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Oversight Tips

January 29, 2020
How Effective Questioning of Witnesses Can Make for Effective Hearings

Asking the right questions will lead to informative answers. To make public accounts committee (PAC) hearings as effective as possible, committee members should be prepared to question witnesses in a manner that gets to the core issues.

Here are five tips PAC members can consider when planning questions in advance and when asking questions during the hearing:

Oversight Tip 1

Be focused and stay within the scope of the hearing

As an elected member, your interest in the issue being studied may be broad and touch on both matters of public administration and policy. However, policy discussions should not be the focus of the PAC. Avoid veering into policy discussions with witnesses and stick to the issues and findings of the legislative auditor’s report.

Oversight Tip 2

Be concise and specific

Make sure your questions are short and avoid long preambles. The more you touch on in your question, the more this gives the witness opportunities to avoid giving a direct response. A short, specific and clear question should get you a short, specific and clear answer.

Oversight Tip 3

Avoid jargon in your questions and do not let witnesses use jargon or ‘bafflegab’

Bafflegab is the use of bureaucratic jargon, often in a way that is incomprehensible to those outside the culture of the public service. If a witness provides a response to your question that is overly technical and full of jargon, do not hesitate to use follow up questions to ask for clarification — ask yourself if the average citizen would understand the response. It is also advisable to ask the witness to provide a written response to your question following the hearing.

Oversight Tip 4

Be persistent and use follow up questions to probe deeper

Depending on how time is allocated during hearings between members, you should plan on asking direct follow up questions that build on your initial line of questioning. This is especially important if the witness does not provide a satisfactory response to your initial question. If you have a collaborative working relationship with fellow committee members, they may also choose to use some of their time to follow up on your questions. It is important that the committee makes it clear that the witnesses are not off the hook until they provide an appropriate and fulsome response on the important issues being looked at by the PAC.

Oversight Tip 5

Make corrective action the focus of the hearing

It should be assumed that the legislative auditor’s report provides detailed findings on problems and issues under study. The most effective PAC hearings focus on how to fix the problems identified in the legislative auditor’s report and whether the audited organization has taken appropriate steps to implement the auditor’s recommendations. Make this the focus of your questioning and seek commitments from witnesses. You should also make it clear that the PAC will continue to follow up with them until all recommendations have been fully implemented.


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