Canadians Share Accountability Concerns With the Developing World

07/11/2011 11:40 EDT | Updated 09/10/2011 05:12 EDT

Forty experts from 22 countries gathered at the United Nations International Centre in Vienna last week to discuss why citizen engagement is the next step in promoting transparent and accountable government.

Although I have worked on engagement for years, I left with a new perspective on why Canadians must press for engagement -- and why our governments will be tempted to resist. Accountability makes governments nervous and public engagement will raise the bar to a new level. Let me explain.

Consider how government financial audits work. There are clear rules about how governments can and can't spend money so that each step in the process can be scrutinized by an auditor. The auditor's report shows whether expenditures conform to the rules and thus are legitimate. Let's call this rules-based accountability.

Rules-based accountability is as old as governments and forms the foundation of our system of accountability. In the last few decades, however, this has begun to change. We now realize that, while this system has been quite successful at controlling corruption, such as graft, favouritism or kickbacks, it does very little to ensure that public funds are used wisely. Expenditures can comply with all the rules, yet still be unnecessary, stupid or wasteful.

The problem is that corruption is only one part of what we want governments to be accountable for when they spend our money. The other part concerns what they achieved with the money. For example, did it help reduce poverty, increase employment or improve public health? We can call this accountability for outcomes.

Today, governments around the world agree that accountability requires information on both the process and the outcomes. Our discussion in Vienna took this a step further. We saw that these two forms of accountability often conflict.

On one hand, too many rules or the wrong rules can prevent us from achieving outcomes. That's what so often frustrates us about bureaucracy. The outcome gets lost in a preoccupation with rules.

On the other hand, as we see from the recent subprime mortgage crisis, too few rules can result in horrible outcomes. Officials start doing or allowing bad practices to achieve a good goal. That's how we got Enron.

So accountability not only requires information on rules and outcomes, it also requires clarity on where the balance between them lies. As things stand, the task of articulating this balance falls to governments. What I learned in Vienna is that this is like leaving the fox in charge of the henhouse.

According to the experts, when practices like graft, patronage or excessive secrecy are entrenched, officials usually do not see them as wrong. They are viewed as part of the system. In much of the developing world, for example, officials believe that bribes are necessary to make the system work. If bribes were simply stopped, they say, the system would grind to a halt. In this view, bribery may not be the perfect solution, but at least it gets things done.

Hearing this gave me pause. I thought how many times I've heard parliamentarians and senior bureaucrats in Canada defend patronage or secrecy in similar terms. The system is not perfect, they say, but it works and these practices are essential to it.

The big lesson from Vienna is that practices like patronage and secrecy derive their legitimacy from the grey zone between rules and outcomes. As long as this relationship is unclear, officials can defend such practices by making vague appeals to outcomes to justify the lack of rules. Thus, patronage and secrecy are defended as a means to the end of effective governance.

This is nonsense. Patronage could be eliminated tomorrow by creating clear, accountable bodies to review and make appointments on merit. As for secrecy, there is every reason to believe many now highly secretive processes could be made public without compromising government effectiveness one iota. The budgeting process is a case in point.

This is where public engagement comes in. There is growing evidence that involving the public in such discussions leads to positive change. They have little patience with self-serving arguments designed to preserve the status quo. Given the chance, citizens quickly opt for processes and solutions that will make government more transparent, accountable and fair, thus reducing the grey zone between rules and outcomes.

In Vienna we heard stories from countries like Nigeria, Mexico and the Philippines, whose problems with corruption make Canadian concerns over patronage or secrecy pale by comparison. They are at a very different stage in the evolution of their governments. Nevertheless, it was heartening to find that we all agreed that the task of improving governance can no longer fall to governments alone. The public has a critical role to play. The challenge now is to engage them.