The Pleasures ans Sorrows of Civil Service Accountability

Civil Servants have significant influence on the lives of the individuals they govern. Yet we have little knowledge as to how Civil Servants themselves are governed. 

Mark Jarvis has been conducting research to understand how civil servants are held to account. Whilst there is a lot being done well, Jarvis identifies ways in which civil service accountability could be improved and suggests there is room for improvement in the way we think about accountability.

Bolstering accountability among civil servants has been at the centre of public governance reform efforts for well beyond the past decade. Yet, when we think about accountability in government, we tend to focus on the big headlines — scandals, resignations, scathing auditor-general reports and maybe even dodgy election tactics. The accountability of civil service executives, mid-level managers and professionals has been a "black box”.

These civil servants at all levels of government exercise substantial discretion and authority, and often have a significant impact on the lives of individuals. They influence how policies are developed, taxes are spent and services are delivered (e.g., advising elected officials on policy decisions; approving or denying citizenship applications; applying laws or regulations).

A critical gap in our knowledge has been the lack of an empirical understanding of actual accountability practices, especially below the level of deputy ministers. New research has addressed this gap by examining how, and for what, individual executive, managerial and working-level public servants are held to account. In doing so it compares Canada, Australia and the Netherlands, highlighting consistencies and variations in participants’ perceptions.

An obvious question for most readers at this point will be: Why compare Canada, Australia and the Netherlands? Australia and Canada are longstanding points of comparison given their shared histories as British colonies. The Netherlands may be less obvious. The three countries are similar enough to not be ‘too’ disparate, (e.g., each is a parliamentary democracy that rests on the principle of responsible government; each relies on a non-partisan, professional civil service), but the Netherlands adds a key, differentiating characteristic: the country’s political culture.

Where Canada and Australia are seen as democracies operating based on the principle of majority rule, the Netherlands is seen as operating based on a consensus-decision making approach to the legislative process.  

What is the purpose of civil service accountability?

Ultimately, accountability isn't just about what happens to one or another civil servant when things go wrong — although that’s obviously important — it's also about whether day-to-day accountability practices within the civil service meet desired objectives.

While there are a number of different purposes that civil service accountability can serve, among the most important and the four that this research examined are:

  • democratic control – ensuring that while civil servants should "fearlessly advise", they also "faithfully deliver" what the Minister decides (as long as it isn't illegal) to preserve democratic accountability for matters like spending or policy decisions;
  • assurance – ensuring that decisions and behaviours align with laws, regulations and other social norms;
  • learning – ensuring continuous improvement in the quality of the work of civil servants; and,
  • results – ensuring desired policy and program objectives are achieved.

Comparing Canada to Australia and the Netherlands, we can get a sense of how well accountability works for each of these objectives. There is evidence of all four purposes of accountability in all three jurisdictions. There is also evidence that suggests there are important distinctions across the three jurisdictions with different points of emphasis across and within the four purposes of accountability (e.g., participants in the Netherlands perceive greater accountability emphasis on social norms like how they treat their colleagues).

That said, generally, respect for democratic control and dedication to acting in accordance with laws, regulations and other norms is pretty consistent among all three countries. Civil servants look upon the idea of being held to account for democratic control and assurance as a matter of routine. In part this is due to the extent to which the principles of democratic control and acting in accordance with the rules are embedded in civil service culture. In part this is also due to how much technological tools (e.g., online meeting agendas that allow monitoring of who meets with whom; IT monitoring and controls over spending on contracts) simplify holding individuals to account.

There is less evidence that the Netherlands, Australia and Canada have developed a civil service culture that encourages acknowledging and learning from mistakes to deliver better performance through accountability. Where officials in all three countries described this occurring, it was almost always associated with a particular individual, rather than with the department’s culture or the civil service as a whole. In this sense, accountability practices are not helping us to improve the performance of civil servants as much as they could be.

All three jurisdictions share some challenges with using their respective accountability systems to drive a focus on results (e.g., the degree that accountability for results is reduced to superficial assessments of ‘results’ and highly subjective judgments). Nevertheless, Australia has been more successful at developing a systematic and robust approach to results-based accountability, making sure that accountability for outputs and outcomes cascade down from departments through bureaucratic hierarchies to individuals deemed responsible for their achievement.

The results also suggest that there is some tension between the various purposes of accountability. A number of interview participants suggested that the tension between efforts to develop an open learning culture and the emphasis on achieving results inhibits accountability mechanisms from stimulating more learning. There is also some tension in how results and assurance are weighed in assessing performance.

Finally, there is room for evolution in how we think about the purposes of accountability. How we think about, define and emphasize the different purposes of accountability has a practical implication for how we expect civil servants to do their jobs. We should be thoughtful about what ends we expect accountability to serve, especially as technological and other changes mitigate what are increasingly perceived to be outdated accountability concerns and as other priorities emerge (e.g., accountability for political responsiveness).

Mark D. Jarvis is the Practice Lead for Government Transformation at the Mowat Centre. His book, Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government, co-authored with Lori Turnbull and the late Peter Aucoin, was awarded both the Donner and Smiley book prizes.