Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

The Snakes and Ladders of Accountability: Contradictions between Contracting and Collaboration for Canada's Voluntary Sector

Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

The Snakes and Ladders of Accountability: Contradictions between Contracting and Collaboration for Canada's Voluntary Sector

Article excerpt

In Canada, as elsewhere, the process of governing is in transition from "new public management" (NPM), which relied heavily on contracting-out, market-based policy tools and governmental control, to a model of horizontal "governance," which depends on collaboration with non-governmental actors, a wide variety of policy tools, and works mainly through networks rather than hierarchies. The key to effecting this transition lies in redefining government's relationships with its non-governmental partners and developing appropriate mechanisms for sustaining constructive relationships with them. This is by no means a smooth evolution, and it is in the state's relationship with the voluntary/non-profit sector--which has a greatly expanded role in service delivery but which is often seen to be less than an equal partner--that the vestiges of the old and the innovations of the new models of public administration collide.

Although the Government of Canada did not embrace NPM to the same extent as many other countries, it did expand contracting-out of services and shifted the basis of funding to voluntary organizations from unconditional grants for operations to conditional project-based funding governed by contract-like "contribution agreements." As a policy instrument, contracting necessarily gives government the controlling hand in its relationships with third parties because it sets the terms of contracts and the requirements for performance and has produced under NPM what M. Powers calls an explosion in accountability and auditing. (1) In terms of accountability, Canada went further than most countries under NPM and imposed very stringent approval and reporting requirements on contributions and contracts after the crisis in Human Resources Development Canada in 2000. This accountability regime is a legacy of the older, NPM model of governing.

While it implemented these very restrictive accountability measures over voluntary organizations, the federal government began a five-year collaborative process to enhance its relationship with the voluntary sector. This resulted in "An Accord Between the Government of Canada and the Voluntary Sector," "A Code of Good Practice on Funding" and "A Code of Good Practice on Policy Dialogue," under which both sides made commitments as to how they will interact and work together--in effect, establishing a kind of contract with each other. These "governance contracts" could be seen as a manifestation of the transition to horizontal governance. The federal government is thus trying to do two seemingly contradictory things in its relationship with the voluntary sector: be a collaborator and partner, on the one hand, and hold a tight rein over performance contracting, on the other. Can the two coexist, or does the control exerted by the accountability regime undermine attempts at collaborative relationships? To what extent can the new governance contracts serve as a means of modifying the accountability regime if it is a source of serious tension in the relationship?

This article explores the contradictions inherent in contracting and collaboration. It first examines the impact of the tight federal accountability regime, implemented in 2000, on grants and contributions to voluntary organizations. The effects of these accountability measures have been reported anecdotally by representatives of the voluntary sector but have not been systematically examined. (2) Our study attempts such an investigation. Our analysis is based on intensive interviews with senior staff of twenty-nine voluntary organizations that have received grants or contributions from two major federal granting departments over several years, and with seven public servants (including several program officers) or voluntary-sector leaders who have key governmental responsibilities or sector-wide perspectives on the issues of funding and accountability. (3) To illustrate the magnitude of the costs of accountability borne by voluntary organizations, we present a case study of a national organization in receipt of typical project funding from a federal department, in which the real costs incurred by the organization in meeting the requirements of accountability, beyond what might be considered "normal" costs for a project of around $60,000, are calculated. …

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