Responsibility in the Constitution


Since the Second World War, the Government of Canada and its associated Crown enterprises have played an increasingly significant role in the lives of Canadians. The growing demands of the citizenry and the response by its government have had far-reaching effects on the way in which our society recognizes and responds to particular problems. The program innovations introduced by government during the forties and fifties significantly increased the scope of government, and as its scope has continued to expand so has its size. Government has taken on an activist function in the creation of policy, and has institutionalized elaborate policy-making structures to support the function. During the last twenty years a new style of public service has evolved both to staff the policy-making structures and to administer the complex programs that they produce. A distinct species of policy "co-ordinators" and others concerned with interdepartmental relations has been developed. New structures have grown up to help to channel the flow of initiatives; and more change has occurred in the way the government orders its machinery for getting things done, and in the variety and pervasiveness of the programs it delivers, than in any comparable period in our administrative and social history.

Ten years ago a number of steps were taken in an attempt to modernize government so that it might cope with its rapidly changing and always more onerous burdens. Apart from major structural changes, such as the establishment of a separate minister in charge of the Treasury Board and the elaboration of the Treasury Board's central management role, a major effort was made to bring order to the process of government. Borrowing from the disciplines of science and technology, government endeavoured to introduce procedures built upon systems theory for organizing the flow of business, measuring productivity, and determining the value of its activities. It was an article of faith, evangelized by some and subscribed to by many, that structure and process held the keys to the solution of complex problems.

A decade has elapsed during which this theory has been applied in such diverse areas as the budgetary process, the role and use of the cabinet, the elaboration of a professional planning establishment, and the development of institutionalized mechanisms for "horizontal" coordination. Each has had a degree of success, but not all have fulfilled the expectations attendant at their creation, and some have induced unforeseen side-effects. On the whole, however, given the scope and size of governmental operations, orderly process has been beneficial in smoothing the passage of complex problems and proposals. But looking back it is apparent that process can also obscure the identification and resolution of problems, and that applied indiscriminately or mechanically it is inefficacious.

Important changes have also taken place in the basic institutions of parliamentary and cabinet government. The complexity and size of government, the development of modern communications, and the organized involvement of the community in political action have made it more difficult for Parliament to remain the central focus of national affairs. Ministers have found their burden increasingly heavy, the search for solutions more time-consuming, and the process of resolution more difficult to relate to political concerns. Similarly, not only has the composition of the public service changed, but, because of the complexity of the process, public servants have found it increasingly difficult to relate their particular functions to those of the government as a whole.

It is now more than thirty years since the current role played by government began to take hold of the federal establishment. As we enter its fourth decade, it is apparent that the problems caused by size and complexity will not recede. It is also clear that although a more scientific method sometimes helps both in problem solving and in organization, system piled upon system tends to make complexity more complex. The constitutional responsibility that lies at the heart of parliamentary government is, however, elemental. If understood and applied sensibly, it should ensure not only that our governmental institutions are representative but that they can cope adequately with the changing needs of society.

Canadians live in a political democracy. Government is representative in character. It is, therefore, human, and must respond to the differing views and needs of the electorate, organized and unorganized, in all parts of the country. System and logic cannot always provide the most appropriate response by government to those whom it serves, and we have learned that the complex rationality of government differs significantly from the precise rationality of systems analysis.

The most important aspect of our government is that it is representative. Indeed, parliamentary and cabinet government is a system of representative and therefore responsible government. Looking back over all that has happened to government and society since the war, and more particularly during the last twenty years, it is apparent that our efforts to make government better able to meet the needs of society have not always been made with a clear understanding of the principles for the responsible use of power that underpin all of our constitutional arrangements. We have elaborated programs to meet perceived needs and internal management systems to control the consequent increase in governmental activity. Unfortunately, the combined effect of all these changes has militated against the clear exercise of constitutional responsibility, and has to a degree diffused both the beneficial value of power and accountability for its use. It is ironic that in consequence the system is widely perceived to be unresponsive, and although power continues to be exercised responsibly, there is concern that it is held in check not by the principles of responsibility but by the complexity of bureaucratic process.

This paper has three objectives: first, it seeks to peel away the layers of complexity and expose the essentials of parliamentary government as a system for controlling the exercise of the power of the state; second, it describes the constitutional system within which ministerial government operates and in relation to which solutions to particular discontents should be sought; third, it explains the nature of the personal responsibility and accountability of ministers and senior public servants, and the importance of their accountability to the successful functioning of parliamentary government.

The Privy Council Office
August, 1977