Responsibility in the Constitution

VIII The Principles of Accountability

Accountability in the system derives directly from the responsibility of ministers. Ministers answer before Parliament and are challenged to defend the way in which they or their officials have exercised the power that is made legitimate by their constitutional responsibility as ministers. Parliament expects and requires that ministers be responsible, and enjoys ready access to ministers for the purpose of holding them answerable. Deputy ministers derive almost all of their authority from ministers. They are loyal to their ministers and are required actively to support and participate in the policy and administrative decisions taken by ministers individually and collectively. Put simply, deputy ministers are responsible to ministers.1

This paper has traced the line of authority flowing from the Crown and the way in which power has been harnessed to the requirements of a representative system of government. Henry Parris has summarized the history that has made the concentration of responsibility in the hands of ministers the bedrock of parliamentary government.

If the advice of the Crown originated with a permanent official, what was the proper course for opponents of that policy to take? To attack the minister would miss the target. If, on the other hand, they attacked the official, they would not be able to get rid of him, because of his permanent status. The difficulty was eventually resolved by an extension of the doctrine of ministerial responsibility. In extreme cases, ministers resigned while officials stayed on. Maitland pointed out that "royal immunity coupled with ministerial responsibility". Lowell turned the coin over to read the inscription on the other side: "The permanent official, like the King, can do no wrong."2

But, of course, just as the Crown must act on "advice", so officials must subordinate themselves to ministers, and these are the considerations that create and fasten on ministers their constitutional responsibility.

It is, however, a matter of observation that government is a large enterprise. It is not a modern phenomenon that ministers cannot know everything that is done under their authority; the phenomenon is merely more acute today than it was 200 years ago, and not prima facie proof of the irrelevance of ministerial responsibility. Ministers spend much of their time providing information to Parliament, indicating a need for the minister's ability to answer and provide information to be shared without, however, sharing his or her responsibility. Parliament has recognized this need, and, without prejudicing its right to hold the minister responsible, it has increasingly accepted that officials should answer for matters that at first glance at least are unlikely to involve the House's confidence in the ministers. This development is best observed in the practices that have grown up in Parliament's standing committees.

The essential principles of accountability are, therefore, that power flows from the Crown and is exercised by ministers who are responsible to Parliament. Officials advise ministers and they are accountable to ministers. The accountability of ministers to Parliament may, however, be divided into those matters that directly involve or in the course of debate come to involve the House's confidence in ministers, and those which do not or are unlikely to involve that confidence. The distinction having been drawn, and bearing in mind the importance of ensuring that ministers can effectively hold officials accountable, it is noteworthy that current practice indicates that parliamentary committees play (or have the potential to play) a significant role in holding officials accountable before them, thereby assisting ministers to ensure sound management of the public service and making more effective the direct and formal accountability of officials to ministers.

Parliamentary committees may play a role in the accountability of deputy ministers, but it is the responsibility of ministers to ensure that deputies, who are their agents, are accountable to ministers. When all is said and done, the fact is that in our system ministers are elected to decide whereas officials are appointed to administer and advise. The accountability of deputies should reflect harmoniously the relationships with Prime Minister, minister, and ministry that devolve upon deputies by virtue of their responsibilities to support the individual and collective responsibilities of ministers.

Accountability depends upon systematic means of assessing performance. In this, a distinction should be drawn between the roles of deputies as policy advisers and as administrators. The assessment of the deputy's policy role is essentially a matter of subjective judgement and an appreciation of his or her success in fulfilling any previously stated specific policy goals. Assessment for administration is, however, more amenable to objective evaluation based on the deputy's success in the application of management standards and other relatively objective criteria. In this, deputies should be given an adequate voice in the establishment and operation of the centrally prescribed management practices and procedures, which govern the use of the resources that are essential to the fulfillment of the policy and program objectives of the government.

Deputies should understand (and wherever possible participate in determining) the criteria according to which they will be judged and held accountable. This is particularly true in the formulation and management of programs and the administration of their departments. It is also important in the area of policy development and the setting of policy objectives, where deputies must ensure that they have taken advantage of their opportunity to explain their views and set out any administrative or other constraints that may hinder the fulfillment of particular objectives. Deputies should not be held accountable on a piecemeal basis. Management and finance are integral to policy, and although the deputy's performance in these areas initially may be assessed separately, conclusions and career decisions must be determined on an overall basis. The performance of deputies should be assessed as objectively as possible, and their accountability should depend on the judgement of those to whom they are responsible (the minister and Prime Minister) based on the best specific expert assessments that can be provided.


Accountability that takes account of these considerations depends on an understanding by Parliament, ministers, the public service, and above all by deputies and central agencies of the complex role played by the deputy in reinforcing the constitutional responsibilities borne individually and collectively by ministers. The accountability of deputies, based on the constitutional responsibility of their ministers, sharpened by the convention of collective responsibility, made more effective by their administrative answerability before Parliament, must be rendered to those from whom they hold their appointment, to whom they are responsible, and who will determine their future.

  1. Pickersgill has noted "... while bureaucrats should not be partisan, they do not have the right to be neutral between government and opposition. Public servants owe loyal service to the government in office whether they like its politics or not. Governments are put in office by the electors, and public servants have no right to sabotage or even to obstruct the decision of the voters. For the best public servants it is not enough to avoid obstructing the political will of the minister and the government. The best of them will try to contribute to the limit of their abilities to the formulation, amelioration, and implementation of new policies or changes in policy of the government of the day, since the government, not the public service, is answerable to the legislature and the public"; "Bureaucrats and Politicians", pp. 426-427. Lord Armstrong, when he was head of the British home civil service, echoed similar views on the link between loyalty and responsibility in testimony to a select committee of the House of Commons: "The impartiality of the civil service lies in its loyal support to the particular party which happens to be in power and the impartiality does not extend to impartiality between the Government on the one hand and the Opposition on the other." See Maurice Wright, "The Professional Conduct of Civil Servants", Public Administration spring, 1973, pp.1-15. On the desirability of permanent and relatively anonymous senior officials, see Sir William Armstrong, "The Role and Character of the Civil Service" published for the British Academy, (Oxford, 1970) pp.13-16.
  2. Parris, Constitutional Bureaucracy, pp. 104-105.