BC’s Auditor General has made an important change in the way his office does its work that will help guarantee the independence of his office.
In the past, part of the money that paid for the operation of the AG’s Office came from providing contracted services to organizations like crown corporations and other agencies outside of the Consolidated Revenue Fund. This became a public issue when the Auditor General took on a contract with Partnerships BC to “review” the privatization agency’s Value for Money reports on public private partnerships (P3s).
In 2006 BC forensic auditor Ron Parks criticized the role being play by the Auditor General in the process. Parks said these review engagements provided no real support for the use of P3s. He called on the Auditor General to examine P3s himself rather than just reviewing Partnerships BC’s work. And, he recommended:
The Auditor General’s work on P3 projects should be funded out of his general budget, and not performed on a fee for service basis, in order to heighten the public’s perception of independence.
Later that year I wrote a report for the CCPA that looked at the offices of the BC’s Auditor General and Information Commissioner. The report focused primarily on the underfunding of these offices but also made the point that the fee-for-service practice compromised the independence of the Office of the Auditor General. This report was covered extensively in the media.
In his report to the Public Accounts Committee on November 30th Auditor General John Doyle pointed out that in 2008/09 for the first time they did not recover any money for fee-for-service engagements. When asked if this related to the autonomy of his office he said:
That was part of the thinking around it – the sense of independence and not depending on income streams. Looking at the legislation, it makes it quite clear that our one and only client is the Legislative Assembly. Based on that overriding issue, the collection of fees didn’t seem to fit into that.
While this might seem like an issue only for the biggest of policy wonks it has broad importance for anyone interested in a public review of government policy. Government routinely stonewalls release of information through other means but the Auditor General, who reports only to the legislature, not the government, is much harder to deny. His recent work on the Olympics, homelessness and government executive compensation would have been hard to duplicate by any other body.
Strengthening the perception of the independence of his office is important for all of us.