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Public Accounts Committee: from bear pit to forensic forum

When a government embarks upon a programme of rapid and radical change the case for strong independent scrutiny becomes much more important.

When a government embarks upon a programme of rapid and radical change whilst transforming its approach to the use of public finances, the case for strong independent scrutiny becomes much more important.

That is the challenge the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) now faces. Its recently elected chair Margaret Hodge, Institute Senior Fellow Lord Bichard and the House Magazine's Political Editor Sam Macrory addressed this at a lively debate at the Institute on 19 January. At the session, Lord Bichard also argued that PAC has under achieved to date with few actual improvements to public finances or organisational performance to its credit, and that the challenge for the new chair is to reverse this trend.

PAC's new approach

It was clear that PAC fully recognises the scale of the task ahead and the need, if it is to have a lasting impact, to change its approach to its inquiries and the questioning of witnesses. This means moving away from the high drama of aggressive interrogation towards more constructive exchanges that will enable the committee to get closer to the truth about what has been happening on public expenditure both within and across departments. It also means taking a longer term view rather than being driven primarily by today’s headlines. PAC will need to look forensically at how well departments have been managed over time and the quality of their policy management (based on a combination of maximising effective implementation and best value for money from public expenditure). There has historically been a negative presumption about departments' behaviour rather than attempts to secure a real understanding of what they have achieved - and, if things have gone wrong, the reasons why. This means identifying and promoting good practice and success. However an audience member raised the point that PAC itself is under resourced, and that it needs more of  a dedicated team of researchers and investigators to get to the heart of issues.

The ministerial merry-go-round

One of the most fundamental issues that came up was accountability. Margaret Hodge said that the constant musical chairs amongst ministers and senior civil servants means that ultimately no one is ever accountable for major decisions. Just as worrying, they know this is the case. Without real change, decision making based on securing best value for money will be a low priority. The prevailing culture is one of risk aversion whereas the focus should be on encouraging good risk management. So, if PAC wants to get where it wants to go, (and it was clear from discussion and comments at the seminar that there was strong support for this new course of direction) its change agenda will be a big one. It will need, for example, to get away from the mono-departmental approach of the past. Amazingly in one recent year, PAC held 42 hearings of which only two involved more than one department. This ignored the reality of how government operates, that pretty much everything is inter-connected and that themes and issues are invariably cross-cutting. PAC has traditionally relied on what has been effectively a monopoly supplier, the National Audit Office, for advice. The NAO will always have a major role to play but the committee could gain much by broadening out its advice base and drawing on wider ranges of experience.

Following up report recommendations

Also, too often, select committee reports have been published, had their day in the sun and then disappeared into the ether. This is not the best use of committees’ and witnesses’ time or of taxpayers’ money. If reports recommend change then this should be properly followed up, including enlisting the power of parliament to do so. It is a step in the right direction that ministers must now report to parliament if PAC recommendations are not implemented. There is also the question of being more savvy about getting the results of select committee inquiries out to wider audiences to start debate among the general public, many of whom will be completely unaware of the work committees do. With more people than ever before about to be affected by how public money is or, increasingly, not spent, they have a right to know what their elected officials are doing on their behalf.

Institute for Government

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