“Put down the bloody musket,
it’s not a duck, but an idea”
- Percy Adams
« Pour savoir qu’on n’est pas intelligent,
il faudrait l’être »
- Georges Brassens
Karl Popper used to say that the only alibi for a lecture is to provoke some critical thinking, to ensure that unstated assumptions are unmasked and challenged, that ideas in good currency are questioned, and that shallow concepts are deconstructed. Yet the danger in engineering such provocations is always that the persons one wants to provoke into engaging in such discussions are often quite reluctant to do so. They know that such challenges are not innocent: the critical discussions thus generated acquire a dynamic of their own – undermining some fundamental assumptions, debunking canonical concepts, slaughtering some sacred cows, and forcing one to reconsider some foundational beliefs. None of this is very pleasant though it might be important.
As a result, there is a tendency for those very persons, who have the most to contribute to the discussion, to close their ears and minds, to refuse discussion, and to dismiss the questions raised as sheer calumny. Consequently, unfounded assumptions, popular ideas and weasel concepts often remain unchallenged.
This paper suggests that there is an urgent need to critically discuss the notion of accountability in the public sector. It puts forward the view that accountability as it is now conceived and used is unintelligent accountability, and proposes some avenues that would appear to be worth exploring to develop more intelligent forms of accountability.
It is argued that in the same way that 9/11 has spawned a “security mania” that has had awful unintended consequences on civil liberties, the sponsorship affair and its carnivalization by Justice Gomery have triggered an “accountability mania” that is in danger of inflicting much damage on the fabric of Canadian society. Even though it may not be possible in either case to fully theorize these situations, there is an urgent need to contextualize them, and to propose alternatives to what can be regarded as third-best policy choices.
Wishing these realities away or denying the existence of their unintended consequences offers little in the way of improvement. Discussing them holds some promise.
This paper is based on some experience of one observer of the Canadian scene from the mezzanine in the national capital. It may call for flats and sharps, and the remedies proposed may not be optimal. Readers are invited to reflect on what sort of experiments might be called for if the ones proposed here are not seen as either wise or useful.
In his book, La contre-démocratie, Pierre Rosanvallon suggests that modern democracies, like Canada, have entered an age of mistrust. A greater surveillance of officials, an emphasis on resisting, vetoing and sabotaging their actions, and a great deal of adjudication and judicialization to modulate state action have swept across modern Western societies in the last few decades. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms may be regarded both as part of this process, and as something that has given it a harder edge in Canada than elsewhere (Rosanvallon, 2006).