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Research capsule

What is the definition of “public interest” for legislative auditors

The legislative audit is considered to be an important tool for good public governance. Every Auditor General of Québec or Auditor General of Canada report contains its share of recommendations and criticism. Because of their wide media coverage, these reports put governments on the defensive and force them to remedy the situation. But how does this exercise really serve the public interest? In fact, there is little research on the role and effectiveness of legislative auditing. The notion of public interest itself remains poorly defined.

Marie-Soleil Tremblay helped to define the notion of public interest.

Marie-Soleil Tremblay, a researcher at the École nationale d’administration publique, conducted a research project aimed at better understanding the structure, functioning and challenges of the legislative audit. She began by carrying out a comparative analysis in order to paint an overall picture of the legislative audit, before undertaking an in-depth analysis of the work of auditors in the field. In so doing, she helped to define the notion of public interest and to better explain the performance audit and its relative impact on governance.

Among other things, her work shows that auditors have different definitions as to what constitutes the public interest. In Canada, the Auditing and Assurance Standards Oversight Council uses notions such as transparency, accountability and independence to assess whether an action or policy is in the public interest. In the United States, the American Institute of CPAs defines public interest as the collective well-being of the community and institutions. In the United Kingdom, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales refuses to establish a detailed definition of public interest. These three visions inevitably modify the audit process.

Far from a simple technical exercise, the legislative audit is based on a series of theoretical and socially-constructed notions whose interpretation depends on the social or political context in which the audit is carried out. Better defining these notions makes it possible to understand under which conditions these exercises will best serve the public interest.

Marie-Soleil Tremblay’s theoretical research is echoed in current political affairs. The researcher has appeared in the media, notably to comment on the dissenting opinion of former Auditor General of Québec, Renaud Lachance, in the Charbonneau Commission’s final report. She emphasized that this disagreement was based on his analysis of the evidence before him as an auditor, and that such dissent is therefore to be expected in this type of process.