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Featured Oversight Practice

March 27, 2024
Getting at the Right Answers: New Brunswick’s PAC Calls Witnesses Back to Get Needed Answers

PACs call witnesses to attend committee hearings to shed light on how a government department or agency is implementing policies and delivering programs and services to citizens. Witnesses (typically senior public servants) should come to hearings prepared to answer PAC members’ questions in a manner that is forthcoming and provides all the information members are seeking.

New Brunswick’s PAC recently encountered a situation where they weren’t satisfied with the answers they were receiving. The way they dealt with the issue is a great example of a PAC taking the right steps to ensure it can do its job.

The background

The New Brunswick PAC, like most other PACs, receives reports from their auditor general. They also receive and hold hearings on the annual reports for the province’s various departments, crown agencies, and other publicly funded organizations within the broader public service. They will typically meet for full days over a week to review the annual reports and relevant auditor general chapters. Senior officials from the organization appear to answer PAC members’ questions.

In September 2023, the PAC invited the Chair of the Board and the Chief Executive Officer of Extra Mural / Ambulance New Brunswick (EM/ANB) to answer questions regarding the organization’s 2021-22 Report. During the proceedings, it became apparent that the witnesses were unable to fully answer several questions posed by members. In some cases, there were short delays as they deliberated to attempt to respond with the information requested and other times agreed that they would submit the information in writing at a later date. Generally, PAC members were not satisfied with the responses they were receiving.

What did the PAC do to address the issue?

Towards the end of the hearing, the Chair, Chuck Chiasson, noted members’ frustration with the response time to questions but acknowledged that it was up to the committee to determine how to overcome the issue and ensure that, as witnesses, these officials are adequately prepared to provide the information that members are seeking.

During a subsequent in camera session, the committee discussed the matter. As a result of that discussion, the PAC agreed that:

  1. The witnesses would be called back to appear before the PAC.
  2. The PAC members would submit their list of questions to the entity one week prior to the next meeting for the witnesses to be prepared to fully answer members’ questions.

How did it work out?

The witnesses were called back two weeks later and came armed with clear responses to the questions that the PAC provided in advance. At this second hearing, both members and the Chair acknowledged that it was rare to call an entity back to the committee and expressed their appreciation to the witnesses for taking the time to prepare the information being sought so that they could respond in a timely and effective manner during this second hearing.

Chuck Chiasson

“As Chair it is my responsibility to assure that our committee functions as it should, and that entities are held responsible for their spending and program delivery. To that end we require clear answers to our questions. Calling back an entity sends a clear message that we will accept nothing less.”

Chuck Chiasson
Chair of the New Brunswick Standing Committee on Public Accounts

An approach that helps ensure regular follow-up of AG recommendations

Another practice that New Brunswick’s PAC has implemented allows the committee to regularly follow up with audited entities on the status of their implementation of the AG’s recommendations.

As noted in this article, the PAC reviews annual reports in addition to the AG’s reports and will hold hearings on those reports. Each annual report they receive from government departments includes a section containing a summary of AG recommendations from recent audits conducted of the department as well as the actions taken to implement those recommendations. This practice originated from a recommendation made by the PAC in 2017, and PAC members will ask questions at hearings on the annual report regarding the implementation of outstanding recommendations.

In essence, PAC’s recommendation has made it a requirement for audited entities to provide annual status updates to the PAC on AG recommendations and provides an opportunity for members to ask questions on the matter.

CAAF observations

For PACs to be effective in their oversight responsibilities, they need to have the power and the will to hold government officials to account. Officials appearing before committee should not believe that they can get through a “one and done” hearing with the PAC and then not have to worry about appearing again. If a PAC is not satisfied with the answers they are getting, they should not hesitate to call witnesses back with the expectation that they are to come prepared with the information the PAC is seeking.

The PAC’s clear communication of their expectations to the witnesses in advance of the hearing ensured the witnesses were well prepared. In this case, submitting written questions in advance helped witnesses ensure that they came prepared with the right information.

The New Brunswick PAC took steps to ensure that they received the answers they were looking for from EM/ANB and this ultimately means more transparency, accountability and improved public administration.


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