[POLitical Accountability and responsIbility in the government]
A look at accountability in the legislative branch.
Accountability is the essence of democracy and the democratic form of government. Accountability is the liability assumed by all those who exercise authority where there has been responsibilities delegated; ultimately, a liability owed to all citizens by the government and subsequently, every government department and agency. Since Canada is a representative democracy, it is responsible for good governance but accountable for its actions, whether or not the two coincide.
One of the most basic and fundamental principles of a democratic society is the government must be accountable to its citizens. Such accountability in Canada is exercised through parliamentary control. Every minister is ultimately accountable for their portfolio to parliament and therefore in turn responsible to the Canadian electorate. The actualization of this responsibility is undertaken upon the assumption of office; however, it is not absolute. Power may be revoked in a number of ways, but the most fundamentally democratic way is by way of ballot box (Kersell, p. 29), where citizens can vote for another party if they feel the current party was unaccountable or irresponsible. Therefore, the government ought to act in a responsible manner and be accountable to the people, or it may lose the reins of power in the political spectrum. Accountability within government is thus a measure that is used to control the power invested onto elected government officials. Without accountability, what is left is a political structure that has absolute power to act without conscience or atonement. Any discussion which focuses on responsibility within parliament reveals the varying levels of accountability and the difficulties in trying to describe power and responsibility within the Canadian political system.
Accountability in the public sector can be studied from two alternate perspectives. The civil servant who represents the bureaucratic sector, and often work on the “front line”, and the Cabinet Ministers, representing the political sphere, or more of the “behind the scene” operations. The former refers to managerial responsibility whereas the latter refers to political responsibility. Political scientist, Paul Thomas, states that accountability consists of “assignment, support, obligation, evaluation, and sanctions and rewards [which] constitute a framework within which we can assess any accountability regime” (Marshall, p. 374). The issue of accountability raises several key questions and problems for scholars. What is the difference between accountability and responsibility? Who is accountable/responsible to whom? And finally, what is the importance of accountability in the Canadian public administration sphere?
Ministers in Canada are senior members of parliament who are appointed to a department by the Prime Minister. These ministers are the constitutional head of all public agencies, ranging from Department of Agriculture to Service Canada to the Department of Veteran Affairs. Each departmental portfolio has a deputy minister (known as accounting officers since the Harper government implemented the Accountability Act in 2006 [Brodie & Rein, p.122]) and a team of senior civil servants who advise the minister on a variety of issues ranging from administrative procedures to policy implication. Often, a minister has little to no knowledge with regards to their respective portfolio so they usually rely heavily on information acquired from senior officials (Brodie & Rein, p. 122); therefore ministerial responsibility is closely tied to the bureaucratic structure.
Cabinets are the means in which new governmental polices are created and developed. If passed through both houses of parliament, these policies are then conveyed to individual departments through the ministers. The implementation and feedback of these policies is then the responsibility of front line civil servants. Ultimately, there are two main types of ministerial responsibility: collective and individual.
Collective responsibilities refer to the accountability of the government to parliament as a whole. The collective cabinet responsibility ensures the solidarity of that cabinet as well as the government, as all the cabinets compose the political government. Furthermore, “the doctrine of collective ministerial responsibility is also important in terms of maintaining government stability and confidentiality” (Marshall, p. 376). Ministers must be supportive of all cabinet policies while at the same time critical of individual subordinate departments, but this criticism is always to remain “in-house”. Therefore, the collective ministerial responsibility allows the government to present policies to parliament with one collective voice. This solidarity enables government to defend individual ministers in the House of Commons and protect its right to govern.