Friday, December 15, 2006

Transparency and Accountability Act proclaimed - problem solved

I'll leave it to others as to whether the latest Auditor General's report precipitated the proclamation of the Transparency and Accountability Act or whether it was coming down the pipes anyway.

In any case, it's here now and all our problems are solved.

Actually, not so much. Let me explain.

Back in 2001, one of the initiatives of the Grimes administration was to kick into gear a process for each department and agency to compile and issue annual reports. This had been done in the past (in some departments, very long past) but it was always pretty spotty and not obligatory.

The idea was for each department to establish targets and goals for the next year, review those goals from the previous year and see how they matched up.

So a new process and impetus was put in place. There were many meetings of people responsible in each department, guidelines were established, people were put in charge, formats were approved and so it went.

I was given the responsible for pulling together the first annual report in a long time for the former Department of Human Resources and Employment (HRE). It's now called the Department of Human Resources, Labour and Employment (HRLE, unfortunately pronounced "hurl"*)

This was not the best piece I ever did - then, before or since - but it was very instructive to me in the way that government departments pull together annual reports. It was also an extremely frustrating exercise for me personally and it put me at odds with some in my department.

It took very little time before what should have been a laudable project was hijacked in virtually every department and agency. The conventional wisdom which quickly developed was that annual reports (AR's) had to be great big glossy brochures of everything that was really cool about the department. So instead of acting as a policy or accountability mechanism, the AR's fell squarely into the fluff category.

Instead of clear goals and measurables laid out for the coming year, fuzzy feel-good and meaningless statements were substituted. As for evaluating the actions of the past year, oddly, every department and agency did just great or better.

Why did that happen in spite of best intentions? In hindsight, I can think of two main reasons.

First, the AR process was grafted onto the top of the departmental policy mechanisms as an afterthought instead of being an integral part of them. The AR was simply not taken seriously by the line department senior bureaucrats as a useful tool to improve departmental operations or functions.

There were serious about producing them, make no mistake, but how meaningful they should be was a subject of much internal debate.

Second, the AR concept broke every unwritten bureaucratic rule in place - it set clear targets for the future, measured past successes by objective means and generally revealed information that departments and agencies preferred not to be quite that forthcoming about except at the point of a gun.

That was then. How about now?

If you take a look at the Transparency and Accountability Act, you will see pages and pages of requirements for departments and agencies to produce more volume of paper than we've ever seen before - business plans, activity plans, strategic plans, forecasts and annual reports.

But how meaningful, in practice, will any of these mandated documents be? When was the last time anybody rushed out to get one of these things? And when you do take the time to plough through one of these documents, what relationship do they have with reality?

It only takes a few minutes to check out a few of them to figure out the answer - not much.

In the end the release of information has much more to do with the political and bureaucratic culture than the passage or proclamation of legislation. And it's pretty clear that no piece of legislation, proclaimed or not, will ever have much impact on departmental, political and bureaucratic cultures and that is largely the root of the problem, before and now.

Politicians and bureaucrats have to want to release information as a basic principle, they have to want to establish rational planning processes and stick by them, they have to want to avoid the easy political shortcuts, they have to want to own up to mistakes and miscues and they have to want to put longterm public policy for the province ahead of their own short-term interests.

And more than just wanting those things, they have to carry out their public responsibilities with those goals in mind every single day.

That's what makes for true accountability and transparency.


This might be a good time to tell a funny story:

During my tenure in the department, I attended a meeting of senior bureaucrats discussing possible alternative names for Income Support (welfare to the initiated). The wanted to "rebrand" the program to escape some of the baggage it carried.

I was a little late getting there and the idea that was gaining some traction as I walked in was "Supplemental Financial Assistance". This was viewed in the room as a name that accurately described the program as a non-judgmental and supportive form of help to those who really needed it.

I was appalled. I pointed out that it would take all of 10 seconds into the announcement before the program was popularly rebranded as S.F.A. (Sweet Fuck All).

The idea was quickly canned. Yet another reason why bureaucrats should not make communications/marketing decisions.

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