consider developments in conflict resolution theory and alternative
dispute resolution practice in order to promote healthy and balanced interactions.
The trends and developments involved with new public management have implications
for the redress function. Partly through the wonders of information and
communications technology, governments are increasing access to departments
and information. Interaction, including two-way transactions are becoming
easier. The language of customer service has been imported from the private
sector, with words like competition, choice , information for customers
to make informed decisions and performance evidence to know they are receiving
value for their scarce tax dollars. Citizens charters, service standards
and customer satisfaction surveys are being introduced. New procedures
for redress are being added both to empower citizen-customers and to
keep public servants on their toes.
There is much talk and some action to ensure that programs and services
are integrated so that the citizen is not forced to navigate through the
bureaucratic maze of separate and disjointed programs. Horizontality, joined-up
government, whole-of-government or shared service pick the slogan you
prefer to describe the aspirational goal of one-stop shopping by enlightened
consumers carrying their copy of a customer bill of rights and accompanying
service standards, and perhaps insisting that they be compensated if they
do not obtain the quality of public services they have been promised.
This is not the place to debate all the philosophical and practical implications
of the customer revolution in the public sector. It clearly has profound
implications for the governments, including Parliaments. To the extent
that governments are successful in producing user-friendly bureaucracies
there will be less work for parliamentarians in the constituency service
field. This may free them up to spend more time on legislation, spending
and scrutiny, but this presumes that they will be given encouragement,
support and opportunities to play an expanded role in those areas.
The increasing reliance by governments on performance plans, service and
quality standards and performance reports is changing the focus of accountability
from process to aggregate results. The new results-based approach to
accountability is meant to be more objective, less open to partisan gamesmanship.
It does have the virtue of focusing on the average performance of the bureaucracy
rather than on the exceptional or extreme example. However, focusing on
performance does little to address problems of improper use of delegated
authority. Indeed an insistence on productivity and positive ratings may
encourage the neglect or cover up of procedural problems.
One of the prominent ways to introduce competition into the public sector
is to contract out the delivery of programs to private sector organizations,
whether for profit or not-for-profit. One effect of contracting out is
to undermine the legal protection for individual citizens who are directly
affected by the decisions and quality of services provided by the contracting
organization. This problem is not peculiar to social services, but it
is more acute in this sector due to the vulnerable position of the clients
and the significant impacts on their living conditions from negative actions.
The basic question is: What remedy is available to the citizen who has
suffered harm as a result of privatized activities? There may be remedies
in law, but that would be a lengthy, expensive and highly problematic process.
So, the issue really is whether we can extend the jurisdiction of ombudsmen
to cover commercial firms and non-profit agencies delivering services previously
provided in-house by government departments. Will this detract from
the innovation and productivity gains which contracting out is supposed
to deliver? Will governments vote money to expand the scope of the ombudsmens
function to cover this new terrain?
There is an irony in the fact that contracting out, which can be seen as
a form of fragmentation, is happening at the same time as there is all
the talk of integration of service delivery. Now that there is greater
emphasis on service integration, should there be more integrated approaches
to redress of grievances? The existing mechanisms grew up over time and
separately. The problem of fragmentation is greater in larger jurisdictions
where there are multiple specialized ombudsmen in operation. Usually there
is communication and some efforts at collaboration, but some organizational
consolidation and/or physical and on-line single locations will probably
have to be considered in the future to provide citizens with one-stop shopping
for resolving their complaints. A rationalized system must not become
more bureaucratic. The ombudsman function has become widespread, yet the
first annual meeting of the Canadian ombudsman only took place in 2003.
There is a need for professionals with similar investigative and mediation
roles to communicate regularly and to share best practices. It would also
be helpful if they invited elected politicians to their gatherings so both
parties could understand and learn from one another.
Parliaments were forced to develop independent agencies to cope with the
expanded scope and complexity of government in the 20th
agencies have stretched the surveillance capacity of Parliaments. They
have provided citizens with a greater chance to obtain fairness in their
dealings with bureaucracies. So we need to praise independent Officers
of Parliaments for what they contribute to democracy and citizen confidence
Let me conclude with two final, provocative thoughts about the future.
Parliaments need to ask whether they have given too many tasks to what
has become a sizeable parliamentary bureaucracy. Are they any tasks
left for Parliament to delegate to auxiliary agencies?:
there are law reform commissions (no longer in Ottawa) to provide guidance
on new laws;
for past spending there is the Office of the Auditor General;
for future spending, there will be a Budget Office of Parliament;
to protect citizens there are general and specialized ombudsmen
to review order-in-council appointments, there will be a commission at
the federal level;
to monitor their conflicts-of-interest and ethical lapses there are counsellors
Coping with complexity is the main, but not the only explanation for why
Parliaments have created their own bureaucracies. These developments also
reflect the strong anti-politics mood which has developed in recent decades.
Canadians apparently prefer that non-political individuals and institutions
provide objective evidence about the performance of government and also
act to resolve complaints they have about their individual treatment by
Using a parliamentary bureaucrat to catch a departmental bureaucrat
is not without its problems. The basic problem is how to ensure the right
balance between independence and accountability for the relatively new
parliamentary bureaucracy. It must be noted that the independence we are
talking about for Officers of Parliament is from both the executive and
Parliament itself. This is too big a topic to be explored fully here.3
A key feature with respect to independence is how parliamentary agencies
obtain their budgets. If the political executive and/or central budgetary
agencies set the budgets, there is the risk of underfunding and a symbolic
loss of independence. On the other hand, parliamentary agencies cannot
be completely exempt from the fiscal realities facing government. At the
national level, there have been reports from a House of Commons and a Senate
committee on alternative funding mechanisms for Officers of Parliament
and in 2005 the Martin Government agreed to a two-year experiment involving
a Parliamentary Panel to which Officers of Parliament will go for budget
approval and which will provide oversight of their operations. Exactly
what is meant by oversight is apparently being debated between the agencies
which favour a broad interpretation and the Treasury Board Secretariat
which favours a narrower, more strictly financial interpretation. The Harper
Government agreed to continue the experiment so it will be interesting
to see where it leads as a key part of the wider process of balancing independence
and accountability for parliamentary agencies.
Certainly there is more work to be done by the appropriate subject-matter
standing committees of Parliaments across the country to examine the work
of their agencies more seriously, especially on the basis of their annual
reports. The fact that agencies serve Parliament as accountability enforcers
is no reason why they themselves should be held less accountable. While
there is an argument for a more systematic parliamentary approach to overseeing
its overseers, this is not a recommendation that Parliaments delegate this
task to another oversight body. At some point the trend of Parliament offloading
its scrutiny and redress functions has to end and parliamentarians have
to make the commitment, find the time and provide themselves directly with
the resources necessary to do the job of overseeing the performance of
government. Governments must accept that Parliaments have the duty and
right to poke and pry around in the operations of government and to ensure
that bureaucratic discretion is being used fairly in relation to individual
Canadians. Improving the watching and controlling function of Parliaments
will provide ministers with another source of intelligence about when policies
are not working as planned and will enable them to better direct and control
the administrative machinery of government.
1. See John Stuart Mill, Considerations on Representative Government
2. See G. Power, Representatives of the People, 1998.
3. See Paul Thomas The past, present and future of Officers of Parliament,
Canadian Public Administration Vol. 46, No. 3, Fall, 2003 where I have
analyzed the five structural features which determine the balance between
independence and accountability.