The myth of accountability

Guest Editorial; Troy Media columnist Robert Gerst - myth of accountability

Everybody is all for accountability. Especially for everyone else. The public demands it of politicians. Corporate leaders demand it of their employees. Regulators demand it of those they regulate. But few, it seems, want it for themselves.

Take the news coming out of the Senate. A special audit has concluded that Senator Pamela Wallin cheated on her expense claims to the tune of more than $100,000. The senator disagrees with the findings but has promised to pay back every penny anyway. Good for her. There’s nothing like getting caught red-handed (can you say that about a Conservative Senator?) to produce a sudden urge for honesty, if only temporarily.

That’s the trouble with audits of course. The only crime they punish is the crime of getting caught. There’s much other senators can learn from this. Almost all of it concerns how to keep from getting caught themselves. Fortunately for the news media and the rest of us in the audience; senators, parliamentarians, and corporate executives, are notoriously poor learners.

And fortunately for those that get caught, the penalties are low enough not to worry about. As Wallin stated in a speech in Regina a couple of years ago, “Wrongdoers too frequently go unpunished . . . “.

Which leads us to Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne’s announcement that Alberta Health Services will be unable to recover improper expenses claims made by former Capital Health vice-president Michele Lahey, who billed over $7,000 for a trip to the Mayo Clinic, and former chief financial officer Allaudin Merali, who billed $350,000 in expense claims for, among many other things, butler services and repairs to his Mercedes. A government contracted legal opinion determined the monies could not be recovered because the events were over two years old.

Maybe things will change. They say the Pamela Wallin file has been turned over to the RCMP. Perhaps AHS should turn over its expense records to the RCMP as well. There’s no two year limitations on criminal charges, is there?

What Canadians can actually expect from all this is the usual puffery and promises to fix things in the name of accountability. Existing guidelines, rules, processes, policies, programs and procedures will be updated to keep this sort of thing from ever happening again. These will be added to the last set of updates that were made to accomplish to the same thing, which were added to the previous set of updates to . . . Well, you get the point.

None of these fixes will help because, despite what auditors and lawyers say, ethics has nothing to do with following the rules. It’s doing what you think is right, not what you think you can get away with. The problem isn’t with the rules. It’s with the players we have out in the field.

That’s because real accountability comes from within. It can’t be imposed from the outside or inspected in. You either get it, or you don’t.

When I was working for government, we used to say there were two kinds of employees; those working to serve the public and those working to serve themselves. Sure, I wanted money, advancement and recognition like everyone else. But we understood who was paying the freight and no one had to tell us we couldn’t charge butler services or trips to the Mayo clinic to our expense account.  It may not seem like it, but there’s plenty of honest people just like that working in the public service right now. I’ll bet they’re frustrated. Frustrated because the people in it for themselves keep finding their way to the top, while the new burdensome rules and regulations will be applied ruthlessly, to everyone else.

Courtesy of Troy Media Robert Gerst is a Partner in Charge of Operational Excellence and Research & Statistical Methods at Converge Consulting Group Inc.