Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Accountability in a Collectivized Environment: From Glassco to Digital Public Administration

Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Accountability in a Collectivized Environment: From Glassco to Digital Public Administration

Article excerpt

The political accountability of administrative institutions is one of the foundations of Canadian democracy. It is embedded in the principles and practice of ministerial responsibility, a basic component of the Westminster model of responsible governance. Ministerial responsibility has both an individual and a collective dimension: the work of government is organized vertically, built on discrete ministerial portfolios and departments, and high-level decision making is structured horizontally around Cabinet and its supporting central agencies. This duality is a feature of all versions of the Westminster model (Rhodes, Wanna and Weller 2009); it is particularly marked in the Canadian federal government, building on the organizational advice of the 1962 Royal Commission on Government Organization (the Glassco Commission).

Since then, responsibility has been subject to both decentralizing and centralizing forces. The ideas associated with the New Public Management and, later, the recommendations of the Gomery Commission, as reflected in the Harper government's Federal Accountability Act 2006, have tipped the balance towards individual responsibility of ministers and accountability of their officials. At the same time, collective responsibility has been given renewed practical significance by the growing centrality of information and communications technologies (ICTs) in public administration and new models of electronic governance, reinforced by fiscal pressures.

Against the backdrop of the 50th anniversary of the Glassco report, this article discusses these developments and reviews some resulting issues. It begins by examining collective responsibility in the Westminster model and its Canadian variant. The Canadian version gives unusually strong institutional weight to the concept of the executive branch of government as a single entity (in Glassco's terms) and, accordingly, to collective responsibility and accountability. Over time, however, the emphasis has shifted towards individual responsibility, especially from an external perspective, and the collective dimension is now generally downplayed. The second section considers the accountability implications of what can be termed the "recollectivization" of public administration, arising from the widespread adoption of networked ICTs and the changes they have brought to the government's organization and relationships. This has renewed the importance of collective institutions and accountability within government.

External political accountability for this evolving administrative environment risks becoming increasingly ineffective, however, for reasons discussed in the third section. These relate to the approaches taken by the prime minister and Parliament; the former by design, the latter by its nature. In raising these issues, the article contributes to a debate that is as old as the institutions of Canadian democracy themselves.

Collective responsibility and the Canadian Westminster model

Collective responsibility and associated accountability mechanisms are integral features of all versions of the Westminster model. While individual ministers are assigned the powers to manage government departments and carry out government programs, major policy and resource allocation decisions are taken by Cabinet. When legislation, budgets or confidence votes are introduced in Parliament, or when there is public controversy, Cabinet solidarity is invoked to support a ministerial colleague or the government as a whole. The ministry is appointed as a group by the Crown, and the government stands or falls together in the House of Commons or before the electorate. Notwithstanding this foundational collective dimension, constitutional practice focuses on the day-to-day responsibility and answerability of ministers individually to Parliament for their own actions and those of their officials. In its most concrete form, departmental spending estimates and public accounts are defended by the responsible minister, and parliamentary questions are directed to them individually. …

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