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Accountability to the canadian people

Accountability is the essence of our democratic form of government. It is the liability assumed by all those who exercise authority to account for the manner in which they have fulfilled responsibilities entrusted to them, a liability ultimately to the Canadian people owed by Parliament, by the government and thus, every government department and agency.

One of the fundamental principals of a democratic society is the government must be accountable to the people. Such accountability in Canada is exercised through Parliament. Every Minister is ultimately accountable for their portfolio to Parliament and therefore in turn responsible to the Canadian electorate. The realization of this responsibility is undertaken upon the assumption of office. Accountability within government is a measure that is used to control the abuse of power by those elected as government representatives. "The government must be able to control and protect its own membership to be able meaningfully to accept responsibility for its direction and impact as a government." Without accountability we are left with a powerful political structure that has the ability to act without conscience or redress and this does not represent a modern democracy. With any discussion which focuses on responsibility within parliament, one can see the varying levels of accountability and the difficulties which arise when attempting to describe power, within the Canadian political system. Accountability in the public service can be studied from two different perspectives. The civil servant who represents the bureaucratic sector and the minister indicating the political sphere. The issue of accountability raises several key questions and queries for social scientists. Is the power of the civil servant increasing while ministerial responsibility is decreasing? What effects if any does this have on the bureaucratic system? How does Parliament excise legislative control over the bureaucracy? In essence, who is accountable to the Canadian people?

Ministerial Responsibility

Ministers in Canada are elected senior members of parliament who are appointed to a departmental portfolio by the Prime Minister. These offices are the constitutional head of all public agencies, ranging from Department of National Defense to Department of Human Resources. Each portfolio has a deputy minister and a team of senior civil servants who advise the minister on a variety of issues ranging from administrative procedures to policy implication. Because a minister is usually not specialized in his portfolio he usually has to rely heavily on information acquired from his senior officials. Therefore Ministerial responsibility is closely tied to bureaucrats.

It may prove beneficial, at this time, to outline general procedures for policy making and implementation. Cabinet is the form in which new governmental polices are developed. These policies are then conveyed to individual departments through the ministers. The implementation and feedback of these policies is then the responsibility of civil servants.

There are two main types of ministerial responsibility: Collective and individual.

Collective responsibilities refers to the accountability of Government to Parliament. The collective cabinet responsibility ensures the solidarity of Government. "Ministers must be supportive of all cabinet policies while at the same time quell criticisms of individual departments." With collective responsibility a minister must be supportive of all cabinet policies regardless of individual concerns especially in public. The government can therefore present policies to Parliament with one collective voice. This solidarity enables government to defend individual minister in the House of Commons and protect its right to govern.

The government's collective responsibility is to have the confidence of Parliament at all times. If at any time this confidence is questioned the governing party must be subjected to a vote in Parliament. Failure to win the vote requires the government to either resign or dissolve Parliament. Collective responsibility enables the government to rise, put forth policy and resign as one collective unit.

Three related rules form the doctrine of collective responsibility: that government should stand or fall as one "administration" (and not re-make itself out of the same assembly and try to win a vote of confidence); that the administration speaks formally to Parliament with one voice, and that ministers collectively resign or the government asks for dissolution if defeated in the Commons on matters of confidence.

This is one measure in which Government can be held accountable to the people. Difficulties will arise in trying to convince back benchers to essentially vote themselves into the unemployment line, however if the government fails to pass a 'substantial' bill nowadays that is consider a vote of non-confidence. Opposition parties also use this accountability measure to heighten public awareness of questionable government practices or policies.

Individual ministerial responsibility can be divided into two sub-components. First a minister must answer to Parliament for any wrong doings that is done by their department while at the same time defend the actions of their department. These two elements combined ensure that Ministers are ultimately held accountable for their portfolios. This is especially held true when matters that are done properly under his instructions or in accordance with governmental policy.

Usually what happens though, if a departmental mistake is brought to the attention of a Minister he usually denies any foreknowledge therefore asserting no personal blame. Whenever an issue is brought up that has hard evidence concerning Ministerial knowledge, the minister would usually blame it upon his officials and answers to Parliament with the fact that the individual responsible will be disciplined. This is not to say that there have been times in Canadian history where a Minister has made an serious error concerning his department and has been disciplined accordingly. Politics usually takes take control over such issues. Rather or not the issue is important to voters, the magnitude of it and popularity of the Minister. As S. L. Sutherland indicates "Resignations are not a perfect indicator of the quality of accountability mechanisms in responsible government..."

The problem arises are describe earlier, the convention of collective responsibility will usually take effect. Therefore this mechanisms of accountability may very well only damage the credibility of a Minister. If this is the case it goes without saying though, at time of elections, the court of the public opinion will pass judgement. "A minister can't possibly know everything which is done in the Department by every last civil Servant and therefore it would be folly to try and pretend that the Minister will beheld accountable and must resign when somewhere down the line at the end of a corridor the ten thousandth person committed something illegal or contrary to Government standards or norms."

One political convention is that when a public servant makes a serious mistake, he remains 'faceless' to the public eye. This convention has it roots in the principal of political neutrality. This is suppose to enable the civil servant to carry out the actions of their minister despite their own political views and public opinion on governmental policy. It is the Minister's duty to respond to Parliamentary request concerning the actions of his subordinates but they cannot name the official or officials who may have cause a mistake. It goes without saying that since civil servants enjoy this privilege and career advancements are based upon merit, any political waves that they may of created will definitely have weight to some degree. There are of course have been exceptions in history of where a Minister has decided to wave this right of anonymity . Two notable cases include 1989 episode which involved the minister of transport, Benoit Bouchard and in 1982 where the deputy minister of finance resigned.

In reality a minister cannot be held totally accountable for the actions of their departments. With the trend of downsizing the cabinet in recent governments, and cabinet shuffles the norm, there is no way that a minister can ever be specialized in accordance to the portfolio that they hold.. A minister cannot be expected to know the daily operations of his portfolio. Therefore he must rely heavy on his senior staff. Thus, policy implementation especially from a minister recently appointed, is constituent on what he is told from the senior permeant staff. Therefore Ministerial responsibly is closely tied to department senior officials. In fact in the history of Canada there only have been two ministers who have resigned over mal-administration of their portfolio. Henry Stevens resigned for the Bennett Conservative government in 1934 because the Prime Minister publicly condemned Stevens' actions as chair of the Royal Commission of Price Spreads and Mass Buying; and John Fraser resigned from the Mulroney Conservative government in 1985 because he had intervened in the departmental inspection process.

The second compound of Ministerial responsibility is that a minister must explain the actions of their department to Parliament. This is done through question and answer period. The minister is the "constitutional mouthpiece through which department actions will be defended or repudiated and form whom information is sought. The minister is the sole representative to the House and the focus in the House for those seeking answers and redress." This accountability is the most important element to the Canadian public. It allows the media, opposition parties and ultimately the voter to obtain information concerning current governmental policies. It should be noted though that minister do not have to respond to question nor give reason for not responding. Because Minister are constitutionally accountable for their departments this is the exception and not the norm. This conventions allows backbenchers, and opposition parties to address concerns that their constituents may have that where not satisfactory answered through the normal bureaucratic channels.

As the opening quote indicates all elected officials must be held accountable if the government waste public funds, break the law or violate citizen's rights. Voters want someone to be held accountable and if the ministers do not take public blame than it usually falls to the public servants. However, political conventions that protect civil servants identity raises the question as to rather or not they excise power without a true accountability. It comes down to three things that government can do to regulate bureaucratic influence. "Debates, questions, and other procedures in the legislature; Reliance on certain 'watch dog' agencies that report directly or indirectly to the legislature; and the use of legislative committees."

Deputy Minister Accountability

Departments are the public agencies that are central to the government and responsible for the daily operation of this body. The departments are portfolios formally headed by individual ministers. "Departments are thus distinguished from any other type of governmental body by the fact that each is legally under the direct control of a responsible minister." Due to time constraints and a heavy work load ministers have the support of deputies to shoulder some the managerial aspects of the portfolio. "Ministers are members of a political party, constituency representatives, members of the Cabinet and its committees and members of Parliament." Deputy ministers are appointed by the Prime Minister and are in charge of the administration of the policies handed down the minister of the particular departmental office. The deputy's concerns, in fact, should mirror those of his minister and must be held directly accountable to him. In all cases they are responsible for exercising the minister's authority.

What happens if a deputy minister is in conflict with the policies he must administer at the request of the minister? Regardless of what policies a minister delegates to a deputy minister and whether his deputy supports the proposals or not, the minister is held personally accountable to Cabinet, government, Parliament and the Canadian electorate. "Ministers therefore must be able to assure themselves that actions carried out under their authority are in accordance with the requirements of the responsible exercise of power." In the chain of command the minister is ultimately responsible for the actions of his support staff including his deputy minister. The deputy minister is accountable, but, it is the office of the minister that undergoes the public scrutiny if a conflict ensues or a policy fails.

The Public Servants

Then the question becomes, who holds the real political power? The answer is simple, the public servants. These servants are responsible for the implementation of departmental policies and are held directly accountable to only a small number political members. They are the ones who determine who will get what limited government resources and how governmental policy will be implemented which will have an effect on future governmental policy. In order to make public servants accountable authority must be exercised over them by those higher in the chain of command. The difficulty arises when it comes time to assign individual responsibility to public servants for administrative mishaps because of the fact that so many public servants are involved in the decision making process. Public services have continued to grow in size as with this increased growth so to have their responsibilities grown in complexity. Who are the public servants accountable to?

Public servants are directly accountable only to political and administrative superiors, the courts and to any internal governmental authorities (e.g. central agencies) to which accountability is required by law or the administrative hierarchy. They are not directly accountable to the legislature, to pressure groups, the news media, or to the general public. However, they are generally required to explain their decisions to these entities.

Acts of Parliament is one method of control over public servants. However the problems arises that senior officials have influence over the content of legislation. Formally, the Minister and Cabinet make a policy and Civil Servants are responsible for the implementation of that policy. Although in effect it is the Civil Servants who have an enormous amount of influence over the development and implementation of policy, therefore it would be unthinkable to hold the ministers personally accountable in this sense. This does not by no means implies that a Minister can not be held accountable at all.

Legislative Control

Parliament uses five methods to excise control over the bureaucracy. They are: 'watchdog' agencies; ombudsman (provincially); Public Service Commission of Canada; Auditor General and Parliamentary Committees. This paper will look at the two most common in the public eye: The Office of the Auditor General and Ombudsman.

Watchdog agencies such as the Office of Auditor General assist legislators in the accountability of bureaucrats. In particular the Auditor General keeps track of bureaucratic expenditures to ensure that monies are spend and properly recorded as allocated by Parliament. In addition this person reports on the effectiveness of social programs, environmental and economic polices. It should be noted that the Auditor General is the only person who is allowed to report directly to Parliament without having to go through a Minister. The Auditor General must submit an annual report to Parliament on his findings. Because of the political neutrality of this office, this report is usually welcomed by the media as a detailed assessment of governmental policies. While at the same time it provides the opposition in Parliament much creditable evidence to governmental waste.

Another watchdog agency would be that of the Ombudsman. Although currently this office is only on the Provincial level. The Ombudsman investigates any complaints about improper administrative treatment in the bureaucracy. If a complaint is found to be valid then it is this persons responsibility to inform the bureaucracy of how to correct the situation. It is important to not that an ombudsman does not posses authoritative power over civil servants but rather they 'influences' bureaucrats to make changes.


This paper took a detailed look at accountability in the public sector and political conventions associated with this subject. It has shown the limitations of both collective and individual ministerial responsibility; outlined bureaucratic power; and briefly touched upon legislative control.

A minister is formally held accountable to the actions of their portfolio. But because of ministerial dependancy upon senior civil servants and political conventions that in essence protect the government, this accountability is not more than a moral responsibility. The power of the civil servant is increasing becoming broader as Ministerial portfolios are combined with the modern trend of downsizing cabinet. The influential power of the civil servant is increased as ministers are becoming unspecialized in their portfolios.

The only effective legislative accountability is done through the office of the auditor general. With their annual reports, they give Parliament an insight as to the effectiveness of governmental policies. Although Parliament has no effective way to sanction a Minister or department who's interpretation of governmental policy differs from their own. This is not to say that government is beyond the means of total control. History has proven, and will continue to prove, that in a democratic society such as Canada, that ultimately ministers and Parliament are held accountable in the public eye at the time of elections.


Horn, Murray J. The Political Economy of Public Administration. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Kersell, J.E. Control of Administrative Behavior. Canadian Public Administration. v. 19. 1976.

Law Reform Commission of Canada. Political Control of Independent Administrative Agencies - a study paper, Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada. 1979.

Marshall, Geoffrey. Constitutional Conventions: The Rules and Forms of Political Accountability.Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984.

Marshall, Geoffrey and Graeme C. Moodie. Some Problems of the Constitution. 5th ed. London: Hutchinson University Library, 1971.

Royal Commission on Financial Management and Accountability. Final Report. Hull: Supply and Services Canada 1979.

Siegel, David and Kenneth Kernaghan. Public Administration in Canada. 3rd ed. Toronto: Nelson Canada, 1995.

Sutherland, S. l. Responsible Government and Ministerial Responsibility: Every Reform is its Own Problem. Canadian Journal of Political Science, v. 24 March 1991.

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