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:
- 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.
- 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.
- A PAC needs non-partisan and skilled support staff. At a minimum, a PAC should have a Clerk and research staff.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.