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Research Highlights


January 31, 2019
The PAC Perspective – Insights from Our Recent Survey of Public Accounts Committee Members and Clerks

Public Accounts Committees (PACs) hold the government to account for how tax money is spent. To effectively carry out this role, a PAC should both operate under a supportive institutional structure and strive to continually improve its practices. This idea underpins the good practices identified in the recently published Canadian Audit and Accountability Foundation (CAAF) guide Accountability in Action: Good Practices for Effective PACs. The good practices in this guide are the culmination of years of research by CAAF into what makes PACs effective, and how they can take steps to improve their effectiveness, regardless of the environment in which they operate and the resources they have.

To better understand how effective PACs in Canada are, CAAF carried out two surveys in 2018 of PAC clerks and members in all 14 federal/provincial/territorial jurisdictions in Canada. We received responses to the clerks’ survey from all 14 PACs and responses to the members’ survey from approximately one quarter of all PAC members. This article shares some preliminary results, which we hope will spur discussion on how PACs can take further steps to become more effective in a few key areas. These results were some of the most striking from the survey, and also formed the basis for a presentation delivered at the joint annual conference of the Canadian Council of Public Accounts Committees and the Canadian Council of Legislative Auditors in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, on 24 September 2018. A full survey report will summarize all of the findings.

Communication with Stakeholders

Citizens care about how their tax dollars are spent. The PAC’s role in improving the administration of public money can help the public better understand how government manages finances and can help improve accountability. To increase the public’s understanding of the PAC’s role and its activities, the PAC should have an established method to communicate with stakeholders. This could include:

  1. having a formal communications plan and
  2. getting its message directly to the media through news releases and in-person briefings.

Key findings from the surveys

Public Accounts Committee (PAC) Communications

These survey results suggest that there are varying degrees of formalization in PAC communications activities across Canada.

How can PACs improve communication?

  1. Establish a communications plan that includes outreach to other legislators, committee witnesses, the public, the comptroller, Treasury Board, the legislative auditor, non-government organizations, academics, and the media.
  2. Draft news releases on their work. Typically drafted by support staff, these should be non-partisan in their language and content.
  3. Be prepared to brief the media when requested. To facilitate this, a protocol should be in place that designates an official spokesperson for the committee, typically the committee chair.

Cross-Party Collaboration

Public money has no party. The PAC cannot effectively ensure governments are good stewards of public resources when members are trying to score political points during committee meetings. To foster cross-party collaboration, PACs should try to find consensus or unanimity in their decisions and recommendations.

What does partisanship look like?

  • Government members using their majority on the committee to block motions.
  • Calling only favourable witnesses.
  • Lobbing “softball questions” to witnesses.
  • Opposition parties using the committee as a platform for “gotcha” style politics or scoring political points.

Key findings from the members’ survey

Responses suggested that members may underestimate the impact of partisanship. When asked about partisanship issues, 12% of PAC members felt it was their role to advance their party’s policies. These respondents showed a partisan perspective to their work on the committee.

When PAC members were asked whether they felt their PAC was hampered by partisanship, more than half agreed that it was. What is most telling is that when asked to identify barriers they saw to their committee’s effectiveness, 75% of members raised issues related to partisanship on the committee as hindering their effectiveness. Likewise, when members were asked to provide comments on whether their PAC has appropriate powers to fulfill its mandate, two thirds of commenters volunteered that partisanship inhibited their effectiveness.

Conversely, when PAC members were asked to identify factors that contribute to them being effective, many used language such as “a constructive cross-party approach” or putting forward a “united effort.”

How can PACs improve cross-party collaboration?

  1. Avoid having ministers as members, or witnesses, of the committee.
  2. Agree on principles for speaking order and timing during hearings.
  3. Seek consensus in decisions, reports, and recommendations.
  4. Remind themselves that their committee is uniquely positioned to strengthen public administration.
  5. Bring a constructive attitude to their statements and questions by keeping the end goal of improved public administration in mind.

Reporting and Follow-up

Without follow-up there is no accountability. Follow-up provides an incentive for departments to implement recommendations and if they do not, they must justify their inaction to the PAC. Without follow-up, it is very difficult for a PAC to track its impact. A follow-up process is essential for improving financial management and the oversight of public money.

Key findings from the clerks’ survey

PAC Reporting and Follow-up

While all PACs have the power to issue substantive reports, a number of them do not. Those that do not carry out this practice attribute this to a lack of resources. Most surprisingly, only 38% of PACs are requesting action plans from departments to support their follow-up process.

How can PACs improve reporting and follow-up?

  1. Complete substantive reports that contain details on audit findings and recommendations.
  2. Identify any departmental actions to address recommendations, and include information on follow-up activities the PAC has planned.
  3. Compile their own recommendations to complement those of the auditors.
  4. Request detailed action plans from departments, including status updates on the implementation of recommendations.
  5. Hold follow-up hearings when necessary to better understand any inaction if departments are not able to implement their action plan.

Although some of these recommended good practices for reporting and follow-up require resources that not all committees have, requesting action plans from departments only needs a minor committment from departments and provides significant insight into how audit recommendations are being implemented.

A Final Word

These survey findings give us a picture of the state of PACs in Canada and provide the beginnings of a potential roadmap to improved effectiveness. We will share additional insights in a full survey report. You can learn more about our research into how PACs can improve or sustain their effectiveness in Accountability in Action: Good Practices for Effective PACs.


Author

James Oulton, Governance and Research Officer, CAAF. You can send your questions and comments on this article to the author at joulton@caaf-fcar.ca.