Counting on accountability

Andrew Tuggey

Public accounts committees are an essential tool for ensuring rigorous financial transparency within governments, but their effectiveness is sometimes compromised by a lack of resourcing and insufficient government cooperation. During a three-day workshop attended by representatives from across the world, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association explored the 21st-century challenges facing these guardians of the public purse 

The UK parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which is charged with examining “the accounts showing the appropriation of the sums granted to parliament to meet the public expenditure, and of such other accounts laid before parliament as the Committee may think fit”, celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2011. With an assessment based on value-for-money criteria that are unrelated to the merits of departmental policy, the Westminster PAC’s fair and non-political model of scrutiny of public spending has been adopted and adapted throughout the Commonwealth. 

Since 1861, when it was created as part of British government reforms, the PAC has developed and operated against a backdrop of change and expansion with regards to the concept of public service spending.

Along with its international peers, whose challenges can vary greatly, the UK’s PAC must constantly adapt and improve its performance in order to continue to realise its purpose of good governance and accountability. 

Over the last century and a half, the landscape of government administration has transformed dramatically. The increase in the number of governmental institutions, subsequent moves towards privatisation, proliferating means of audit and accounting, and the risk of the politicisation of scrutiny have all had an impact on the PAC’s methods of ensuring transparency and value for money. With huge developments in the delivery process of public services, questions about the remit of the PAC arise – notably which bodies are subject to its examination. 

Six months into her tenure, the UK PAC’s current chairperson, Margaret Hodge MP, emphasised in a speech to the Institute of Government that, in an environment of austerity, it is more important than ever for the committee to ensure the effectiveness of public spending, in order to minimise the impact of the cuts on those dependent on public services. “Ensuring real productivity improvements will help protect frontline services,” Hodge asserted. Increased transparency and a more rigorous examination of government expenditure by parliament – with findings that are then given due weight by executive departments – will be key to restoring public confidence in politics. 

However, as an established body working with a developed public administration, the PAC in the UK faces challenges very different to those of equivalent bodies in the legislatures of fledgling democracies in the Commonwealth. Any PAC must rely on the country’s Supreme Audit Institution (SAI) – the independent body that inspects public spending on behalf of parliaments (in the UK, this is the National Audit Office)

– for high-quality audit reporting. It is a symbiotic relationship in which the SAI equally depends on the PAC to ensure that its findings are given due weight by government departments. However, in countries where budgets are tight, the national SAI is often under-resourced and accounting skills are scarce. As a result, audit information can only be acquired at a delay of several years (despite much shorter statutory requirements) and is of a quality far below the optimum. In some legislatures, underresourcing of SAIs may even be a political tool whereby executives see transparency as undesirable. 

In democracies with a less developed ethos of good governance, PACs can face a lack of cooperation from the executive. The PAC’s remit is to draw attention to their concerns and place them in the public domain, rather than to force action. When the government refuses to address the issues, all the PAC can do is ensure that the topic remains the focus of media discussion. However, there is scope for the international community to give the findings of the PAC more authority: for instance, by making financial assistance conditional on their implementation. 

These issues and more were explored at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK’s Public Accounts Committee workshop, which took place on 12-15 March 2012, coinciding with Commonwealth Day. It followed the 61st annual Westminster Seminar on Parliamentary Practice and Procedure, held on 5-9 March. The workshop enabled some 70 MPs, clerks and representatives of SAIs from across the Commonwealth, including Rwanda, Nigeria and Pakistan, to explore in detail the role, administration and practical functioning of financial scrutiny committees. The sessions examined the respective challenges of small and large legislatures, the PAC’s relationship with the media, corruption and fraud, support and resourcing, and public procurement.

Taking the Westminster model as a starting point, the workshop was designed to enable delegates to address these and other challenges in their own legislatures in a robust and constructive manner. 

About the author:

Andrew Tuggey is the Director of Commonwealth and International Relations, Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK

To find out more about the workshop visit:


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