Assessing the Impact and Effectiveness of the Public Accounts Committee

Parliamentary Oversight – Committees and Relationships Public Accounts Committee Orientation Package Assessing the Impact and Effectiveness of the Pu...
Author: Mitchell Floyd
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Parliamentary Oversight – Committees and Relationships Public Accounts Committee Orientation Package

Assessing the Impact and Effectiveness of the Public Accounts Committee What would be considered an effective Public Accounts Committee (PAC)? Suppose the committee helps improve public services, but in the process it embarrasses the government: would this be considered a success? Because success in parliament is often seen in partisan terms, assessing the impact and effectiveness of Public Accounts Committees requires careful consideration. This document suggests an approach for the committee to consider what it would like to accomplish, and how to get there. The committee itself could use it for in-camera planning meetings, by the Chairperson or Clerk before preparing the committee's annual budget or annual report, or by an independent consultant selected by the committee to help with its work. Most PACs are given a general mandate and powers by the legislature, including referral of documents for review such as the Public Accounts and reports of the legislative auditor. Committees are expected to carry out activities that put these powers into effect, and by doing so implement their mandate. Sometimes the legislative order of reference assigns a purpose or objective to PAC examinations, such as to hold the government accountable for it's spending of taxpayers' money and for its stewardship over public assets. On the other hand, sometimes objectives are not enunciated clearly. The relationship between activities and objectives can best be illustrated in chart form. Chart 1 provides a vehicle for the committee to consider, first, what its main objectives are, and then

how it would like to achieve them; that is, how to get from the bottom to the top of the chart. The question to ask throughout the exercise of preparing this logic chart is: how would one assess whether the committee's work makes a difference? For example, if the committee reviews audit reports, what value does it add? If the committee's review leads to a report with recommendations, are they implemented? And if so, how does implementation of recommendations improve public services? Trying to answer these questions could develop a clearer sense of purpose for the committee, and hopefully lead to a win-win strategy for all parties. But even if not, a frank airing of all points of view should lead to a more constructive atmosphere and deliberations. In the following section, there are definitions of the main terms used in this document and in the logic chart. Following each definition are some questions that may help the committee work through the steps from inputs to outcomes in a logical sequence. 1. Inputs are the knowledge, skills and experience of PAC members, staff and witnesses, as well as any contributions of media and others who follow the committee's work. Some questions about inputs: 

Does the committee have the necessary knowledge, ability and commitment to carry out its activities and achieve its objectives? If not, what steps could be taken to improve?



Does the committee have the information it requires to carry out its activities? If not, what steps could be taken to obtain this information?

2. Activities mean what the committee actually does, such as holding hearings that review the Public Accounts or the legislative auditor's report; or analyzing the variances in the performance report of a department; or obtaining information from the public or from expert witnesses about government's performance; following up to see whether action has taken place; or giving interviews to the media.

Activities often use words ending in “ing” (such as questioning, writing, obtaining or reviewing). Activities carry out or put into effect functions, powers, roles and responsibilities. Questions about activities: 

What are the committee's most important functions or activities? Why? Do some activities support particular objectives more than others?



Is the PAC actually doing something to carry out each of its responsibilities? What else could it do?



Would it achieve more results if it did more work e.g. reviewing more chapters of the Auditor's report?

3. Outputs describe what happens during or immediately after the committee's activities, such as the publication of news articles; committee reports with conclusions or recommendations to improve government performance; commitments from the government to correct problems; assurance or independent verification that corrective action has taken place. Sometimes simply announcing an inquiry into a subject may be sufficient to cause the government to act - a government announcement could be an output (or perhaps even better, an outcome), and it could happen even before the committee holds a hearing. A sample question about outputs: 

Can the outputs of the functions or activities be counted or measured, either quantitzatively or qualitatively?

4. Intermediate Objectives and Outcomes. Determining outcomes, or impacts as they are sometimes called, is the most difficult part of this process. They are what happens as a result of the outputs; for example, what happens when the committee's recommendations are implemented. There could be many outcomes, some financial and others program-based, some positive and others negative, and they could be hard to determine and to measure. Some questions about outcomes:



How would one know whether the government is more accountable as a result of the committee's work? What are the indications?



If the committee has a clear objective, do the committee's activities and outputs contribute to it? If not, the committee might want to re-examine either its activities or its objectives.



Are PAC report recommendations implemented, and if so, do they improve the delivery of public services? How does one know?



Does the Legislative Audit Office measure the time it takes to implement its recommendations? If so, has the committee helped to speed up their implementation?



Has the committee drawn attention to weaknesses in government systems or suggested improvements? Does the government or the Legislative Auditor measure improvements in these systems?



Does the government give the committee credit for some of the changes it makes? (If so, this is a clear indication of impact.)



Can some outcomes be measured quantitatively or qualitatively, even if the committee's particular contribution cannot be measured?

5. Final Objectives and Outcomes are statements of purpose, and their longer-term benefits and tangible results, such as holding the government to account for its actions, or improving public confidence in government. It is useful to try to identify some particular benefits or results, such as improvements in program administration that save money or make programs more effective. Questions relating to final objectives and outcomes: 

Are the roles, responsibilities and objectives of the committee and the outcomes that it intends to achieve clearly identified in legislation, standing orders or other

authoritative source? If not, are there some results the committee can achieve or aim for that all parties can agree on? 

Do committee members understand the committee's roles and responsibilities and the interests that they represent? What happens when the interests of the general public/taxpayer conflict with the interests of committee members' parties or their constituents?



Once the committee has a sense of its results, has it identified how to achieve those results better and taken the necessary action to do so?

Chart 1:

What the Public Accounts Committee Does, and the Outcomes of its Work The following generic example of a logic chart is meant as a source of ideas for Public Accounts Committees that do not have such a document, or would like to update or revise the one they now have. It makes assumptions about the mandate and legal powers of a generic committee that may not be appropriate to every circumstance. PACs are encouraged to use it as a reference point for preparing their own document, bearing in mind these are only suggestions that must be reviewed for consistency with particular legislative requirements and with the preferences and practices of each jurisdiction. This particular example is based on material prepared by the PAC in the State of Victoria in Australia. We thank all PACs for their co-operation in providing examples of reference documents to us.

Final Objectives & Outcomes Intermediate Objectives & Outcomes

Better government performance & stewardship

Improved public confidence in government

More accountable government

Improved financial and management systems & practices in the public sector Implementation of recommendations Better informed Parliament & public

Government/entity acceptance of recommendations

Outputs

Committee reports & recommendations

Independent assessments of government operations

Media analysis and reports

Activities

Public hearings

In-camera briefings

Press interviews

Skills & interests of PAC members

Advice & opinions of general public & PAC advisors

Government reports and information

Inputs

This product is part of a package developed by CCAF-FCVI entitled Parliamentary Oversight - Committees and Relationships ~ A Guide to Strengthening Public Accounts Committees. All rights reserved. Please contact CCAF at [email protected] for more information.

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