One of the three roles that Members fulfill is to act as overseers of government
activity. In the Westminster parliamentary system, and more particularly
at the National Assembly of Quebec, Members have numerous means at their
disposal to carry out this function. Some enter into play in the Assembly
Chamber (for example, during question period and debates upon adjournment),
but most are reserved for the proceedings of parliamentary committees.
That is the case, for example, with the surveillance of public bodies,
the annual consideration of the budgetary estimates, and the hearing of
the Auditor General. All parliamentary committees participate in these
exercises in parliamentary oversight, but at the National Assembly there
is one committee that specializes in oversight and control: the Committee
on Public Administration. This article looks at the history of the committee
and its operating procedures. It also shows how the work of this committee
represents, from many points of view, an original and innovative experience.
Most parliaments based on the Westminster model confer a central mandate
of parliamentary oversight on a public accounts committee whose essential
role is to ensure that ministries and public agencies make good use of
the appropriations that Members vote them1.
Quebec had such a committee as early as 1867. After some 40 years of regular
activity the Public Accounts Committee fell inactive for a number of years
before Maurice Duplessis, the then Leader of the Official Opposition, availed
himself of it to hound the Liberal administration and precipitate the election
of 1936. As Premier, Duplessis pursued the inquiries he had previously
begun into the use of public funds until 1939. Under the ensuing Godbout
Liberal government, then under Duplessiss long Unionist reign, this committee
officially still existed, but failed to meet even a single time. Only
in 1963 did it resume activity.
In 1969 the Assembly created a new parliamentary committee, the Committee
on Financial Commitments. This committee was responsible for verifying
the financial commitments, i.e. expenditures that had been authorized but
not yet made. Its purpose was to exercise financial oversight progressively
as decisions on the use of public funds were being taken. This function
was unique in the Westminster parliamentary community; even today Quebec
remains exceptional in this regard. Its effect was, however, to relegate
the Public Accounts Committee to a secondary role.
A further event of significance in the field of parliamentary oversight
took place in 1970, when the Auditor General of Quebec was brought under
the direct authority of the National Assembly and his duties were limited
to audits following payment. His role would ultimately prove indispensable
in verifying the adherence to accounting conventions, the regularity of
expenditures, and the efficaciousness of government management.
A reorganization of the parliamentary committees in 1972 abolished the
Public Accounts Committee together with its responsibility for examining
the accounts and overseeing the use of public moneys. One standing committee
was nevertheless given jurisdiction over the fields of finance, public
accounts, and revenue2. Its duties included hearing the Auditor General
each year on the subject of his annual report.
A parliamentary reform undertaken in 1984 did away with the Committee on
Finance and Public Accounts. It entrusted the task of examining the evolution
of the budget and public finance to the Committee on the Budget and Administration
and that of hearing the Auditor General to the Committee on the National
Assembly. In 1987, however, the Committee on the Budget and Administration,
at the initiative of its then chairman, Jean-Guy Lemieux, obtained by delegation
the responsibility for hearing the Auditor General each year. It was only
with the passage of the Act respecting the reduction of personnel in public
bodies and the accountability of deputy ministers and chief executive officers
of public bodies3 in 1993 that parliamentary committees were able to summon
senior public servants before them in order to examine their management
when the Auditor Generals report cited it. The responsibility for this
exercise was allocated among the sectoral committees according to their
respective fields of competence. The same was true of the responsibility
for verifying the financial commitments.
The idea of conferring a horizontal jurisdiction over the examination of
government management subsequently came to the fore again and led to the
creation of the Committee on Public Administration, on an experimental
basis, on April 10, 1997. This committee was made permanent five months
later through amendments to the Standing Orders of the National Assembly.
It would henceforth fall to the Committee on Public Administration to
hear the Auditor General concerning his annual report and, in the presence
of the deputy ministers and the chief executive officers of public bodies,
to examine the various matters raised in this report. The Committee on
Public Finance, which had replaced the Committee on the Budget and Administration,
nonetheless retained the responsibility for examining the governments
budgetary policy and the public accounts.
Moreover, the Public Administration Act, passed in 2000, created new mechanisms
for accountability within the framework of a results-based management policy.
As we shall see later, the Committee on Public Administration has an important
role to play in this area, since it is the committee competent for hearing
deputy ministers and chief executive officers of public bodies regarding
Terms of Reference
The Standing Orders of the National Assembly attribute three main functions
to the Committee on Public Administration beyond the Assemblys power to
refer any matter to it for its consideration.
Verification of the ministries financial commitments
In 1997 the responsibility for verifying the financial commitments was
once again given to a single specialized committee, the newly created Committee
on Public Administration. Traditionally a sitting held to verify financial
commitments always took place in the ministers presence. After preliminary
remarks the Committee generally examined the commitments in chronological
order while questioning the minister. Parliamentarians declared commitments
verified as the examination of the lists for each month was completed.
In March 2004, however, in an effort to clear its backlog and make this
exercise more efficient, the committee substantially revised its operating
procedures and working tools. The committee now regularly holds a deliberative
meeting to examine recent financial commitments. It thereafter sends its
requests for supplementary information to the ministries concerned in writing.
The hearing of a minister is not excluded from the verification process,
but the committee will resort to it only if the information obtained is
insufficient or if the situation warrants a hearing (for example, if the
committees questions are quite numerous).
Hearing of the Auditor General on his annual report to the National Assembly
The hearing of the Auditor General on his annual report is in a sense the
fundamental reason for which the Committee on Public Administration was
created. Indeed, it was to ensure that the Auditor General would have
the opportunity to present to parliamentarians the contents of his annual
report to the National Assembly that this task was given to a specialized
committee. Moreover, under the Act respecting the accountability of deputy
ministers and chief executive officers of public bodies the Committee on
Public Administration is free both to examine the chapters of the annual
report in greater depth and to hold hearings for the questioning of deputy
ministers and chief executive officers on their management.
The committee also examines the Auditor Generals own annual management
report and verifies his financial commitments every year. This exercise
allows it to discuss the manner in which the Auditor General is carrying
out his own mandate, the difficulties he is encountering, and the use he
is making of the resources given to him. As an example, during the 36th
Legislature the members of the committee were able to debate the legislative
amendments to the Auditor Generals terms of reference and set forth their
conclusions on this subject5.
Hearing of deputy ministers and chief executive officers of public bodies
to discuss their management
The introduction of the principle of direct accountability to parliamentarians
by deputy ministers and chief executive officers of public bodies regarding
their management can be traced back to the Act respecting the reduction
of personnel in public bodies and the accountability of deputy ministers
and chief executive officers of public bodies, passed in June 1993. The
provisions concerning accountability remained unchanged when the act was
amended in 1995 to become the Act respecting the accountability of deputy
ministers and chief executive officers of public bodies. The act provides
in essence that the competent parliamentary committee of the National Assembly
must hear the deputy minister or the chief executive officer of a public
body at least once each year to discuss his management or any other matter
that may have been noted in a report from the Auditor General or the Public
The Public Administration Act, passed in 2000, confirmed the principle
of accountability, clarified its purpose, and broadened its scope6. Thus,
in March 2004 a total of 79 ministries and other public bodies were subject
to the provisions of the act relating, in particular, to accountability
to parliamentarians. The discussions held in committee may concern the
declaration of services to the citizenry, the results obtained in relation
to the administrative aspects of the strategic plan or the annual expense-management
plan, and any other matter of an administrative nature that may have been
cited in a report from the Auditor General or the Public Protector. The
act provides for the hearing of all deputy ministers and chief executive
officers of public bodies at least once each year.
In reality, since its creation the Committee on Public Administration has
planned its proceedings as a function of the publication of the two volumes
of the annual report from the Auditor General of Quebec. The release of
each volume is followed by deliberative and public meetings on the various
subjects raised in the report. However, with regard to examining the documents
and results prepared as required under the Public Administration Act, as
we shall see later, the committee has only recently begun to take up these
From the very first experiences with the application of the Act respecting
the accountability of deputy ministers and chief executive officers of
public bodies the Committee on the Budget and Administration, and later
the Committee on Public Administration, adopted a nonpartisan approach
to dealing with administrative questions.
To encourage such an approach as much as possible in the conduct of its
business, the members of the committee7 concentrate essentially on the
examination of management rather than on political choices or their relevancy.
They have often stressed this climate of cooperation and mentioned its
usefulness for executing their mandate of parliamentary oversight in a
Furthermore, both the physical arrangement of the room in which the Committee
on Public Administration meets and the relatively flexible way in which
the debates are organized, particularly with respect to alternation and
speaking times, confer a personality on this committee that distinguishes
it from the other parliamentary committees9. Finally, the committee enjoys
considerable autonomy in the choice of the matters it examines. Indeed,
the Assembly generally makes no orders of reference to it at all, even
though the Standing Orders do provide for such a possibility.
As members of a parliamentary committee that may be likened to a public
accounts committee, the chairman and the deputy chairman of the Committee
on Public Administration take part as a matter of course in the annual
assembly of the Canadian Council of Public Accounts Committees. The council
brings together the public accounts committees from all the provinces of
Canada as well as that from the House of Commons. Its goals are to facilitate
the exchange of information and opinions regarding the work of these committees,
to improve their performance, to render their collaboration with legislative
auditors more efficacious, and to inform elected Members, the press, and
the public at large of the functions and activities of public accounts
Accomplishments and Challenges
It is not easy to measure the impact that the Committee on Public Administration
has had. In any such endeavour one must identify the parameter on which
the evaluation is to be based. Does one wish to look at the impacts of
the committee, for example, on the quality of government management, on
the Members oversight activities, or on the perceptions held by the population?
An evaluation of that kind would require a systematic effort of information
gathering and analysis that has yet to be made. Nevertheless, we can draw
certain conclusions from the committees initial years of activity.
It is evident, first of all, that the activities of the Committee on Public
Administration have increased the impact of the Auditor Generals annual
report. This tendency had already begun in the mid-1990s with the Committee
on the Budget and Administration. The tabling of the Auditor Generals
annual report in the Assembly receives particular attention from the media,
especially since a press conference is subsequently held to present it.
In the past that often was the only time this report received any visibility.
The work of the Committee on Public Administration allows this interest
to be sustained beyond the reports initial presentation. Indeed, the
committee relies on the matters cited by the Auditor General throughout
its hearings and calls upon his services in order to prepare itself properly
to exercise its role as an overseer of government activity. Furthermore,
its hearings are public, and journalists routinely cover the debates that
take place before it. Besides giving heightened visibility to the work
of the Auditor General, the committees activities obviously make it possible
to analyse the report in greater depth both in preparatory deliberative
meetings and in public meetings.
It is interesting to note as well that the ministries and agencies under
examination have often taken the opportunity afforded by the hearings of
the Committee on Public Administration to make public an action plan intended
to respond to the deficiencies cited by the Auditor General. The unveiling
of these action plans at that precise moment must be seen as more than
a mere coincidence. The committees activities have surely helped to further
induce managers to adopt corrective measures in response to the Auditor
Generals recommendations. In the same spirit the recommendations contained
in the committees semi-annual reports accentuate the pressure on the ministries
and agencies in question.
The impact on the oversight function is clear. The Committee on Public
Administration serves as a pre-eminent venue in which deputy ministers
and chief executive officers of public agencies can be held to account.
Of course, the sectoral parliamentary committees can also carry out exercises
in accountability; but they are able to devote only a limited amount of
time to such exercises, owing to the other matters that are before them,
in particular the consideration of bills. A specialized committee such
as that on public administration thus has an unmistakable impact on the
time that parliamentarians can devote to the oversight function.
What is more, the ministries and other public bodies themselves do not
merely suffer the accountability exercises that take place before the Committee
on Public Administration; they also benefit from them. Appearing before
the committee allows organisations to take stock of their programs and
explain them fully to Members. It also offers them the opportunity to
publicize the organisations success stories, thus rounding out the overview
furnished by the Auditor General. Moreover, the ministry or public body
may find objective allies within the committee to defend its actions and
improve its services.
Finally, parliamentarians themselves also gain from the committees work.
It obviously gives them an opportunity to learn in more detail about the
operation of various organizations and programs by looking beyond strictly
political questions. Furthermore, this forum for dialogue opens the way
to future contacts between Members and the minister or the administration.
The information that Members acquire during the committees proceedings
can also prove useful to them in other facets of their work, in particular
when considering legislation. One of the more important achievements of
the Committee on Public Administration, which has contributed mightily
to establishing its credibility, has surely been to have maintained an
emphasis on management throughout its debates. Members have always accepted
the discipline of avoiding discussions on the political aspects of the
matters discussed, even if the boundary between administrative and political
questions is sometimes tenuous.
The eight years during which the Committee on Public Administration has
existed are sufficiently rich in experience to allow us to draw certain
conclusions regarding the challenges it faces.
One of the irritants in the organization of the committees business concerns
the difficulty in planning sittings within the framework of overall parliamentary
activity. According to the National Assemblys Standing Order 146, an
order of reference to a committee from the Assembly has precedence over
other business. As a result, exercises in accountability by the Committee
on Public Administration are apt to be cancelled or postponed whenever
a scheduling conflict arises with business having precedence in other committees.
In fact, given the constraints imposed by the Standing Orders, postponements
and cancellations have been a frequent occurrence in the committees history,
and sometimes vexatious to its members. That is why the committee has
preferred to meet, to the extent possible, between the Assemblys sessional
periods. The challenge for the Committee on Public Administration nevertheless
remains to reserve sufficient time for itself in order to be able to fulfill
its mandate. Certain amendments that are being sought to the Standing
Orders of the National Assembly to meet the requirements of the Public
Administration Act might satisfy this need.
Another major challenge for the committee is to carry its efforts in the
field of accountability, in particular in analyzing the Auditor Generals
annual report, through to completion by ensuring a better follow-up to
its work. During its first years of existence the committee has concentrated
above all on making full use of the Auditor Generals analyses. It has
regularly thought wise to include recommendations destined for the ministries
and public bodies in its semi-annual reports on accountability. It was
indeed a priority that these first steps in the field of accountability
be taken. Now that the committee has firmly established its activity in
this field, however, it would be appropriate for it to take the further
step of following up more closely on the matters it has considered. From
such an exercise the committee could draw useful conclusions both for the
orientation of its proceedings and the formulation of its recommendations.
Furthermore, the committee ought to give more regular consideration to
the follow-ups that the Auditor General himself undertakes several years
after completing audits into the optimization of resources.
The main short-term challenge is unquestionably to ensure the full implementation
of the obligations contained in the Public Administration Act. Section
29 of this act entrusts parliamentarians with an important responsibility:
It is before the competent committee of the National Assembly that deputy
ministers and chief executive officers of public bodies must account for
the results obtained in relation to their strategic-planning objectives,
their annual expense-management plan, and their declaration of services
to the citizenry. Pursuant to this act approximately 80 annual reports
on management are tabled in the National Assembly each year. The first
of these were tabled in 2002, but it was only in the fall of 2003 that
the examination of these reports was begun, still on an experimental basis,
by the Committee on Public Administration. Useful conclusions emerged
from these experiences. Further action needs to be taken, however, in
order that this parliamentary exercise may be carried out in the most complete
and efficacious way possible. A large proportion of the changes necessary
to that end fall under the authority either of the National Assembly, through
amendments to its Standing Orders, or that of the government, through amendments
to the Public Administration Act.
A fourth challenge concerns the examination of the Auditor Generals annual
report. Since its creation the Committee on Public Administration has
always oriented itself toward covering the Auditor Generals annual report
in its entirety insofar as it was possible to do so. However, one facet
of this report has thus far remained unexamined. It is the report on the
audit of the consolidated financial statements of the government of Quebec.
The committee nevertheless took a first step in this direction in February
2004 and March 2005 through deliberative meetings with the Auditor Generals
staff to peruse his comments on the audit of the financial statements.
Parliamentarians could eventually go further by holding public hearings
on these financial statements. In this particular case, however, the jurisdiction
of the Committee on Public Administration overlaps to a certain extent
that of the Committee on Public Finance.
The final challenge confronting the Committee on Public Administration
concerns the exercise of its guiding role in relation to the other parliamentary
committees. This role relates first of all to the committees activities
in the field of accountability. In order to create or maintain momentum
regarding results-based management in the public administration, the committee
must contribute to a sharing by all committees of a common approach to
these proceedings. This approach must be centred on the examination of
management and on the rigorous analysis of performance indicators. The
committees guiding role also means that a certain number of practices
relating to parliamentary oversight (a nonpartisan approach, the holding
of deliberative meetings before and after hearings, and the tabling of
a unanimous report including recommendations) must also be shared.
The Committee on Public Administration reveals itself clearly as the heir
to certain forms of parliamentary oversight that had been exercised by
its predecessors, in particular the Public Accounts Committee and the Committee
on the Budget and Administration. One may therefore state that the Committee
on Public Administration is in historical continuity with the practice
of parliamentary oversight at the National Assembly.
On the other hand, the committee distinguishes itself through the innovations
it has brought to the execution of its mandates. Thus, it systematically
uses all the means at its disposal to perform its duty to hear deputy ministers
and the chief executive officers of public bodies regarding their administrative
management. It draws heavily upon the Auditor Generals annual report,
it enlists the latters aid in preparing its sittings, it mobilizes National
Assembly research staff, and it communicates its conclusions and recommendations
in a public report. The committee has also adopted a rigorous and nonpartisan
approach to its proceedings. In so doing it safeguards its credibility
and its cohesion while perpetuating its young tradition. Another sign
of innovation is that it has succeeded in revising its way of dealing with
the verification of the financial commitments.
Without question, an impressive evolution has taken place in parliamentary
oversight at the National Assembly during the past ten years. The Committee
on Public Administration has certainly been at the centre of these changes;
it has also been a marvellous school for Members in their function as overseers
of the public administration. The challenges that lie ahead remain, however,
as formidable as the progress already achieved. The committee must, in
particular, continue to play a central role in furthering the implementation
of results-based management in the Quebec public administration.
1. The main points of this chronology of the public accounts committee
at the National Assembly are drawn from the following work: Jean Brien
Desrochers, La commission parlementaire des comptes publics, Un retour
à lAssemblée nationale ?, Bulletin de la Bibliothèque de lAssemblée nationale,
vol. 25, no. 1, April 1996, pp. 15-20.
2. The Standing Committee on Revenue was created in 1978. The Committee
on Finance and Public Accounts remained in existence.
3. Statutes of Quebec, 1993, chapter 35, An Act respecting the reduction
of personnel in public bodies and the accountability of deputy ministers
and chief executive officers of public bodies. This act was sponsored
by a Member from the government party, Henri-François Gautrin.
4. National Assembly, Committee on Public Administration, Guide des membres,
5. Committee on Public Administration, Huitième rapport sur limputabilité
des sous-ministres et des dirigeants dorganismes publics, Chapitre 1
Révision du mandat législatif du Vérificateur général du Québec, December
2001, pp. 7-14.
6. Revised Statutes of Quebec, Public Administration Act, chapter A-6.01,
7. The committee is made up of ten permanent members. Others may join
in the proceedings either as substitutes for permanent members or as temporary
members. As is the case of public accounts committees in other Canadian
provinces and in the federal government, the Committee on Public Administration
is always chaired by a Member from the Official Opposition, while the vice-chairmanship
is assumed by a Member from the governing party.
8. One thing that is important and that has been mentioned by all those
who have discussed this report is its nonpartisan approach. I think it
is really one committee that brings together all ideas and wants to work
by consensus. And [...] everyone works in the interest of the citizens,
and I think that is perhaps an attractive feature of our committee [...].
Speech (in translation) by Mr. Pierre Marsan, Member for Robert-Baldwin
and Vice-Chairman of the Committee on Public Administration. National
Assembly, Journal des débats, March 10, 2004.
9. Following the example of the Committee on Public Administration, other
committees are also seeking to adopt a more flexible approach to certain
exercises in parliamentary oversight.
10. Website of the Canadian Council of Public Accounts Committees.
11. Geoffrey Kelly, Le rôle des parlementaires après une reddition de comptes,
Notes for a speech by the Chairman of the Committee on Public Administration,
October 30, 2002.
12. These illustrations of the positive impacts of the Committee on Public
Administration are drawn from a speech given by the Deputy Minister of
Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food at a colloquium organized by the École
nationale dadministration publique in 1999. Observatoire de ladministration
publique de lÉNAP, Des administrateurs publics imputables ? Bilan, comparaison
et prospectives, Actes du colloque du 15 avril 1999.
13. Two proposals for parliamentary reform tabled in the National Assembly
in the spring of 2004, one by the Speaker, the other by the Government
House Leader, seek to take up this challenge. It is proposed, among other
things, to increase the number of committees authorized to meet at any
14. Committee on Public Administration, Onzième rapport sur limputabilité
des sous-ministres et des dirigeants dorganismes publics, Annexe 1 Les
projets pilotes de reddition de comptes en vertu de la Loi sur ladministration
publique, December 2003, pp. 1-12.