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A public good and great hope

Imagine ThatThe success of a democracy is to be judged to the extent to which it can assure that government is publicly accountable.

–– John Griffith and Michael Ryle on parliamentary practice (1989).

I fully appreciate that governments do not enthusiastically welcome accountability, as such would serve to limit their freedom of action, and at times expose them to embarrassing situations. So why do some governments embrace the establishment of accountability measures?

I would like to believe a partial explanation for undertaking accountability is the connection to positive electoral outcome. Sadly, in the Commonwealth Caribbean, far too often the lack of government accountability is not closely related to electoral performance partly because the citizenry is unaware of what is at stake, what to look for, and, of course, because political parties simply love the loyal voter, for these voters  support their party irrespective of their failures or achievements.

It’s a shame really! Parties ought to work for your support by way of performance, whether it is economic, financial, social, and so on.

However, there are some accountability institutions which are important public goods, whether or not their actions serve to create embarrassing situations for ruling political parties. One such institution is the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), a vital link in the chain of public financial accountability, which is very dependent on the work of the Auditor General complementing and enhancing it. The committee relies primarily on the expert and independent opinion of the office of the Auditor General on the financial operations of Government.

Most impartial observers would agree that unlike other parliamentary or select committees, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has one role and one role only; that is to hold the Government to account. For sure they do not consider bills nor do they conduct policy inquiries. Rather, PACs scrutinize past government financial activities to determine whether governments have made efficient and effective use of resources and that such financial resources are properly accounted for by the government.

The Public Accounts Committee therefore undertakes the review and follow-up of the submitted reports by the Auditor General on the Government’s accounts and determines whether the Government received value for the money it expended.

As I indicated in last week’s article, it is quite possible that the report of the Auditor General may not receive much attention, especially if the media fail to undertake their essential public function. I am not suggesting the media do not provide some coverage; the issue is more one of breadth and intensity of coverage, given the saliency of Government financing. In that context, the work of the PAC is of immense value, as it can provide thoughtfulness and bring much needed focus to issues flagged by the report of the Auditor General and on which there was a public silencing.

In effect, the Public Accounts Committee can revisit the Auditor General’s Report often after the initial media exposure, and in the process, attract further sustained attention to issues and problems of public financial governance.

Furthermore, in as much as the PAC can call witnesses before it, the process provides both the staff of the Audit Department and other civil servants with the opportunity to present their views, concerns and explain their actions. Most importantly, the PAC can provide a veritable avenue for renewed public pressure on Government to change its behaviour or account for its actions.

Unfortunately, one of the major weaknesses of the Public Accounts Committee is the fact it must operate within the Westminster political system, which is underpinned by a legislative branch of Government largely defined by a deeply disturbing and adversarial political party mode of behaviour. Essentially, therefore, inasmuch as Parliament is dominated by an intense and oft-times hostile party divide, the PAC has not and will not be able to insulate itself from what is the culture of Parliament.

It is for this reason the deliberations of the PAC have been viewed as deeply political and are resented by ruling political parties. Indeed, governments routinely attempt to ridicule the committee, call foul; and frequently government representatives on the committee fail to attend scheduled meetings, making it difficult for the committee to function effectively.

This is one of the most obvious negative consequences of the adversarial nature of our political model. Additionally, the small size of Caribbean parliaments and the tendency
to include almost all government Members of Parliament in the cabinet result in a lack of government “backbenchers” to serve on the PAC.

Indeed, government members on the committee are unlikely to exercise a vigorous oversight role, especially when they are also members of the executive.

Inasmuch as the PAC is chaired by the Leader of the Opposition, its lack of neutrality should not be too easily dismissed. Yes, a case can be made that PAC reports are sometimes prepared with the attempt to attract the attention of the general public for partisan and electoral purposes, and so these reports do tend to overemphasize the shortcomings and errors of Government departments. However this does not significantly militate against the usefulness of that committee.

Interestingly too, often we experience a situation where former prime ministers are required to review the action of their own administration when serving as chairperson of the PAC given their election defeat. The question arises as to whether or not due diligence would or can be provided under such circumstances. So yes, the structure and membership of the PAC cause concern.

Important too is the fact the deliberations undertaken by the PAC may come too late to have much value and be effective as an accountability mechanism. The money sometimes has been long spent and the waste and misuse have already occurred. Take, for instance, the case of Antigua and Barbuda where the report of the auditor general was not prepared for almost a decade. No fault of the auditor general. Too often the reports of the PAC take an immeasurable length of time to be submitted.

Moreover, beyond the immediate political impact of the public attention the PAC deliberations may provide, PACs essentially have little teeth for they do not possess the power to punish wrongdoers. So, as presently constituted, they can bark and wail, but they cannot bite.

And though they may cause the government some irritation and unease, the fact is that governments routinely ignore their reports and tend to dismiss them as nothing more than political gimmicks and posturing for electoral purposes. This is far from the truth!

Every democratic government must be held accountable to parliament as the representative body of the people. Appropriate institutions or mechanisms must therefore be available
for such accountability.

This is especially critical in the case of public money. Consequently, government has an ethical obligation to its people to provide a credible regulatory framework that will engender appropriate accountability of public finances. Achieving financial accountability is ensured primarily through Parliament’s activity via ministerial accountability, the work of parliamentary investigatory committees where they exist, internal controls and, as we saw before, reporting mechanisms within departments (supervised by the Accountant General) and the Auditor General and staff.

So notwithstanding the grey area within which the PAC finds itself, there is little doubt that providing some scrutiny to government finances is a critical role that must be performed.

It stands to reason that given the domination of Parliament and the executive by ruling political parties, it is a nonsense to expect any realistic scrutiny of government finances by a committee which is chaired and controlled by members of the ruling political party, although it is the case that government members form the majority of the typical PAC.  It is therefore an illusion to believe that we could come closer to achieving financial accountability of government in the absence of an effective functioning Public Accounts Committee.

So yes there are justifiable concerns about the PAC. And ParlAmericas (an independent network committed to promoting parliamentary participation and to developing inter-parliamentary dialogue on a number of issues in the hemisphere) in its meetings on strengthening the PAC and Auditor General recommended that perhaps small states in the Commonwealth Caribbean with their history of adversarial politics should consider the adoption of an advisory audit committee (AAC) consisting of eminent, appointed, non-partisan officials with an audit or public sector background to examine the Auditor General’s Report prior to the review by the PAC.

The PAC would then review the AAC report within a set period of time and issue a recommendation regarding adoption of the report. If the PAC does not review the report within the set period of time, the report would be deemed adopted.

Interestingly at the ParlAmericas meeting the suggestion was also made that the PAC should be supplemented with unelected members or members of the Upper Chamber to ensure the requisite quorum could be achieved without the participation of government members. It is precisely this type of committee that the 2014 actions of the Barbados Government sought to repeal.

Whilst the World Bank for example concluded the operation of the Public Accounts Committee in Barbados had been problematic, ought not Barbadians from all walks of life, all political persuasions be therefore concerned about the attempt to pass the Public Accounts Committee (Repeal) Act of 2014? Certainly! And in the event anyone is unconvinced by the seriousness of this action, the Government has also sought to amend the Financial Management And Audit Act, Cap. 5.

This is worrisome especially as representatives of the PACs and Auditors General met between 2012 and 2013 to suggest ways in which both institutions could be strengthened to enhance the accountability of government.

Thus, Barbados’ 2003 act was quite forward-thinking. Indeed, current chairperson of the PAC (Leader of the Opposition Mia Mottley) opined that “rather than seeking to repeal the 2003 PAC legislation . . . we need to see the strengthening of the existing legislation which will make it clear that the public has a right to know what evidence is being given via reporting or streaming, unless it relates to issues of national security, or there is a major policy reason for the evidence to be heard in camera . . . . It [repeal of 2014] is a retrograde step that goes counter to deepening our democracy”.

I agree and would add that every PAC should be provided with the services of a forensic accountant independent of the Auditor General. That is what accountability and transparency require.

It takes less time to do a thing right than to explain why you did it wrong.

–– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

(Cynthia Barrow-Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus.)

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