The Adoption of the Accounting Officer System in Canada: Changing Relationships?

By Jarvis, Mark D. | Canadian Public Administration, December 2009 | Go to article overview
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The Adoption of the Accounting Officer System in Canada: Changing Relationships?


Jarvis, Mark D., Canadian Public Administration


The Parliament of Canada officially adopted the accounting officer regime with passage of the Federal Accountability Act (S.C. 2006, c. 9) on 12 December 2006 and the subsequent amendment of Section 16 of the Financial Administration Act (R.S.C. 1985, c. F-11). Designated as accounting officers, deputy ministers (1) are assigned statutory responsibility for the stewardship of their respective departments. Although the formal adoption of the accounting officer system comes after years of debate as to the utility and appropriateness of the system for Canada, its implementation has continued the controversy. The government and the House of Commons have adopted conflicting views on what, if anything, the new regime means for a deputy minister's personal accountability before or to Parliament.

Strong voices have articulated divergent views of the significance of implementing the accounting officer system. Some have argued that public servants were already being held directly to account, as exemplified in a series of high-profile cases where parliamentary committees have increasingly admonished public servants for their alleged personal roles in particular scandals of the day, and formal adoption merely brings doctrine in line with practice (Aucoin and Jarvis 2005; Aucoin, Smith, and Dinsdale 2004; Franks 2007; Sutherland 1991). At the same time, C.E.S. Franks (2007) is hopeful that formal adoption will mark a shift towards improving executive government accountability for both officials and ministers by aligning accountabilities commensurate with responsibilities. Others, who argue that this reform undermines the doctrine of ministerial responsibility by transforming the accountability relationships encompassed therein, continue their objection to the regime (Ardell et al. 2006; Mitchell 1997). Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the Harper government's position, reversing what the prime minister argued before the 2006 election, reiterates what can be termed the traditional understanding: that formal adoption adds no new responsibilities and no change to the existing accountability relationships--essentially suggesting that nothing has changed, despite the new legislation and amendments to existing legislation (Franks 2007). (2)

The fundamental disagreement as to what the new regime actually means is seen most clearly in the conflict between the government's Accounting Officers: Guidance on Roles, Responsibilities and Appearances before Parliamentary Committees (Canada, Privy Council Office 2007) and the standing committee on public accounts' Protocol for the Appearance of Accounting Officers as Witnesses before the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Canada, Parliament, House of Commons, Standing Committee on Public Accounts 2007; Franks 2007). Moving this debate forward requires focusing on the concrete changes, as articulated in the public account committee's protocol and the Financial Accountability Act (FAA) amendments and considering them within their highly institutionalized contexts. This article assesses the likely impact of the accounting officer regime on four key accountability relationships that are potentially affected by the adoption of this system: the deputy ministers' relationships with Parliament, with departmental public servants, and with ministers, as well as the relationship between ministers and Parliament. The article concludes that while the adoption and enactment of the accounting officer regime in the Canadian context is an important reform likely to help improve accountability by providing greater clarity as to who is accountable for what, it is neither a panacea for "fixing" accountability nor is it likely to result in a radical transformation of the core relationships of democratic governance and public administration in Canada. Although the nature of the effect is not absolute (DiMaggio and Powell 1991; March and Olsen 1984; Moe 1987), formal and informal institutions will shape the practice of the accounting officer regime and constrain the behaviour of accounting officers and other associated actors.

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