At the time this article was published
Aideen Nicholson was MP and Chair of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts
House of Commons
During the thirty-third Parliament the
Public Accounts Committee undertook a vigorous program of hearings and reports.
After examining the management of public funds by several large and complex
departments including Public Works and National Defence, it was decided, in the
spirit of reform suggested by the McGrath Committee, to review and evaluate our
methods of operation. To this end the Committee travelled to Washington in
September 1985 and to London in February 1986. We observed and discussed the
practices and procedures of our American and British counterparts.
The Washington visit centred on the
activities of the Government Operations Committee of the House of
Representatives. This Committee is charged with overview responsibilities for
departments and agencies which carry out the programs of the Executive Branch.
We observed the Intergovernmental Relations and Human Resources Subcommittee
and members of our Committee met with the Chairman of the main Committee.
Another important aspect of the Washington visit was the opportunity to meet
with the Comptroller General and gain an appreciation of the workings of his
office, the General Accounting Office, and its relationship with Congress.
The United Kingdom visit focused on the
procedures and practices of the British Public Accounts Committee. With its
long tradition and finely developed working relationship with the civil
service, the United Kingdom Committee was a source of important insights. Of
particular interest were the workings of the National Audit Office which is the
organization supporting the British Comptroller and Auditor General, and the
manner it interacts with the Public Accounts Committee. Canadian members were
fully briefed on the operations of the NAO and its roles and responsibilities
in the British system.
Upon review and discussion of the findings
of these two visits, the Committee has decided upon a number of specific
measures to revise and improve its procedures and practices. For example, one
important feature of the American committee system is the reliance on
subcommittees as the primary vehicle for legislative and oversight activities.
Small groups of legislators become particularly knowledgeable about a given
subject area. This enhances their effectiveness in the conduct of inquiries.
Functioning through subcommittees, a committee is able to deal with more than
one subject at a time. In addition, the subcommittee is a flexible instrument,
subject to varying degrees of control by the main committee.
These characteristics of subcommittees in
the Congress flexibility, enhanced scope of inquiry and additional expertise of
members suggest that the expanded use of subcommittees may be appropriate in
the context of the Canadian Public Accounts Committee. In the past, the
Committee has made limited use of subcommittees, Based on its review of
American experience, we decided to develop subcommittees as a forum for
in-depth planning of our future program. In conjunction with the tabling of the
1986 Annual Report of the Auditor General, the Committee foresees the
establishment of two or more subcommittees to examine major subject areas.
Members of these subcommittees will acquire more thorough knowledge of the
subject matter of priority areas in the Auditor General's report and act as
resource persons for hearings carried on by the main committee. We anticipate these
subcommittees will be continuing assignments, focusing on the planning and
conduct of public meetings but also remaining in existence after the report has
been completed to oversee follow-up action in response to the Committee's
The Public Accounts Committee has long
recognized the importance of sound preparation for public meetings.
We wish to maintain and develop our
procedures in this regard. Accordingly, the Committee will proceed as follows:
In the weeks leading up to the public meetings, the staff will compile
documents and draft briefing notes based upon analysis of the subject matter
and discussions with prospective witnesses. This material will then be
assembled in the form of a briefing book, including the opening statements of
the principal witnesses. Briefing books will normally be distributed to members
on the Thursday of the week before the first public meeting on a particular
subject so that members will have an opportunity to review the material over
A briefing meeting will be held the day
before the first meeting. In presenting the briefing to members committee staff
will be assisted by the staff from the Office of the Auditor General where the
subject deals with his report. Permanent committee staff will be supplemented
by additional expert staff where this is required. In conjunction with the
subcommittee procedure mentioned earlier, the Committee, in the course of the
briefing meeting, will designate individual members to play a leading role in
the questioning of witnesses.
Among the many noteworthy practices of the
British Public Accounts Committee is the well-developed system of planning
future business with the National Audit Office. A detailed planning document is
submitted to the Committee and the program is set out one year in advance based
on the schedule of reports being produced and, on occasion, requests by the
Committee. In reviewing these planning procedures, the Canadian committee has
decided to develop further its own procedures in this area. In future, the
Committee will meet with the Auditor General at six month intervals and will
endeavour to plan its program on this basis. One of these semi-annual planning
sessions will coincide with the tabling of the Auditor General's annual report.
With the assistance of the Auditor General and his staff, the Committee will
rank the subjects in his annual report and lay out a program of future
business. the Committee will also consider items from the Public Accounts of
Canada and, from time to time, request the Auditor General to undertake special
studies or inquiries. Should the Auditor General's Act be amended to allow him
to table reports on a completion date basis, the Committee expects that the
semi-annual planning sessions would serve to set the agenda for the tabling of
Another aspect of the British Committee's
proceedings noted by our Committee was the degree of preparation and
co-ordination evident in the quality of the responses from civil servants. It
was clear that officials were well-briefed. Moreover, responses from each
department were channelled through one or two designated senior officials. The
British Committee therefore received evidence from a small number of
well-briefed, high-ranking officials. This approach commended itself to the
Canadian Committee. Too often, in the Canadian experience, testimony from
officials has not been well co-ordinated and it has not been clear who was
accountable to whom for what. In future the Committee will impress upon
government departments, agencies and Crown corporations appearing before it the
importance of responsible representation and an improvement in the quality of
witnesses' preparation. The staff of the Committee will convey these
expectations to all prospective witnesses.
The Committee observed that its British
counterpart tended to receive concise replies from witnesses. It is a matter of
concern to the Committee that witnesses sometimes respond at greater length
than is called for as though hoping to "talk out" a point rather than
deal squarely with it. The Committee will endeavour to more closely control
such behaviour in the future.
Parliamentary scrutiny of the economy,
efficiency and effectiveness of public spending is recognized as an important
function in both the American Congress and the British House of Commons. The
Government Operations committee is a sought-after assignment among the many
committees of the House of Representatives. Similarly, the British Public
Accounts Committee has an authoritative voice in the overview of government
expenditures, based on a tradition of respect for the Committee and its views.
In light of British and American practice, the Canadian Committee will
endeavour to create a greater awareness of its activities among other
parliamentarians and the general public.
Under the doctrine of ministerial
responsibility a minister is answerable to Parliament for policy while public
servants are responsible for the implementation and administration of programs.
It is not the intention of the Public Accounts Committee to determine the
rights and wrongs of policy but rather to ensure that programs are implemented
with due regard for economy, efficiency and effectiveness. The Committee will
attempt to hold officials accountable for their administrative responsibilities
and for the accuracy and completeness of the advice that they give to
Defining responsibility and accountability
as between a Minister and officials is far from easy. A Minister may choose,
for public policy reasons, a course of action that costs more than other
available options and the choice may be not only defensible but wise and
appropriate even, occasionally, brilliant.
Ministers will expect to be called on to justify
political decisions as such. But a Minister should be able to rely on receiving
from officials sound economic analysis at every stage of decision-making.
Cost cannot be the only criterion in
government decisions but the Government should know that a program will cost
before it is launched and costs should be monitored all through the life of a
In Canada, as in any democracy, control of
the public purse is the exclusive prerogative of parliament. While ministers
introduce budgets and plan expenditures, the cabinet may neither collect nor
spend taxpayer's money without the express approval of parliament and must
account to the House of Commons for its handling of the monies entrusted to it.
Tax payers world-wide now tend to regard
government spending as wasteful, not related to the voters' wishes and not
respectful of the fact that citizens work hard for the money that they pay in
This attitude helps breed cynicism and goes
against the traditional Canadian belief in a mixed economy and in using the
fruits of economic prosperity to increase equality of opportunity for the
disadvantaged in our society.
The more parliament can show that government
programs are being delivered with due regard to economy and effectiveness, the
more ready our citizens will be to support these programs, believing that they
are getting value for their tax dollars. As Sonja Sinclair said in her history
of the Office of the Auditor General, 'democracy may be in greater danger from
internal collapse than from external enemies. Its survival in the long run may
depend on its ability to regenerate itself, to prove that accountability and
the supremacy of parliament are not just words mouthed by politicians, but part
of the reality of government."
Among the measures which the Committee
proposes to adopt are press conferences to accompany the tabling of major
reports and enhanced communication with other committees and individual Members
of Parliament to get the message across". Although the Canadian political
system differs from the American one in that fewer powers reside in committees,
we will seek opportunities to communicate with the members of other committees,
as is done in the United States, to ensure that the Public Accounts Committee's
concerns about departments and agencies are brought to their attention. In the
same way, the Chairman, Vice-Chairman and Members of the Committee will consult
with their colleagues in the House to ensure that the Committee's views are
In view of the expanded mandate of Standing
Committees resulting from recommendations of the McGrath Committee and the
likelihood that certain of the Auditor General's findings will be of interest
to these committees, it must be stressed that all reports of the Auditor
General to the House of Commons are automatically and permanently referred to
the Public Accounts Committee. For his part, the Auditor General has agreed to
inform the Committee on a regular basis of any significant communication and/or
involvement with other committees of the House.
One aspect of the relationship between the
British Public Accounts Committee and the civil service is the role of a senior
official in the Treasury department who acts as a co-ordinator of the
government response to the Committee. This official consults with departmental
officials prior to meetings and develops the official government reply to
Committee reports. He is also present at all public meetings. While not seeking
to duplicate the British approach, the Canadian Committee considers the
continuity and co-ordination provided by such a central agency official to be a
valuable resource that should be further developed in the Canadian context.
Accordingly, the Committee requested the Office of the Comptroller General to
assign a senior officer, at the Deputy Comptroller General level, to attend all
Committee meetings and co-ordinate the involvement of government departments
and agencies in the Committee's hearing process.
Our goal should be to arrive at a situation
where everyone in public life – whether Member 6f Parliament or public servant
– feels a sense of personal responsibility for the economical, efficient and
effective management of public funds and resources.
If we can create a system which enhances
personal responsibility, we will have made a contribution not only to good
financial management but to the protection and promotion of democracy.