Restoring Trust and Integrity in Our Institutions

Article excerpt

Improvements in transparency, participation and accountability are urged to regain trust and confidence in the public and private sector institutions that "make Canada the best place in the world to live." Speech as co-host of the Public Policy Forum 16th annual testimonial dinner, Toronto, April 10, 2003.

In 1997, the Public Policy Forum was established as a neutral venue where representatives of the public and private sectors could meet to learn and share ideas. Sixteen years later, the founding group of eight has grown to more than 150 sponsoring members, who play a key role in examining how public policy is developed in Canada.

The Public Policy Forum is unusual -- perhaps unique -- in that it does not seek to promote any specific view on policy issues. The Public Policy Forum is not focused on outcomes. Instead, it is focused on the idea that good policy -- good governance -- comes from the quality of the processes, and people, that drive policy development.

In this time of seriously diminished public trust in our institutions, this focus on the integrity of the processes and the people that manage them is more important than ever. And this is true whether we are speaking of private sector institutions -- the corporations and businesses that drive economic prosperity -- or public sector institutions -- the governments and agencies that serve the social needs and well-being of our citizens.

Why has the public's trust diminished? Many observers suggest the root cause lie in leadership placing too much emphasis on short-term results. As the CEO of a large corporation in Canada's most capital-intensive industry, I know only too well that the stock market's demand for immediate results is difficult to reconcile with long-term vision. But when critical decisions are based solely on near-term horizons, it's more than just poor management. It's an abuse of the trust shareholders place in corporate leaders to generate value in the long term.

The sometimes myopic focus on the short term is also an issue for our public institutions -- institutions in which all Canadians are shareholders. Our elected officials and senior policy makers often seem too focused on the next opinion poll or the next headline, instead of focusing on meeting Canada's needs for the next year or the next generation. When considering issues of critical importance to Canada, our public leaders must do a better job of understanding the long-term impact of their decisions. To regain public trust and confidence, they must construct balanced policies that truly serve Canada's future, not just political expediency.

We can't legislate the need for long-term vision. But we can guide our institutions toward that goal by joining the Public Policy Forum in focusing attention on the inputs that will get us there. I would like -- briefly -- to suggest three areas where we can work to make improvements: transparency, participation and accountability.

In terms of transparency, integrity, like justice, must not just exist -- it must be seen to exist. For the leaders of corporate Canada this means we must ensure investors have confidence in our governance practices and reporting. We can do that by pursuing best practices in corporate disclosure -- by explaining our business and operating results in a timely fashion and in language written for shareholders, not lawyers and accountants. …