Where does the buck stop?

Over the past two decades, growing public demand for better services has pushed governments to experiment with new kinds of intergovernmental partnerships. This, in turn, has raised questions over whether governments can really be partners and still be fully accountable to their legislatures.

Along with Senator Hugh Segal, one of us, Maryantonett Flumian, recently co-chaired a roundtable discussion, organized by the Public Policy Forum and the Crossing Boundaries National Council, which discussed this issue.

The session was part of a larger process led by a national working group of politicians and public servants. The group is developing a discussion paper on accountability in intergovernmental partnerships that is to be released next fall.

The draft paper begins by describing accountability in terms of what it calls “compliance.” Every time public money changes hands, the transaction must comply with a set of rules, such as those contained in the Financial Administration Act.

This lets auditors do three things: Track the flow of public money, be sure that each transaction was lawful, and trace the authority to spend it back to the minister.

Compliance is a kind of baseline for government accountability. All processes must conform to it. But as the paper notes, citizens care about more than whether the exchange of public money complies with rules. They also care about what they got for their tax dollars. What results did it achieve?

Over the past two decades, this has led to a new interest in identifying, measuring and reporting on results. Most governments now promise citizens that they will be accountable both for compliance and results.

Now, when we ask citizens what results they want from government programs, their answers reflect everyday experience: They want safer streets, cleaner air or a stronger economy. And while governments have been good at promising such results, they have not always delivered them.

One reason is that no single program or even government is likely to achieve them on its own. An outcome like safer streets is the result of many factors, from gun laws to drug use to employment levels. How can a government achieve such a goal on its own?

The answer is that it usually can’t. One way to respond to this, however, is to turn to our colleagues in other governments and ask whether we can make more progress on such goals by working together. Partnerships have thus become a key term in the public service lexicon.

But if partnerships are a promising way to achieve results, they make some people nervous. Some in our roundtable wondered if they might weaken compliance-based accountability.

What happens, they asked, when officials start working together across departmental or intergovernmental boundaries, or with non-governmental organizations? Doesn’t this break the “chain of command?” Can or should individual ministers continue to be responsible to Parliament for the results of initiatives launched by multiple partners? Who is in charge when decision-making is shared?

In the end, such questions seemed to boil down to a single concern: Do we have to compromise on compliance in order to get partnerships? We discussed this at length before concluding that the question is really a bit of a red herring.

There are many different kinds of intergovernmental partnerships. They range from simple work-sharing agreements, such as having one building inspector perform inspections for two levels of government, to complex agreements involving three levels of government, NGOs, the business community and ordinary citizens.

The Vancouver Agreement is an example of the latter. It unites a broad range of actors around the goal of promoting sustainable economic, social and community development. It has been a remarkable success.

As far as our group could tell, governments have done a good job of hammering out creative new mechanisms that let them work together effectively in all kinds of circumstances, while still reporting reliably to their legislatures. In short, we have a lot of experience with partnerships and much of it has been good.

The lesson we drew from this experience, however, is that no single model of accountability will work in all circumstances. We need different models to do different jobs. Partnerships require that we sit down, narrow the options and decide just what it is that we want to do together and how each of us can contribute to the goal.

The real accountability challenge is making sure that we are all clear on that – and then stating it clearly in an agreement. Once that is done, governments seem pretty good at finding reliable ways to report on it. 065141

John Milloy ([email protected]) is MPP for Kitchener Centre and Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs in Ontario; Maryantonett Flumian ([email protected]) is Deputy Head of Service Canada and Associate Deputy Minister of Human Resources and Social Development Canada. Both are members of the Crossing Boundaries National Council (www.crossingboundaries.ca).

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