At the time this article was
written Craig James was Executive Secretary to the Canadian Council of Public
The ninth annual conference of the
Canadian Council of Public Accounts Committees was held in Quebec City from
July 5-9, l987. In attendance were 34 parliamentarians who had as part of their
legislative assignments membership in their respective public accounts
committees and eight clerks, researchers and observers.
The conference was opened on
Monday, July 6th with remarks from Jean-Guy Lemieux, President of the Council
and Chairman of Quebec's Budget and Administration Committee.
A round table discussion ensued
revolving around the actual operation of public accounts committees from each
jurisdiction; each delegation presented a concise overview of the method of
operation and the results of their work over the past year.
Mr. Lemieux began the afternoon's
session with a speech posing several questions for the council to consider:
"to what extent does the fact that a civil servant has been appointed
under a particular government affect the reaction of parties with regard to the
civil servant? Might there not be a tendency to blame the government that
appointed him? What would be the consequence for civil servants of inadequacies
revealed by a committee? Could penalties be imposed? If a distinction were to
be established between sectorial administrative units that are centralised
(ministries) and those that are decentralised (public bodies), in what way
would accountability be different, taking into consideration the different
degree of involvement of the minister?"
The session sparked intense debate
among the delegates.
On Tuesday, July 7th, the subject
of comprehensive auditing, its background, characteristics, methods, limits, strengths,
weaknesses, and recent experiences provoked a frank discussion between those
jurisdictions employing this audit method and those who currently do not.
The Council debated the application
of comprehensive auditing in Canada in light of economy, efficiency and
effectiveness issue, holding the executive arm of government accountable, while
striking a balance between the cost of the audit and the results used by
parliamentarians in an evaluation of government expenditures.
Mr. Lemieux said, "We must
remember that requests made to the legislative auditor for comprehensive
auditing may be much more urgent than in other cases. The reasons are simple:
on the one hand, such an examination concerns the whole management of the
chosen administration and becomes an important instrument of accountability; on
the other hand, a comprehensive audit of a ministry or public body is carried
out only every four or five years. Consequently, there may well be a delay
between the time deemed useful for the study by the public accounts committee
and the time it is actually carried out.
It should be noted that if each
ministry or public body is submitted to a comprehensive audit only every four
or five years, the reason is the choice of the audit cycle which is established
in a manner to permit the audit of all respects at least once during the
regular length of a legislature. This method of proceeding is related primarily
to reasons of cost, and probably attempts to reduce the rather inevitable
disturbance of operations caused by such an exercise."
The Council pondered the relevancy
of comprehensive auditing in the context of comprehensive audits made on the
request of public accounts committees and the importance attached to the annual
or common plan between public accounts committee and legislative auditors.
Since its inception, the Canadian
Council of Public Accounts Committees (CCPAC) has held its annual conference
coincident with but not part of the Conference of Legislative Auditors. The
only substantial common venture between the two associations is a joint meeting
between them to discuss issues of mutual interest and concern.
This year, an afternoon joint
session consisted of a review, started last year at the suggestion of Willard
Lutz, Provincial Auditor for the Province of Saskatchewan the expectations gap
as it relates to legislative auditors and members of public accounts
committees. It was said that expectations were not realized primarily due to
mutual misunderstandings, political and philosophical - in what was described
as a complementary relationship where each group assisted the other in reaching
its primary objective.
The Yukon Public Accounts committee
produced a paper entitled, "Follow-up: The Paper Chase Phenomenon"
presented by Willard Phelps, MLA, Chairman and Leader of the Opposition. In it,
Mr. Phelps informed the council of procedures the Yukon public accounts
committee had revised in order to expedite the committee's follow-up process.
As a result, twelve recommendations
by the Yukon committee out of a total of eighty-eight proposed since 1980 are
considered in Phelps' words "not fully implemented" - a vast
improvement in the implementation process.
The increased effectiveness of the
Yukon Public Accounts Committee was its innate "tenacity in doggedly
pursuing follow-up... enthusiasm demonstrated by all of the committee
members" and Government Leader Tony Penikett's commitment to enhancing the
role of the public accounts committee.
Mr. Phelps said that "if it
were not for the follow-up process, the never-ending paper chase, the committee
would be an indolent watchdog whose bark would cause little consternation. Its
bite is the follow-through. I believe that effective follow-up is the hallmark
of an effective committee and I think it is through our tenacity in this regard
that our PAC has attained its present stature. The whole follow-up process has
another positive side. It takes what could be a faceless, harmless inertia and
Arnold McCallum, MLA, Chairman of
the Standing Committee on Public Accounts for the Northwest Territories
delivered two reports at the Council's annual meeting: "Follow-up to
committee reports - the experience of the Public Accounts Committee of the
N.W.T." and "An examination of the review of special warrants by the
Standing Committee on Public Accounts in the N.W.T."
Regarding the follow-up to
committee reports, Mr. McCallum stated "to be effective a public accounts
committee cannot make recommendations, without having in place a procedure to
ensure that these recommendations, are being acted upon. Initially," he
said, "follow-up was done by committee staff who had made notes of the
responses received from various government departments. This leads to tardy
departmental responses implementing the committee's recommendation." By
the time its third report was presented to the House, the Northwest Territories
Committee wrote ..."it is also important to note the considerable
dissatisfaction with the very slow response, and sometimes lack of action, taken
by most departments in addressing the concerns of this committee."
Though the committee recognised
that it was partly to blame for not establishing guidelines to which
departments so affected could adhere upon receiving the committee's
recommendations, the Public Accounts Committee recommended "that the
Comptroller General be given the responsibility to ensure that all departments
act, in a timely manner, on the recommendations of the public accounts
committee", and, ..."that the chairman of the standing committee on
public accounts undertake regular follow-up through the Office of the
Comptroller General, and where necessary directly with officials of the
department or agency concerned, to ensure that the committee's recommendations
are being acted upon in both an adequate and timely manner."
To date, Mr. McCallum said,
"progress has been made toward a systematic and methodical review of each
recommendation the public accounts committee makes to the House that is
subsequently concurred in, in order to assure itself, the House, and the public
that implementation is being fulfilled."
The report on special warrants
compared the committee's involvement in 1985 to the current practice. Specific
examples were provided the Council with respect to the Territories' use of special
warrants where the Financial Management Board "may have authorized
expenditures for only the most tenuous reasons for urgency." Quoting from
the Second Report to the Legislative Assembly, Mr. McCallum stated that
"the proliferation of special warrants by the government has been an
ongoing concern of committee members since the authority, if unrestricted, has
the potential to usurp the function of the Legislative Assembly and to abridge
its authority to appropriate funds."
In 1984 the NWT Committee recommended
that "the Auditor General of Canada examine the schedule of special
warrants to the territorial accounts in the course of the regular audit of the
accounts and financial transactions of the government to ensure that warrants
have been issued in accordance with established legal authority."
The Council heard of the success
encountered to date by the Northwest Territories Public Accounts Committee on
the matter of special warrants: "...The use of such warrants was reduced
from 171 in 83/84 to only 23 in 86/87. Our success demonstrates that solutions
may not come about instantly but that with diligence and continued follow-up
the Public Accounts Committee does make a difference."
The council reviewed the criteria
established by the NWT Financial Management Secretariat for evaluating special
warrant requests: Is the expenditure required to immediately resolve or prevent
a serious problem? Is payment or commitment required before next sitting of
Legislative Assembly? If funds are required in order to enter into an approved
contract will non approval of the special warrant seriously delay the project?
Can the department fund from within?
Aideen Nicholson, MP, Chairman of
the Canadian House of Commons Public Accounts Committee presented a paper on
the role of the federal committee. She informed the Council that in Ottawa,
"the public accounts committee works closely with the Auditor General. The
members of Parliament who serve on the public accounts committee rely on the
Auditor General and his staff who have the facilities and the competence to
carry out detailed audits. The Auditor General in turn, depends on an active,
vigorous public accounts committee and the support of the House of Commons to
overcome departmental resistance to scrutiny and to making changes." Ms.
Nicholson stated that the formula for success of the Ottawa Committee was in
place in large part due to the harmonious relationship among the committee
members and between the Public Accounts Committee, the Auditor General, the
government and the civil service.
The Ontario Public Accounts
Committee submitted two reports to the Council: entitled, "The Public
Accounts Committee's inquiry into the financing arrangements for the
construction of a domed stadium," and, "the Ontario Public Accounts
Committee: role, structure and activities 1985 - 1987."
The domed stadium report provided
the Council with more than a glimpse of the investigation into the financing
arrangements. It was said that the expansion of the committee's role became
apparent in the life of the Ontario parliament during its "minority"
government period. "The committee has undertaken an exceptionally large
number of inquiries, many of which have gone beyond the traditional focus on
past expenditures by government ministries to investigate matters including
current and proposed expenditures, issues not related to the Provincial
Auditor's Report, and policy matters that had previously been considered beyond
the committees' mandate." The report said the result was profound. The
Council learned "these investigations have frequently brought about
changes not only in the administrative and management procedures of the Ontario
government, but also in its policies and programs. In some instances, the
inquiries have also brought about action in the private sector."
The domed stadium
inquiry...represented a departure from the usual business f public accounts
committees...a test case for the broadening and redefinition of the public
accounts committee and the provincial Auditor "... The domed stadium
inquiry was also unusually complex in that it involved an investigation of
public expenditures on three levels (federal, provincial and municipal) and of
private sector funding."
It was significant the Council
heard that through its recommendations the Ontario committee was able to
influence the actions of the private sector consortium "over which it has
no legislative authority."
The Council bore witness to this
innovative and precedent-setting role by the Ontario public accounts committee
and each jurisdiction in turn, pondered, the procedural and political
ramifications of the Ontario model within their respective legislatures.
Ontario's second paper described
the structure and operations of the public accounts committee there since 1985.
The council reviewed the Ontario committee's mandate which is to examine and
report to the Ontario legislature "the reliability and appropriate uses of
information in the public accounts; the collection of an accounting for
revenues; the maintenance of expenditures within the limits and for the
purposes authorized by the Legislative Assembly; the adequacy of safeguards to
protect assets from loss, waste, and misappropriation; the regard for economy
in the acquisition of goods and services; the regard for efficiency in
operations; the effectiveness of programs in achieving their stated objectives;
the annual review of the estimates of the office of the Provincial Auditor; and
the examination, in confidence, of the premier's travel expenditures."
Committee activity revolved around ministry operations and special reviews,
predominantly, the proposed domed stadium for Toronto, the forest management
activities of the Ministry of Natural Resources, the sale of the Crown-owned
Urban Transportation Development Corporation, cost overruns on the Ontario
Pavilion at Expo '86, and conflict of interest allegations concerning a
Minister of the Crown.
The Ontario report concluded by
stating "the committee anticipates that the broadening of its role and
activities... will enhance its ability to achieve that goal which is to hold
government accountable in the spending and management of public funds while
saving the taxpayers of the province a significant amount of money."
On Wednesday, July 8th the Council
conducted its annual housekeeping business, reviewing its constitution,
electing its officers for 1987-88 and arranging for the site of the tenth
annual conference. The officers for 1988 are William Gilles, (Nova Scotia),
President; Barry Pasha, (Alberta), First Vice President; Winston Baker (Nfld.),
Second Vice President, and Craig James. Clerk of Committees in British
Columbia, Executive Secretary.
The Council established a
sub-committee comprised of Darlene Marzari, Aideen Nicholson, and Winston Baker,
to recommend guidelines to which all Canadian Public Accounts Committees could
adhere throughout their deliberations in order to provide some procedural
consistency across the land. It is expected that the sub-committee will
undertake a review during the year of the Canadian Institute of Chartered
Accountant's public sector auditing committee's recommendations that pertain to
auditing in the public sector as well as producing draft terms of reference for
subsequent presentation to the Council and debate at its annual meeting in Nova
Scotia next July.