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Wednesday, 1 April 2015

How do we open the "black box" of civil service accountability?

By Mark D. Jarvis





The accountability of civil service executives, mid-level managers and professionals has been a “black box”. My new research is trying to close this gap in our knowledge by building an empirical understanding of how, and for what, individual executive, managerial and working-level civil servants are held to account, comparing Canada, Australia and the Netherlands.


First three myths that should be dispelled:

Myth #1: The accountability of civil servants doesn’t matter. 

Reality: It does. Civil servants at all levels of government exercise substantial authority and often have a significant impact on how policies are developed, taxes are spent and services are delivered.

Myth #2: Civil servants aren’t held to account. 

Reality: They are. In addition to ongoing informal accountability, nearly all civil servants are subject to at least an annual performance review.

Myth #3: Civil servants don’t get fired, so there is no real accountability. 

Reality: False. Civil servants do, at times, get fired. More importantly, accountability isn’t just about what happens 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.


Now, three things that you should know about the accountability of civil servants:

1. Civil service accountability can serve a number of different objectives or purposes. Among the most important – and the four this research examined – are democratic control; assurance; learning; and, results.

2. While there is evidence that civil service accountability practices in all three countries focus on all four of these purposes, there is also evidence that accountability practices could be strengthened with regards to each, especially learning and results.

3. The results also suggest there is some tension between different purposes of accountability (e.g., the emphasis on achieving results at times inhibits accountability mechanisms from stimulating greater learning).


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should be thoughtful about what ends we expect accountability to serve, especially as technology mitigates increasingly outdated accountability concerns.

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.

1 comment:

  1. We can’t judge the accountability of civil servants like this only. We have to indulge in each particular matter to discuss these things. There are many government rules and regulations which are applied to all the civil servants. No one escape from it. They have to stick to their core businesses. Also they have the authority of giving views or raising voice against any corrupt officials. However, they are not exposed to any political agendas by persons or any means. They are isolated from taking any kind of decisions according to the country’s law.
    Civil Service Coaching

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