More information and access will improve comptroller general’s role

If you’re reading this article, you know a bit about the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO). You probably know about the executives, and maybe even the executive coordinator. But there’s another important member you should be thinking about—the comptroller general.

Not many people know how to describe, let alone pronounce, the comptroller general (the “p” is voiced, in case you were wondering), but this position is a lot less byzantine than it sounds.

I just think of the comptroller general as the “money accountability person.” They make sure that the financial decisions made by SFUO members, like spending federation money on taxis, is above board.

At a recent Board of Administration (BOA) meeting, two motions were brought forward to give the “money accountability person” more power. One expanded their role beyond being able to investigate only directly financial topics and documents, and the other gave them more authority in how complaints are first brought.

There was a long debate about both. Proponents argued it removed needless shackles from the comptroller so they could do their job better. Opponents countered that a rogue comptroller could use this authority to ruin the reputations of federation members.

In the end however, these changes are beneficial for both parties—they lead to better quality work by the comptroller, which will catch more problems, and lead to fewer misdiagnoses of problems.

First off, we need to get something out of the way—this isn’t personal.

The comptroller’s relationship with the SFUO, particularly the executive, is fairly adversarial by design. Twice this year the comptroller has put out reports exposing problems with executive spending. That can lead to tension, and a feeling that the comptroller is just out to “get” the executive.

And really, whether the comptroller should exist, or whether you think some comptrollers have taken things too far aren’t issues pertinent to the discussion. Their role will always be adversarial, so you might as well make it easy for them to get all the facts.

But what if the comptroller doesn’t have the SFUO’s best interest at heart? What if they use their investigations to implicate innocent board members? If you have such concerns, you’ll be happy to hear that the comptroller can’t actually do anything other than investigate. They just present their evidence to the board.

If the BOA doesn’t receive convincing evidence they can reject it as a frivolous report.

But while we’re on the topic of bad actors, what happens if another member of the federation is up to no good? What if the president is the problem? Or the vice-president finance, who’s in charge of human resources?

The comptroller’s position takes its strength from the idea of balance. If the problem is part of the board, then the comptroller can expose it. If the problem is the comptroller, then the board as a whole can see through it.

But having a weak comptroller general doesn’t make this ecosystem better for anyone. It just increases the mistakes and hurdles the average comptroller has to deal with, while simply trying to do their job right.