Government Accountability or Government Accounting?

Paris amp#45;amp#45; When Nicolas Sarkozy’s government spokesperson announced that each minister’s performance would be assessed according to criteria set by a private auditing firm, he probably did not expect to elicit a fierce response. But he should have. The opposition quickly attacked the move as a “dangerous gimmick” and a “smokescreen.” One pundit asked, “Will the time soon come when ministers are hired by head-hunters?” And a young MP declared that “France cannot be managed like a bolt factory.”

But what is so absurd about establishing standards by which to assess the fulfillment of Sarkozy’s campaign promises? As soon as they were appointed in June 2007, Sarkozy’s ministers were given a clear set of objectives in the form of a letter of intent. Isn’t it normal to create some means of holding ministers accountable?

A culture of “results” has become central to economic modernization in France, so shouldn’t the same be true of French governments, with their entrenched inclination toward passivity and aloofness?  And the issue of setting measurable standards for government operations is not confined to France.  British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has made such quantifiable goals a hallmark of his leadership ever since he was Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Of course, the institutions charged with supervising France’s public sector, such as the Cour des comptes or the Inspection générale des finances , have the skills and capacities that are needed to fulfill their tasks. Moreover, French public policies are subject to a general review procedure. But the culture of a private auditing firm can bring something new by moving beyond a basic review of legality to a general assessment of performance.