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Gina S. Comeau

Les surveillants de l’État démocratique : mise en contexte, edited by Jean Crête, Presses de l’Université Laval, Montreal, 216 p.

Les surveillants de l’État démocratique, edited by Jean Crête, provides an analysis of democratic accountability. More specifically, this collective work explores how institutions and mechanisms are needed to: first, ensure that leaders of democratic states do not exploit their powers, and second, identify and prevent abuse. Through empirical studies, the authors demonstrate that while constraints are an essential element of democracy, they are not without cost. The book contains seven chapters divided into two parts. The first part consists of three chapters that address the auditing of public accounts. The four chapters in the second part revolve around the theme of structural constraints associated with oversight mechanisms. Although the majority of chapters focus on the Canadian context, two take a look beyond our borders.

In the first section, the authors explore the theme of public accountability in Canada and 27 African countries. In Chapter 1, Geneviève Tellier looks at a new oversight mechanism in Canada: the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO). Tellier traces the history and activities of the Office, providing an overview of how accountability works at the federal level. She concludes that although the PBO does fulfill the requirements of the Office, the Officer is nonetheless faced with numerous obstacles, including the degree of independence while performing their duties. Louis Imbeau also highlights the importance of independence in monitoring the State in the second chapter where he analyses the different types of institutional arrangements in 27 African countries. Imbeau argues that being attached to the legislature rather than another control authority promotes budgetary transparency. This transparency is enhanced when the media is independent. In Chapter 3, also comparative in nature, Crête, Diallo, Rasamimanana and Timlet examine what captures the attention of provincial auditors general in all ten Canadian provinces. Based on the comments contained in annual reports from 2000 and 2010, the authors find that the differences between provinces are minimal compared with those found within a single province over time. The information contained in the reports has also become more intelligible to the general public, which facilitates its evaluation by the media and the public. The authors conclude by emphasizing the important role of the auditor general in monitoring the State.

In the second section, dealing with structural constraints, the various authors address the following subjects: training, evaluations, institutional features and the role of citizens in monitoring the State. In Chapter 4, Biland and Vanneuville turn their attention to France, examining the role of the Council of State in training senior officials. They argue that the Council of State ensures the prevalence of law and legal monitoring in administrative practices through training.

In Chapter 5, Jacob and Slaibi consider whether the purpose of program evaluation is to ensure the accountability and democratization of government activities, or a tool for controlling and monitoring? To address this, the authors trace the evolution and content of federal evaluation policies from their conception to the present day. They then examine how the policies are used within the federal government. Although those being monitored seem to perceive the policy objective relating to monitoring rather than management, the study shows that the evaluation is used for several purposes. The authors conclude, much like Tellier, that the results are not used to their full potential.

Chapter 6 deals with institutional characteristics in the provinces of Ontario and Québec in the areas of health, education and social services. Through a quantitative analysis of spending in these three areas, Tourigny and Bodet demonstrate the inflexibility of institutions and the advantages of the punctuated equilibrium approach to understanding long periods of stability sometimes marked by rapid change. In Chapter 7, Petry returns to a theme discussed in the introductory chapter, the citizen. He looks at how citizens evaluate election promises. His study shows how different evaluation criteria lead to different evaluations, and he observes a gap between public perceptions and expert evaluations. The collection ends with a brief conclusion.

Despite a few minor shortcomings, this book would be very useful for anyone interested in governance and oversight. Its greatest weakness is related in part to its size; adding a few chapters could have provided for better balance. Indeed, the majority of the chapters focus on Canada, with only two chapters looking elsewhere. With the addition of one or two chapters, or even a few comparative studies, the text could have provided a more comprehensive picture of democratic monitoring, which would have greatly improved the links among the various themes. This comment is not meant to question the need for this French-language work, but simply to point out that some additions would have significantly improved its usefulness to students, researchers, and officials.

It is also important to note that some chapters are rooted more in theory than others, such as that of Tourigny and Bodet, and that some studies stand out from the others, particularly those of Tellier, Petry and Crete et al. This book makes a positive contribution to the current literature dealing with governance, accountability and oversight. And as such, it would be a valuable tool for government officials, parliamentarians and others with an interest in this subject area.

Gina S. Comeau
Professor of Political Science, Laurentian University

Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 38 no 2

Last Updated: 2020-03-03