At the time this article was
written Raymond Dubois was Deputy Auditor General in the Office of the Auditor
General of Canada
To assist Parliament in holding the
government to account, the auditor general is empowered to examine the accounts
of federal government departments, agencies and many of its crown corporations.
It is through this audit work that the Members of Parliament obtain the
information to judge whether the government has spent public funds for the
purposes authorized by Parliament and that public resources are used
economically and efficiently. This is a slightly revised version of a speech to
the Canadian Study of Parliament Group on October 28, 1989.
The office of the auditor general
of Canada, therefore, plays an important role in the process by which Canadians
are governed. The Auditor General submits his report to the House of Commons
through the Speaker and not a part of the government itself. This independence
from the government of the day and the public service is vital if the audit
office is to perform its work effectively and make unbiased judgments. The
auditor general must be free of obligations to any individual or institution
and be free from fear of arbitrary dismissal or retaliation. Parliament uses
the obligative information provided by the auditor general to call the
government to account for its handling of public funds. In effect, the auditor
general works for Parliament, not for the government of the day.
The Auditor General Act of 1977
gave the auditor general substantially increased responsibilities and for the
first time virtually complete freedom from the government of the day. The act
is not specific on what should be audited or how it should be audited. But it
does set out in some detail what must be reported.
First, we are required to report to
Parliament whether the government's financial statements are complete and fair.
We call that the "attest" function. It's what auditors in the private
sector do for shareholders. It is carried out annually in all government
departments and agencies.
Secondly we are required to report
on instances where departments have not complied with legislative and policy
directives or have not exhibited due regard to economy and efficiency or do not
have procedures to report and measure the effectiveness of programs. These
aspects of our mandate are referred to as value-for-money auditing.
Legislative auditing is designed to
help legislators maintain control of the public purse. To achieve that control
of the public purse, public officials must fulfil three responsibilities. They
must manage public resources prudently, comply with the law, and be
The Auditor's role is to ensure
that the legislature is informed about the way the executive approaches these
three responsibilities. In short, legislative auditors are concerned about
Accountability has been defined as
the obligation to answer for a responsibility that has been conferred. It
assumes the existence of at least two parties to this accountability: one who
allocates responsibility, in this case Parliament and one who accepts the
responsibility, in this case the government or a component of the government
such as the Department of Transport.
Parliament, the first of these two
parties, has two fundamental roles: to legislate, and to scrutinize government
The other part, the government, has
responsibility for carrying out Parliament's direction. It must display due
regard for value for money and give enough information to Parliament about its
operations so that it can be held to account for its actions. That's where our
office comes in.
The primary role of the office of
the auditor general is to provide the necessary audit information to the House
of Commons to assist it in carrying out its scrutiny role.
The policies and guidance of the
office are designed to ensure that only matters of considerable amount, effect
or importance and of interest and priority for review by parliamentarians,
should be examined and reported. We also have a general objective that our
audits should make a contribution to better government.
Audits do not include a review of
the merits of political policies. Such matters are for parliamentarians to
review and debate.
The auditor general only gets
involved after a policy has been decided, and generally after implementation
has commenced. We do not, as a general rule, generate information about the
effectiveness of government programs. This is because questions of
effectiveness may be seen as criticisms of the merits of government policy. We
limit our work to assessing the reliability and completeness of effectiveness
information produced by the government. We also assess the adequacy of the way
it is reported to Parliament.
In spite of our efforts, there is
still a certain amount of judgement involved in deciding what to report. From
time to time considerable controversy still exists in this regard. The fact
remains that our client is Parliament and we are obliged to bring matters to
the attention of the House. By reporting, we may from time to time cause a high
degree of frustration and concern on the part of government and the
While there are very few
legislative restrictions on comprehensive auditing, there are some practical
restrictions. The very nature of some government programs with multiple
objectives, often soft and difficult to quantify, means that value for money
auditing is a challenging and ???. We encounter situations where extra costs
are incurred because decision making is dominated by objectives other than the
stated program objective. The reason for such extra costs may be a perfectly
valid government objective. But it may cause problems if Parliament is not informed
of the real reason for the expenditure. In such circumstances, neither
Parliament nor its auditor can say whether appropriate care has been given to
achieving value for money.
Openness and clarity in stating the
real purposes of a program of expenditure would assist in establishing a better
accountability relationship. It would eliminate the need for comments by the
auditor general on this type of situation.
The Role of Committees
The office serves committees of the
House by providing independent and objective information on value for money
issues in government. Committees take our work one more step forward in the
form of public exposure and recommendations to the House.
Part of the accountability process
is served when the auditor general's Report is tabled in the House. It is
further served when the report is broken into chewable chunks by a committee,
digested in some detail in the course of hearings and deliberations, and when
that committee reports back to the House, in effect telling the House what must
be done as a result of their analysis.
As a practical matter our
relationship is mainly with the PAC which can be viewed as the Audit Committee
of House. It is different from most other committees in that it has an
Opposition Chairman and usually takes on a non partisan approach and avoids
calling ministers as witnesses. The Auditor General has offered to assist other
committees but is seldom called.
Committees (PAC especially) are a
particularly effective accountability mechanism for Parliament when they secure
commitments from or make recommendations to departments for particular action
in response to our work. By operating at a level of detail and by following up
on their work committees perform a function essential to accountability that
the House itself could not possibly perform, given all the demands on it. In
this sense, committees are the means of effective accountability in Parliament.
Role of Members
The auditor general's annual report
contains far more material than one committee (PAC) can reasonably be expected
to handle. All Members of Parliament can use our material, often in ways that
are not highly visible, in the business of the House. This would include
members' roles as policy critics, standing committee members, legislative committee
members, and as participants in debate. Question period is a familiar process.
Our work is often referred to as an authoritative, independent and objective
source of information for questions.
In a related vein the effectiveness
of the office would be reduced if question period were eliminated or shortened.
The threat of exposure in Parliament, notably in question period, probably has
a significant but unmeasurable impact in keeping ministers and the bureaucracy
on their toes.