Audit Report: Déjà vu!

There is clearly so much of taxpayers’ money wasted, unpardonable particularly when the servicing level of our national debt has already exceeded the level indicated by experts as being acceptable

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

In medicine, the condition known as déjà vu is associated with epilepsy that arises from a part of the brain known as the temporal lobe, hence called temporal lobe epilepsy. This experience is triggered by an anomalous electrical discharge in the brain, and it creates a strong sensation that an event or experience currently being experienced has already been experienced in the past.

In common parlance déjà vu means what it means in French: something that one has already seen before. This description exactly fits the annual Director of Audit’s Report for Mauritius.

In fact, it is known in advance exactly what it will contain, and this is confirmed in the contents of all the Audit Reports that have come down to us over the years, through successive governments irrespective of political colour.

As usual, the Report is damning about all manner of unacceptable things happening in government departments and parastatal bodies. You name it and it is there. Delays in completion of projects that inflate the initial costs at the expense of taxpayer money; irregularities in procurement procedures and award of contracts; favouritism of various kinds, in various sectors and at different levels to political heavyweights or protégés; abuse of their position by sundry heads of bodies, such as acquiring big cylinder vehicles, misusing them for non-official purposes and so on; abuse, misappropriation and diversion if not siphoning of funds; unaccountable gaps in the finances of organizations; acquisition of outdated or soon-to-be obsolete equipments; stocks of unused equipments that are irreparable… Readers can prolong the list for themselves: there will be no dearth of issues of dysfunctions and irregularities to identify.

One must really feel sorry for the Director of Audit and the staff of the department, who year in year out have to not only compile but come face to face with the seemingly endless list of facts that can leave the citizen depressed about the state of the country. There is clearly so much of taxpayers’ money wasted, unpardonable particularly when the servicing level of our national debt (as part of GDP) has already exceeded the level indicated by experts as being acceptable.

This money could have gone towards the creation of employment or provide much needed supplies across the board, amongst other things. There are so many wrongs factored into the system due to the egos, greed and vanities of people who are in a position of wielding power, tweaking procedures or manipulating resources to ends which are clearly not in the national interest.

And again predictably, there will be loud clamours and debates in Parliament, and in public by a plethora of civil society spokespersons and trade unionists about the ills that the Audit Report uncovers. Soon enough, these noises will die down, and there will be official undertaking to bring about corrective measures and make sure that rules and regulations are strictly followed henceforth. Until the following year, when everybody, from politicians to the people, wake up to yet another Audit Report which repeats exactly similar – often the same! — dysfunctionalities, followed by similar comments and similar undertakings…

It had been hoped that with the formal setting up of the Ministry of Good Governance, things would be different, but that hope has been consistently belied even as from the Audit Report 2016, the year after the new Ministry came into being.

I will restrict my comments to a couple of issues in the sector I am familiar with, the Ministry of Health and Quality of Life (MOHQL). For example, as far as equipment is concerned the gaps and lags have already been highlighted and clearly need to be addressed urgently, However, one glaring lack in this regard is the absence of a proper local cadre of clinical engineers (aka biomedical engineers) for the preventive maintenance and repair of these equipments which are nowadays loaded with sophisticated electronic software. These clinical engineers have a first degree in either physics or electronics and then receive accredited training specifically in medical equipment both theoretical and practical. We need at least one such clinical engineer for each Regional Hospital.

The tragic irony is that when a Mauritian comes back to his country with a degree in Biomedical Engineering, there is no provision for him to undergo the practical training of two years needed by the Council of Professional Engineers so as to be fully registered. Why can’t MOHQL offer such a scheme, just as it provides for pre-registration clinical training for medical graduates? I personally know about someone who was a laureate and had a biomedical degree but had to go back because of this lack of training facilities locally. Not a way to retain our bright minds isn’t it?

Then there is the question of disposal of medical waste. There has existed for long years at MOHQL an expert report recommending the need to set up a single facility that would handle all the medical waste in the country, including that of the private clinics against payment – and therefore an additional source of revenue to the government –, which would be more efficient and cost-efficient as against the current practice of each regional hospital having its own incinerator. It would make enormous sense for this project to be implemented without any further delay. Will this happen?

Next is a central warehouse for stocking our pharmaceuticals and biologicals, to replace the obsolete and absolutely inadequate one at Plaines Lauzun. It is the reason for so many drugs going waste and for the impossibility to do a proper forward planning by the dedicated pharmacy cadre of the Ministry. Too many years have already gone dilly-dallying about such an essential requirement that concerns drugs whose bill runs into hundreds of millions of rupees.

Another point relates to cost-cutting and cost-recovery as two tools which, used properly, can lead to the much touted efficiency gains that are desired in any sector or ministry. I recall, when I was at the ‘headquarters’ (which I cynically refer to as ‘head-quarters’) of MOHQL, the Minister of Finance had opined at some stage that while bureaucracy is here to stay, it must be creative and innovative. But the point was whether his officers were willing to listen to or allow for some of these innovative ideas to be implemented, or whether they preferred to maintain rigidities so as not to disturb their comfort zones?

For example, cost-recovery can be combined with allocation of some dedicated lines to encourage departmental autonomy and development, and give a boost to staff in certain areas of activity. Even a small percentage, say 5 to 10% of recovered revenue — the rest going to the Consolidated Fund — can been ploughed back at source. This would have sent a strong signal that those who perform can expect to be rewarded by measures that would improve the functioning of their respective divisions and sectors.

This is the case with government laboratories, which need continuous upgrading of equipment and training of staff. The brains at the Ministry of Finance could surely work out a standard procedure, with oversight from the CPB, to ensure the transparent utilization of such funds. For example, setting a standing committee made up of the members from technical staff who rotate at regular intervals. They would decide about equipment to buy on a priority basis, and be given the leeway to avoid the cumbersome bureaucratic procedures that cause considerable delays, not to mention frustrations. This would inevitably lead to a more efficient service. Further, instead of waiting to be offered training slots abroad, such training could be planned ahead and opportunities sought and paid for, even if partially.

Similarly with the taxes on tobacco and alcohol. The revenue collected from these sources is quite substantial. The example of some developed countries could have been followed, where part of this revenue is put to use (in the case of alcohol and tobacco) in educational campaigns aimed at the public and meant to combat these wrong habits, and with success. It goes without saying that such campaigns involve personnel who need to be trained in the preparation of materials, field workers who have to work closely with small groups, besides having to engage professional advertising firms which tend to be expensive.

There is no dearth of simple, practical ideas that can lead to much improvement in terms of efficiency, avoidance of wastage as well as incentivize the personnel serving in the different ministries. The question is, is anyone willing to listen? Valeur du jour – and this goes back many years – sadly the answer is a resounding ‘NO’.

* Published in print edition on 29 March 2019

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