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Enhancing accountability for the use of public sector resources: How to improve the effectiveness of Public Accounts Committees

Research reports

Written by Edward Hedger

As part of the preparations for the 20th Commonwealth Auditors General Conference, the UK National Audit Office commissioned the ODI to write a think piece on what makes an effective Public Accounts Committee (PAC), and how Audit Offices can provide better support to such committees and the legislature more generally.

The ODI paper explores four key questions:
• What is public financial accountability – what are its objectives and which actors are involved?;
• How can Public Accounts Committees become more effective in ensuring executive accountability for public spending?;
• How can Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs) strengthen their contribution to this accountability process?; and
• What options are there for PACs and SAIs to carry out reform of their own working practices and to influence improvement in their accountability environments?

The paper addresses two key aspects of accountability: calling to account (that is being required to provide an explanation of what has been done, or not done) and holding to account (that is being sanctioned and/or required to put into effect remedial measures).

The authors consider the characteristics of the pure or archetypal ‘Westminster PAC model’ and point out how across the Commonwealth new ways of working are emerging in PACs and between PACs and Parliaments. They argue that the time has come to consider talking more of a ‘Commonwealth PAC framework’ and focusing more on the underlying principles needed for PACs to work. Three such principles are identified: independence, policy neutrality and inter-party co operation. By independence, it means being free of executive interference. By policy neutrality, it means the Committee can focus on the way in which resources have been used in pursuance of a policy not on the merit or otherwise of the policy itself. And finally, by inter-party co-operation it means the ability to suspend political rivalries while dealing with matters of public audit.

Drawing on experience from Uganda, Ghana, the Solomon Islands, the UK, and elsewhere, the paper identifies emerging practices which may help SAIs to work more effectively with their PACs. The paper also provides a framework for analysing PAC effectiveness which may have wider applicability.

Edward Hedger and Blick, Andrew