The report of the Director of the National Audit Office (NAO) for the fiscal year 2019-2020 is out. It is of particular significance this year given that it comes to confirm in a large measure the veracity of the various allegations that have been levelled since last year in relation to the ‘Emergency Procurements’ of drugs and equipment in the wake of the first lockdown in March 2020. Much of what had been criticised as unlawful and contrary to established procedures in the public service by politicians and the media has been validated by the NAO on the basis of the information contained in the files consulted and information made available to it. What is however unacceptable relates to the refusal of the ICAC to allow the Audit Director access to the contracts allocated under the Emergency Procurements before the completion of its audit.
Beyond the controversies regarding the ‘Emergency Procurements’ and addressed by the NAO, the 498-page report has again drawn attention to the considerable waste of public funds in diverse ministries, which came to its attention. Accordingly, huge amounts have gone waste; systems have been bypassed to draw unjustified advantages, while loss has been occasioned in other places due to dereliction of duty and absence of adequate follow-up on projects. No doubt more or other such cases will be uncovered next year. There will be shock and consternation at the abuses pointed out. They will be picked up again by the Public Accounts Committee and commented upon adversely and the public will keep treating that as a routine occurrence. All this ritual, it seems, will not stop the wastage of public funds from continuing. In the meantime, the public will keep contributing by paying up all sorts of taxes to fill the coffers of the Treasury in support of this system of perpetuation of wasted expenditures.
If this sort of thing had been happening in a private firm, in the majority of cases, the shareholders/directors would be taking the immediate appropriate redress actions in the light of the audit report to stop hurting the firm’s interests. The job of auditors is to point out flaws in the system and not to implement remedial action; it is for the management of the concerned firm to recommend to the board actions to be taken for expeditious redress against the damage being done in the light of audit remarks.
In the case of the public sector, it is the efficiency of the government’s revenue collection and its spending that call the attention of the Audit Office. It is for the top civil servants to pick up the points raised by the Director of Audit, analyse the flaws that give rise to shortcomings (in the case of revenue collections) and abuses (in the case of expenses undertaken or not undertaken on time or undertaken in such a manner as to result in wasteful duplication of expenses). The initiative for proposing corrective actions should come from the top civil servants who should implement them unless not endorsed explicitly by the Ministers.
The procedure is more or less the same in the case of parastatal bodies, except that in these cases, the corrective action proposed by the public servants employed by those institutions has to be endorsed by the Boards of the parastatal bodies. In such cases, the Minister comes in but not as directly as it is the case in central government. The boards are of course accountable to their Ministries but less directly so than in the case of central government departments. Thus, the boards of parastatals are more prone to abusive decisions.
So, what does one do? Go on piling up annual audit reports, even if they drew attention to aggravating cases of abuses? Accept the reproaches of malpractices to which attention is being drawn as if they were matters of routine? Set up the resulting inaction against the lapses pointed out as a local trade mark for governance?
Action can only be taken effectively if the responsibility for seeing to it that what ought to be done correctly is laid down specifically on the shoulders of clearly identifiable individuals. It should be made clear right from the beginning as to who picks up the buck when things go wrong. Second, one cannot get away from punishment for under- or wrongful performance on public contracts and expenditures. It is when exemplary sanctions are actually made to apply that the tide of abuse will start being stemmed. Lawmakers have to explicitly set down sanctions to follow for deliberate slippage in the execution of public duties.
Who can decide to follow this route for stopping the kinds of abuses pointed out in the audit reports? It is only those who can come up with clean hands that can do so. But that seems to be another tall order…
* Published in print edition on 26 March 2021