Rosalea Hamilton | Need for oversight and accountability, especially now – Part I
The need for parliamentary oversight and the accountability of the executive is heightened today due to the increasing importance of government spending to offset the negative social and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, worsened by the recent destructive floods. During this second quarter (April to June 2020), all goods-producing and services industries saw a decline ranging from -5.5 per cent to -85.6 per cent, with the exception of government services which grew by 0.2 per cent.
As the COVID-related global recession persists, government spending will play an increasingly greater role in public and private life than we have previously witnessed in our lifetime. Recognising this, IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva warned governments: “Do whatever you can, but make sure you keep the receipts. We don’t want accountability and transparency to take a back seat.” Now, more than ever, effective oversight and accountability are essential to assure Jamaicans that public officials will act in the society’s best interests. But what do we really mean by ‘oversight’ and ‘accountability’ of government spending, and how do we achieve them?
DEFINING PARLIAMENTARY OVERSIGHT AND EXECUTIVE ACCOUNTABILITY
Oversight of Government’s executive decisions and spending in a democracy is the responsibility of Parliament. Our constitution gives Parliament “collective responsibility” for Cabinet’s direction and control of government (s.69(2)). This means that Parliament has a constitutional obligation to provide oversight of Cabinet’s executive decisions and the executive is obliged to make itself accountable. This is how the collective will of the people, through their members of parliament (MPs), is heard (or supposed to be heard) in a representative democracy.
‘Parliamentary oversight’ refers to the process by which the representatives of the people hold the executive responsible for its conduct and management of public affairs in accordance with the will of the people.
Parliamentary oversight relies on ‘executive accountability, which refers to the process by which the representatives require the executive to show that its conduct of public business and management of public resources are in accordance with agreed rules and standards that protect the public’s interest. Executive accountability relies on transparent, fair and accurate reporting on the activities of the executive and the supporting public administration defined in the Constitution.
The main mechanisms of parliamentary oversight are the investigations of relevant parliamentary committees (PCs), parliamentary votes on the extent to which the investigations reveal compliance with Parliament’s decisions, and on what is to be done about the findings. The effectiveness of oversight depends on the extent to which these investigations and votes can take place independent of Cabinet. That’s why the Standing Orders of the House of Representatives prohibit ministers from being a member or chairman of a PC (s.68(3)). And that’s why the chairmanship of the PCs has become controversial.
Independent investigations by the PCs are, therefore, central to effective parliamentary oversight. The PC investigations are supported by reports of professional state institutions established to compile independent accounting for public resources and to check non-compliance and abuses by other public bodies (e.g., Auditor General’s Department). These professional institutions have grown and have been strengthened over the past few years, costing taxpayers nearly $4 billion dollars annually.
They have repeatedly highlighted corrupt practices and weak governance arrangements across administrations but, with no capacity to implement effective sanctions for breaches, their reports are tabled in Parliament to support and guide Parliament’s oversight function and related action. So far, the record shows that there have been no sanctions for breaches unless the prime minister, with the parliamentary majority, decides to take action. This clearly shows that the effectiveness of accountability depends on the effectiveness of the overall parliamentary oversight process itself. It also highlights the fact that MPs do not (or rather cannot) routinely vote in a bipartisan manner, in the interest of the people they represent, to address breaches even when based on independent, professional investigations.
DECISIONS MADE IN PEOPLE’S INTEREST
Further, parliamentary oversight to ensure that executive decisions are made in the interest of the Jamaican people, and not self-interested or in the interest of a few, have been traditionally ignored and dwarfed by our legitimate concerns about corruption. With projections of a widening income gap and increase in poverty, due to the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as climate change effects, parliamentary oversight is now paramount.
However, as long as MPs represent their party, rather than their constituents, they cannot provide effective oversight of executive action and hold the executive accountable in the public’s interest. It’s not enough “that the non-executive members sit on the bipartisan committees and share responsibility for their actions and decisions”, as stated by Minister Bartlett. Active, independent, bipartisan decisions and sanctions are needed.
To give meaning to Parliament’s collective responsibility for Cabinet decisions, Jamaicans must consider the fundamental question of oversight: Can the people’s representatives in Parliament investigate the actions of the executive and the public administration, bring their findings to a bipartisan vote in the public’s interest, and take corrective action, independent of the Cabinet?
The answer is evidently no. As we consider our future, we can choose to accept the status quo or to change it. I urge Jamaicans to move to change it now, so as to better grapple with the unprecedented challenges we face and, importantly, to get a better return on the nearly $4 billion we spend annually on oversight institutions. The next article will explore what we can do to change the status quo.