Self-reflections and Measuring Effectiveness of Public Accounts Committees from across the Commonwealth

Matthew Hamilton of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK Branch discusses the common challenges faced by Public Accounts Committees across the Commonwealth.

While seen as one of the most influential and established committees in a Westminster system of parliamentary democracy, Public Accounts Committees have been replicated throughout the Commonwealth. Despite their diversity they share a similar idea of what makes a ‘good Public Accounts Committee’ and many face the same challenges from resourcing of inquiries, engaging with stakeholders and maintaining independence from Government notwithstanding different contexts, membership, powers and structures.

Benchmarking Public Accounts Committees

As a key pillar in Parliament’s scrutiny of the executive, Public Accounts Committee core role includes to assess the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of government expenditure. CPA UK works closely with Public Accounts Committees to support financial scrutiny, ensuring members have the technical expertise and knowledge to hold governments to account on behalf of their citizens.

In June 2014, Chairs and Members of Public Accounts and equivalent Committees of Commonwealth parliaments formed the Commonwealth Association of Public Accounts Committees (CAPAC). One of CAPAC’s core functions was to ‘define, publish and promote standards of good practice, in line with Commonwealth principles, to assist CAPAC Member Committees in being effective, transparent and independent’.

A Working Group was established by CAPAC to develop a set of standards of good practice of Public Accounts Committees and their members. The Public Accounts Committee Principles include both criteria to be followed by legislatures in establishing and giving mandates to their committee, as well as standards of good practice to be observed in their regular operations. CPA UK condensed these Principles into nine benchmarks to be used as a self-reflection tool by members and clerks:

  1. A PAC [Public Accounts Committee] should operate independently of government. PACs should have the power to select issues without government direction. The PAC’s independence should be outlined clearly through the provisions of the Standing Orders.
  2. PACs should have an adequate budget to cover their personnel and other operational costs, training and capacity building costs, as well as costs associated with hearings, publication of reports and sourcing external advice.
  3. A PAC needs non-partisan and skilled support staff. At a minimum, a PAC should have a Clerk and research staff.
  4. A PAC should encourage public involvement and media coverage. Committee hearings should be open to the media and the interested public, and any exceptions from this rule need to be reasonably justified.
  5. PAC members should have a common understanding and articulation of the PAC’s mandate, roles and powers. Members should have a good understanding of how PAC powers should be applied.
  6. A PAC shall have access to all records, in whatever form, to be able to scrutinise the Executive and perform the necessary oversight of public spending.
  7. A PAC should have the power to summon persons, papers and records, and this power shall extend to witnesses and evidence from the executive branch, including officials.
  8. PACs should produce a summary report of its overall findings and the extent to which its recommendations have been implemented that should lead to a debate in parliament.
  9. PACs need to ensure that there are robust arrangements in place to follow up their recommendations, including timelines. Such follow up may be carried out by the Supreme Audit Institution and/or the Ministry of Finance/entities concerned. However, where the PAC finds that government bodies have been slow in implementing recommendations then the senior officials of these bodies should be summoned to appear before the Committee to explain themselves.

Thirty nine committees from Pacific, African, Caribbean, European and Asian Commonwealth countries (as well as Hong Kong) have rated themselves against the nine Public Accounts Committee Benchmarks in a survey. The Benchmarks data was further validated at regional Public Accounts Committee Workshops (Africa, Pacific, Asia and Caribbean Regions as well as UK Overseas Territories) where chairs, members and clerks reflected on their own committee, discussed their challenges and shared ideas on how to address them. Some of these workshops were funded by the UK Government through the Commonwealth Partnership for Democracy Programme.

Regional Comparisons (data from Caribbean countries is in the process of being collected)

Public Accounts Committees, on average, see themselves as mostly compliant with the principles except for Principle 2:Adequate Budget, Principle 3:Non-Partisan Staffing levels and Principle 9:Robust Arrangements to follow-up on recommendations. Principle 8: The Power to summon persons, papers and records benchmark, was consistently rated higher than the others.

Overall, Asian PACs rated themselves as the most compliant, while UK Overseas Territories viewed themselves as the least compliant to the Benchmarks. The biggest difference between regions was on Principle 4: Public Involvement and Media Coverage where UK Overseas Territories rated themselves the highest (whereas for the other eight benchmarks they rated themselves the lowest).

Size of Jurisdiction Comparison

The data from the Benchmarks is also grouped by size of jurisdiction (small includes population under 500,000; Medium 500,001-20,000,0000 and Large 20,000,001+).

Overall, Public Accounts Committees from medium-sized jurisdictions felt they were the most compliant in six out of the nine principles. The largest difference when comparing Public Accounts Committees by size of jurisdiction is on staffing support for the committee.  Unsurprisingly larger jurisdictions saw themselves as better resourced than medium and smaller, whereas often in smaller jurisdictions the clerk of the Public Accounts Committee might also be the Auditor General or Clerk of the Parliament. This does not mean, however, that larger jurisdictions do not face budgetary constraints.

Common Challenges

Across the Commonwealth, Public Accounts Committees report similar concerns and challenges in their efforts to improve the effectiveness of their committee’s work.  Most members are not auditors and feel they lack the necessary technical skills to examine government accounts and ask technical questions during inquiry sessions.

Other key challenges stem from their relationship with government.   Public Accounts Committees report they are less satisfied with their government’s response to inquiries than their working relationship with the relevant supreme audit institution. Out of 38 committees, only one felt more satisfied with their government response than their relationship with their supreme audit institution.  Core issues highlighted by members include:

  • Insufficient budget allocations: many parliaments rely on government for funding and lack the resources to run inquiries, recruit appropriate committee support staff, train members and staff and conduct field visits.
  • Limited powers to elicit appropriate responses from governments and this is a key challenge to overcome across the Commonwealth. Common to many are delays, recommendations accepted but not implemented and sometimes no response at all.

In conclusion, this is a snapshot of data gathered from the benchmarking process which puts in place a framework for individual Public Accounts Committees. This enables Public Accounts Committees to continually improve, share approaches to address the challenges they experience and to move closer to the ‘ideal Public Accounts Committee’.

Matthew Hamilton is the Monitoring and Evaluation Manager at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK Branch (CPA UK) which supports and strengthens parliamentary democracy throughout the Commonwealth. Peer to peer learning is central to the way CPA UK works. CPA UK brings together UK and Commonwealth parliamentarians and officials, to share knowledge and learn from each other. We aim to improve parliamentary oversight, scrutiny and representation. CPA UK is located in, and funded by, the UK Parliament.

 

Adapt or Perish. The Social and Material Conditions of the Transformations of the French National Assembly Over the Past Century

Jonathan Chibois of EHESS discusses recent technological innovations in the French National Assembly within the context of longer, historical trends in parliamentary reform. 

The French National Assembly declares that it is experiencing a pivotal moment in its existence. Since the beginning of 2010, the successive presidents of the Assembly have displayed the same ambition to rejuvenate the institution. They indeed have been proclaiming that they intend to respond to the citizens’ dissatisfaction, who feel excluded from state affairs, and deceived by elected representatives, whose motivations do not appear as impartial. The presidents have also insisted on securing the independence of legislative work from the authority of the executive. The beginning of the current legislature in 2017 was marked by strong actions in this regard. Five work groups, bringing together parliamentarians from all sides, were set up to propose the most relevant reforms that should be implemented for the institution, on such central issues as, the status of MPs, the status of their staff, the monitoring and evaluation of public policies, the rights of the opposition, etc.

It should also be noted that this concern for transformation is closely linked to the emergence of digital tools. For instance, an online amendment tabling application was imposed upon MPs to improve the efficiency of the Assembly’s work (2007). Furthermore, to make parliamentary debates more visible, a video on demand (VOD) portal dedicated to parliamentary activities was made available online in 2010. One recent example is in order to promote the voice of citizens, an electronic petitions system is close to being deployed on the Assembly’s website (2020). There are many such examples and they are not original: all these initiatives can also be observed in other parliaments around the world.

As a matter of fact, like its counterparts, the French National Assembly is presently attempting to exploit the opportunities offered by digital tools to reinvent itself, both to solidify the link between the French people and their representatives, as well as to affirm its own place within state institutions. In such a perspective, the Assembly attempts to establish itself as the main guarantor of actual popular sovereignty, according to the original ideals of French democracy.  For this reason, one could indeed consider that the National Assembly might have “come of age”.

Elements of a socio-technical history of the Assembly

However, the results of my doctoral thesis challenge this claim. The current plan to modernize the National Assembly and to give it a new maturity does exist, but this is not the first to do so. It must be viewed with the context of a long series of targeted transformations that the Assembly has experienced throughout its history, since the Revolution. Hence the Assembly has decided that it must always redefine itself and its position. And each time, at least for the most significant of these transformations, it has had to integrate a new communications technology into its operations and procedures to deliver the transformation.

In recent decades, there have been at least three such transformation. One of these dates back to the late 1970s and early 1980s. At that time, absenteeism and non-involvement of MPs were the subject of constant controversies. To address these criticisms, the Assembly decided to invest in aiding MPs in their daily tasks, which it had never done previously, since each MP was expected to meet their own needs. The Assembly therefore expanded its real estate assets to offer them a personal office inside the Palais Bourbon, and allocated each a budget for recruiting a personal assistant. It committed itself to providing them with effective means of communication. For instance, the live coverage of “Questions to the Government” was introduced, following the example of the British Prime Minister’s Questions, so that ministers could be held accountable to the people and their elected representatives. Another example was the introduction of a videotex service, so that  information circulated better from the Palais Bourbon to MPs spread across the country.

Another transformation dates back to the late 1950s, when the current Constitution of the French Republic was drafted and adopted. The context was complex and controversial. Indeed, the previous constitution that France adopted at the end of the Second World War had proved incapable of ensuring stability of power, but on the contrary, deepened the political crisis linked to decolonization and the Algerian War. For this reason, the current constitution enshrines the superiority of executive power over legislative power, which certainly stabilized the balance of power, but forced Parliament to rethink its place and role in French society. It is in this context that, in this same period in the late 1950s, the Assembly replaced the traditional voting procedure by an electronic system. This system required MPs to use a personal key, and therefore be physically present in the Palais Bourbon to cast their votes, the essential prerequisite to fulfil their mission of controlling the government. It was also to counter the executive power that the Assembly opened its doors to television cameras, so as not to let the Government alone benefit from the former state monopoly on television and radio broadcasting.

The key transformation is even further back in time, the last two decades of the 19th century, at the time of the foundation of the Third Republic, which represents a watershed in French parliamentary history. Firstly, it was the moment when the state apparatus formally streamlined and structured itself, as we know it today. And secondly, it marked the introduction of the universal male suffrage for legislative elections, which opened up the Assembly to citizens from all social classes. In this context, the “work of representation” became more professional, turning into a full-time activity that could be carried out, not only by the wealthiest but by anyone. Questions regarding the efficiency and inequality of resources among MPs then arose, which led the Assembly to scrutinize their material and financial work conditions. Notable results were the introduction of a salary for MPs and also the installation of collective telephone devices at the Palais Bourbon. Such communication tools were very popular with MPs of all backgrounds, who found a means to connect their constituencies with Paris.

The transformation of the Assembly, a perpetual movement

During these three transformations (but not just them), the French parliament stood at a crossroads. The pressure exerted by a changing French society led the Assembly to adapt its terms of existence. At the end of the 19th century, French society indeed freed itself from a monarchy that had left little latitude for the legislative power, and Parliament was placed at the centre of the state. At the end of the 1950s, on the contrary, the new constitution significantly weakened legislative power. In the early 1980s, French society then grew increasingly suspicious of the parliamentary institution and tended to challenge its legitimacy to represent the people.

In each of these three transformations, the technical issues turned out to be central to the solution to overcome the crisis. This is mainly due to the positivist ideology that permeated French society, and even more its political staff and the administration of the state. The underlying idea was that political, social or institutional issues had to be solved by technical solutions, in the name of progress, neutrality and efficiency. It is therefore no coincidence that each time the Assembly has experienced an existential crisis, a technical innovation has arisen. Therefore, technical innovations became the favoured solutions.

But let us return to today’s so-called “digital revolution”; my purpose is not to play-down the Assembly’s current transformation. It is simply to point out that, profound as the modernization undertaken by the Assembly may seem, it will never finally solve the problem of its attachment to French society. The motivation underpinning the present-day transformation is just another cycle in a constantly evolving process, driven by the continuous evolution of French society itself. As a result of this process, Parliament must always advocate its legitimacy and protect the extent of its power of action, even though in France the principle of representative democracy is firmly established. Such a situation, as we have seen above, could be initiated by two different situations: on the one hand, the instability of the balance of state power, and, on the other hand, the evolution of citizens’ expectations.

Finally, my doctoral results have caused me to consider this institution from a new perspective. This whole process of transformation shows that the French National Assembly is not, in the long term, a rigid and fixed institution but, fundamentally a flexible and dynamic one. It is an important point, because the democratic ideology as well as the common sense continues to describe this institution as one of the unchanging pillars of our political system.

As a closing thought, I am now wondering about the ambivalence of such a strategy. Whereas the National Assembly’s authorities have always considered the latest communication tools as a means of ensuring the Assembly’s sustainability, it seems that they are perhaps blind to the fact that such tools can be a factor of the instability against which they seek to preserve themselves! Anthropology has indeed taught us that when a new communication technology offers solutions, it also brings about new working practices and processes and therefore, in the long run, new expectations that institutions cannot ignore (the manner in which Twitter has shaken up the parliamentary affairs in France is a good example of this). Might the French National Assembly not be sowing the seeds of its future crises by its totally reliance upon technical innovation? Might it be caught in a logic where ensuring its position as a state institution implies weakening it at the same time?

Jonathan Chibois is a researcher at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS) and an associated researcher at the Interdisciplinary Institute of Contemporary Anthropology (IIAC).

 

The Senate of Canada: Coming of a New Age?

Matt Williams of Jesus College, Oxford provides a fascinating overview of the effects of Trudeau’s reforms in the Canadian Senate.

Abstract

In 2014, Justin Trudeau disbanded the Liberal caucus of Senators in Canada’s upper house. On becoming Prime Minister, in 2015, he appointed independent Senators on recommendations of a non-partisan body. More than half of Senators (58/103 in 2019) are now independents. In this blog, I will assess what observable effects, if any, reform has wrought on the Senate’s representativeness (Pitkin 1967), independent-mindedness (Russell 2001) and “redundancy” (Patterson and Mughan 1999). Statistical analyses of all 16,629 senatorial votes recorded in the 42nd Parliament are presented, along with machine reading data from all 1,611,817 words of enacted legislation. Preliminary evidence suggests that Senators are independent-minded but not transforming legislation, so a new age of Canadian bicameralism is yet to come.

Introduction

In 2014, Justin Trudeau disbanded his party in the Canadian Senate. With the caucus dissolved, incumbent Liberal Senators chose to become independents, or continue as nominal but untethered Liberals. Upon election of the Trudeau Government, an Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments was established in 2016. The Board is responsible for receiving applications from Canadians wishing to fill vacant seats, and makes non-binding recommendations to the Prime Minister. By the close of the 42nd Parliament, in October 2019, more than half of Senators (58/103) were independents. There have been no changes to functions and powers, nor to the public accountability of Senators. The Conservative Party opposed these reforms and campaigned in the 2019 election to revert to partisan appointments.

Has a new age come for the Canadian Senate? There is little basis for concluding as much. The positioning of Liberals and Conservatives relative to the reforms – that it improves or deteriorates respectively – are both overstated. Statistical analyses of all 16,629 senatorial votes recorded in the 42nd Parliament are presented, along with machine reading data from all 1,611,817 words of enacted legislation. Preliminary evidence suggests that Senators are to an extent independent-minded, but are not transforming legislation.

A New Age?

What would constitute a new age? This is conceptually slippery. We would need a baseline “old age” relative to which there is demonstrative novelty. Meg Russell (2001) identified four bicameral functions, in which we can fruitfully hunt for novelties – representing interests not accounted for by the lower house, thinking independently of government, acting on that independent-mindedness, and chipping in to parliamentary work. These are abridged here as – representativeness (Pitkin 1967), independent-mindedness, and a capacity to replicate the legislative work of the House (“redundancy” as per Patterson and Mughan 1999).

The Canadian Senate in the preceding 41st Parliament was marginalised by the Harper Government, who latterly refused to fill vacancies. As such, if the 42nd Parliament were compared to its immediate predecessor, there would be evidence for invigoration, but it would be inconclusive. It is nonetheless possible to tackle the question. Tentative comparisons to preceding Senates may be investigated. Senators appointed by different governments can be compared within the 42nd Parliament. And, the legislative output of the Senate can be investigated.

Fundamentally, there have been no changes in powers or functions, just personnel. In the absence of independent accountability for an upper chamber (as per the US Senate), bicameralism depends on coordinative capacity between chambers. Parties are a resource efficient mechanism for this. With a majority of independents, the Senate can be expected to have a reduced capacity to coordinate amongst themselves, and externally with policy partners. This can be expected to generate a transactional rather than transformative approach to Senate business. In that, individual Senators can seek policy goals individually, but face barriers in coordinating for transformational change.

On Representativeness

In demographic terms, the Senate under Trudeau has become more diverse. Where 70% of Harper appointees were male and near 90% were white, the equivalent proportions since 2015 are 43% and 80%. But there is no obvious link to dissolution of the Liberal caucus, nor creation of an independent appointments board. Conservative reform critics seem on safe ground in contending that those appointed under new arrangements could just have likely been appointed under the old rules by Trudeau. Where Conservative criticism is less credible is with regards to the voting behaviour of new Senators, which they contend is as pro-government amongst “independents” as if they were caucusing Liberals.

On Independent-Mindedness

How reliably have different groups of Senators supported the government? The following graph summaries all votes cast in the 42nd Senate. From this we see that members of the Independent Senators Group supported the government 69% of the time. These Senators were more predictably loyal to the government than even residual Liberals.

It appears independent Senators are hardly worthy of the name. However, with correlation analysis the picture obscures. The following figure shows the correlation coefficient estimates of each party in supporting a government whip. A dotted vertical line denotes a coefficient of 0, and 95% confidence intervals are described by horizontal red lines emanating from the point estimates. It is notable that the coefficient of independence for Conservative Senators is three times greater in magnitude (to the negative) than that for the ISG. The Conservatives are more predictably partisan than the ISG, although both groups’ behaviour can be predicted with 95% confidence. Only Non-Affiliated Senators were unpredictable in their voting behaviour.

There are several possible explanations for government support amongst independents. ISG members may be by disposition liberal, even if not officially Liberal. Or, as neophyte legislators, they can be expected to vote with a mandate backed by strong Commons majorities. That the Liberal Senators seem more independent than the Independent Senators is simply because there were only nine such Liberals, they were more experienced, and they were more likely to be absent from votes whipped by the government.

On Redundancy

How much did Senators contribute to legislation? Starting with a simple metric, how many pages of legislation were introduced and primarily legislated for by each chamber? The following figure provides descriptive statistics. House-originated legislation accounted for <1.6m words, where the Senate initiated <0.025% of that amount, at 40,000 words. In terms of legislative spadework, the House is unambiguously dominant.

But what about transforming legislation? An effective metric is to assess changes to the language of legislation wrought by each chamber. This is achieved using sensitive machine reading technologies (Williams various). Linguistic analysis allows us to assess how far qualifying parts of speech (such as adjectives, conjunctions and auxiliary modal verbs) changed per section of legislation. The metric of noun/verb qualifiers per section (NVQPS) gives an indication of change through the parliamentary process. The following table summarises these changes in all House Government Bills with four published bill versions on the LEGISinfo website (>5.6m words analysed at four bill stages).

The table shows that most substantial changes to legislative language were obtained by House Committee (column 1). The Senate (column 3) only contributed on average 1/5th of overall changes to a bill from first reading to Royal Assent. The most marked changes to legislation in the Senate – to C-6 and C-29 – started in 2016 and were finished by 2017. This was before the number of independent Senators had reached a majority in that chamber.

Conclusion

There is evidence that independent Senators are more demographically representative and independent-minded than their Conservative counterparts. The contribution by Senators to parliamentary business is not, however, obviously transformative. The Senate was, like the House of Lords, based on a pre-democratic model of governance. In the transition to mass democracy, it was parties that gave some transformative capacity. Who are masters of the Senate now, if not the electorate nor party executives? Masterless disaffiliates are beholden to their individual morality and interests. But that leaves them without institutional resources to make the most of their individual talents. Without reform to accountability, the delegation chains from Senators to the public is fuzzy, and any veto power they held will have been delegitimised (Tsebelis 2002). There is novelty in the Senate, but to conclude a new age has dawned is as yet unsustainable.

Matt Williams is the Access and Career Development Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford.

See more on his website here

Bedding Down, Treading Water and Taking Two Steps Forward: Gender Equality and the 2019-20 House of Commons Select Committee Elections

Stephen Holden Bates (University of Birmingham, UK)

Stephen McKay (University of Lincoln, UK)

Mark Goodwin (Coventry University, UK)

The results of the elections for the UK House of Commons Select Committees are out[1]!

The 2010 Wright Reforms, designed to increase the standing of Parliament in the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal, are now a decade old. One of the main reforms introduced was to alter the method of selection for House of Commons Select Committees[2] from one of appointment by party managers to one of election by the whole House (in the case of chairships) and by party caucuses (in the case of membership). This reform has been hailed by many as one of the reasons why select committees have become an ever more prominent and prestigious part of Parliament. There is also evidence that the reform has been good for some aspects of gender equality within the committee system, particularly in terms of female MPs becoming committee chairs[3]. Below we consider the outcomes of the latest round of select committee elections and argue that, in terms of female representation, they are a case of simultaneously bedding down, treading water and taking two steps forward.

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