Where does the buck stop?

Over the past two decades, growing public demand for betterservices has pushed governments to experiment with new kinds ofintergovernmental partnerships. This, in turn, has raised questionsover whether governments can really be partners and still be fullyaccountable to their legislatures.

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

The session was part of a larger process led by a nationalworking group of politicians and public servants. The group isdeveloping a discussion paper on accountability inintergovernmental partnerships that is to be released nextfall.

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

This lets auditors do three things: Track the flow of publicmoney, be sure that each transaction was lawful, and trace theauthority 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, citizenscare about more than whether the exchange of public money complieswith rules. They also care about what they got for their taxdollars. What results did it achieve?

Over the past two decades, this has led to a new interest inidentifying, measuring and reporting on results. Most governmentsnow promise citizens that they will be accountable both forcompliance and results.

Now, when we ask citizens what results they want from governmentprograms, their answers reflect everyday experience: They wantsafer streets, cleaner air or a stronger economy. And whilegovernments have been good at promising such results, they have notalways delivered them.

One reason is that no single program or even government islikely to achieve them on its own. An outcome like safer streets isthe result of many factors, from gun laws to drug use to employmentlevels. 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 askwhether we can make more progress on such goals by workingtogether. Partnerships have thus become a key term in the publicservice lexicon.

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

What happens, they asked, when officials start working togetheracross departmental or intergovernmental boundaries, or withnon-governmental organizations? Doesn’t this break the “chain ofcommand?” Can or should individual ministers continue to beresponsible to

Parliament for the results of initiatives launched by multiplepartners? Who is in charge when decision-making is shared?

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

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

The Vancouver Agreement is an example of the latter. It unites abroad range of actors around the goal of promoting sustainableeconomic, social and community development. It has been aremarkable success.

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

The lesson we drew from this experience, however, is that nosingle model of accountability will work in all circumstances. Weneed different models to do different jobs. Partnerships requirethat we sit down, narrow the options and decide just what it isthat we want to do together and how each of us can contribute tothe goal.

The real accountability challenge is making sure that we are allclear on that – and then stating it clearly in an agreement. Oncethat is done, governments seem pretty good at finding reliable waysto report on it.

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

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