A politician’s view of what a public accounts committee should do Justice John Gomery spent a surprising amount of time on the Public Accounts Committee, but his final report makes the same mistake that almost all other studies make: it says public accounts committee (PAC) members should act differently than they have been acting.
My fundamental point is this: It is unreasonable to expect politicians to do X when their motivations and resources all point towards doing Y.
No legislator can achieve what she wants if she is defeated, and no legislator can achieve what she wants if she returns to the assembly with an insufficient number of colleagues. Re-election matters.
Most legislators would agree that their accountability work (e.g., sitting on the Public Accounts Committee) has no bearing whatsoever on their chances of re-election. In other words, accountability work is completely disconnected from politicians’ top priority.
Can legislators be motivated to do accountability work because it raises their stature with the public or the party leadership? Yes, but only a little.
The reality is that the public pays little attention to parliaments, and even less to accountability work – although they do love scandals. And party leaders tend to notice accountability work only if something goes really well (like an unexpected media “hit”) or really badly (like if a legislator says something stupid that makes the national news).
So let’s not kid ourselves: changing legislators’ motivations will happen only when large numbers of voters cast their ballots based on who does the best accountability work; in other words, never.
Most legislators do not do a lot of preparatory reading. Most don’t have the background to understand financial statements. Most are not very good at asking questions. And most are excessively deferential to professionals, often allowing them to get away with too much.
There is a big difference between the skills needed to be a good constituency member or campaigner and the skills needed to be a good legislator, and that is not going to change as long as we have a democracy.
In addition to bringing weak personal resources to the job of accountability, legislators are almost always strapped for time, 90% of which is spent dealing with requests from constituents for support or advice. There are also community issues to deal with: we are asked to attend this, support that, speak here, listen there, read this, comment on that. And legislators have families: we are spouses, children, parents and grandparents.
Does anyone seriously think legislators will say “no” to these things, and read their Public Accounts briefing book instead? Not likely.
Larger jurisdictions tend to have dedicated committee research staff, but in smaller jurisdictions this is rare. Legislative Library staff may help, but their primary ability is to find information, not to analyze it. The Auditor General’s staff are not “our” staff, and there is a limit to what we can ask of them. And Caucus Office staff face many other demands.
Governments control committee budgets. And governments have a vested interest in making sure that accountability mechanisms like the PAC aren’t too effective.
If we are not going to change politicians’ motivations and resources, the only option left (other than an unsatisfactory status quo) is to change our expectations.
Please, once and for all, let’s dump the expectation that politicians will be, or could be, meaningful watchdogs over the whole range of government spending. It isn’t going to happen. Politicians will never be on the frontlines of government accountability.
However, our politicians can and must continue their traditional role of “shining a bright light” on government. The public questioning of witnesses about significant programs and issues by elected legislators, with the objective of holding a government to account, is an important democratic event – especially in those rare cases where legislators do the job well.
Politicians can also oversee other accountability systems. They can “watch the watchdogs”: question them, advise them, challenge them, and provide a public forum for their work.
Finally, politicians must express the needs and desires of their constituencies. The watchdogs could learn a lot by taking seriously politicians’ capacity to articulate what is important to the people we represent.
Politicians could focus attention on these tasks, realigning our motivations and resources with what is expected of us. This would simultaneously narrow our accountability focus to the watchdogs themselves, and widen it, because effective accountability systems once set in motion would generate the kind of multi-faceted and systematic accountability that legislators cannot themselves provide.
Graham Steele, MLA, is a member of the Nova Scotia Legislative Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee, which he chaired from 2003-2005. He served on the Improved Public Performance Reporting Program Task Force of the Canadian Comprehensive Audit Foundation.