Taking the Auditor-General More Seriously

29 October 2007

Issued by: Derek Luyt and Jay Kruuse
Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM).
Tel: +27 (0) 46 – 603 8830/8358
Cell: +27 (0) 0722533957
Fax: +27 (0) 46 – 622 7215
E-mail: d.luyt@ru.ac.za

You have to feel sorry for the hard-pressed staff toiling away in the offices of the Eastern Cape Auditor-General. No-one seems to take them seriously enough.

Every year they sift through the financial records of the province’s government departments, in accordance with the Public Audit Act. Then they submit detailed reports on the financial
management of each department to the legislature. These reports are important, because they give the clearest picture available to the public of how provincial departments are managing their – our – money. And yet no-one seems to take them seriously enough.

The Auditor-General examines the financial records of departments to see if they are complying, as they are required to do, with the legal requirements for financial management, and especially the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA). The aim of this Act is “to secure transparency, accountability, and sound management” of the finances of government departments. It’s a good and well-intentioned piece of legislation, but unfortunately few in the Eastern Cape government seem to be willing or able to enforce it.

The Auditor-General’s reports contain recommendations for improving, where necessary, the financial management of departments. In making these recommendations, the Auditor-General is acting on behalf of the public. After all, the departments are spending huge amounts of public money, and the public wants to know if its money is being properly used. The Auditor-General’s annual audit reports provide the answers.

But the most important question is this: Who ensures that the recommendations of the Auditor-General are implemented? Who, in other words, is responsible for ensuring that the public’s money is properly managed?

The answer, sadly, is that those responsible for ensuring that the public’s money is properly managed – Heads of Department and ultimately MECs – are not doing so. The Office of the Auditor-General is a Chapter Nine institution, and cannot make binding or enforceable decisions to compel departments and their accounting officers to implement its recommendations.

The Auditor-General’s recommendations should be implemented by responsible government officials or, ultimately, their political bosses. But they hardly ever are. It is not surprising, therefore, that the recently released Report of the ad hoc Committee on the Review of Chapter Nine and Associated Institutions noted that the “disregard by government departments and other public institutions of recommendations made by the Auditor-General in audit reports is a cause for concern”. Of course it is, not just for the Auditor-General, but for the public as well.

The Auditor-General recently released his 2006/07 audit reports on the thirteen Eastern Cape provincial departments. They do not make encouraging reading, especially as far as the reports on the major departments of Education, Health, Housing and Social Development are concerned. They reveal, not for the first time, numerous areas of noncompliance with the PFMA by accounting officers and officials working in these departments. This has a direct and detrimental impact upon the effective use of public funds and the delivery of social services to the citizens of this province.

Accounting officers commit “financial misconduct” in terms of Section 81 of the PFMA if they “wilfully or negligently” fail to comply with sections 38, 39, 40, 41 or 42 of the Act, or if they permit unauthorised, irregular or fruitless and wasteful expenditure. As the Auditor-General’s reports make clear, the accounting officers of the departments of Education, Health, Housing and Social Development have all been implicated in breaches of the PFMA.

The Auditor-General pointed out that the Eastern Cape Department of Education did not comply with sections 38 (1) and 40 (1) of the PFMA. Section 38 (1) prescribes the general responsibilities of the accounting officer, and section 40 (1) prescribes the reporting responsibilities of the accounting officer. The Department’s accounting officer also did not comply with section 40 (5) of the Act, because he did not submit a report explaining his inability to comply with sections 38 (1) and 40 (1) to the MEC and Provincial Treasury. The Auditor-General also identified fruitless and wasteful expenditure of R11 million, and irregular expenditure of R394,8 million in the Department’s records, yet there was no disclosure of this fruitless, wasteful or irregular expenditure in the Department’s annual financial statements.

As a result of these and other problems, the Auditor-General issued the Education Department with an “adverse opinion”, noting that its financial statements did not “present fairly, in all material respects, the financial position” of the Department. This is bad enough, but in the ten preceding years the Department received ten audit disclaimers. A disclaimer is issued when a department has been unable to provide the records needed by the Auditor-General to carry out its audit. The Auditor-General is then left with little or no option and issues a disclaimer which effectively means that no opinion can be expressed on the state of the department’s financial statements.

The Department of Health was also issued with an adverse audit opinion (having received nine disclaimers and one qualified audit in the preceding ten years), and the Auditor-General noted, amongst others, the following areas of non-compliance with the PFMA during the 2006/07 financial year:

The Department failed to ensure that records and documents were made available during the audit, as required by section 41 of the Act. Because of this, the Auditor-General noted that it was not possible to perform a “complete and proper audit.” This failure to provide information is considered financial misconduct in terms of section 81 of the PFMA; Proper invoices could not be produced for payments totalling R29,7 million, and so it was not clear that the people who received these payments “should have received them”. Further, there was no proof that goods and services for which the Department paid R126 million were actually delivered; Expenditure of R68.3m paid to suppliers for goods and services was unauthorized; The budgeted expenditure for programmes 2, 3, 4 and 8 was overspent by R85.3m and was considered unauthorized expenditure; The Department did not disclose fruitless and wasteful expenditure of R130 000 in its
financial statements. The Auditor-General discovered additional fruitless and wasteful expenditure of R616 802, but pointed out that, since the audit only checked a sample of the Department’s records, the “full extent of fruitless and wasteful expenditure is not known”; Bid committee minutes and original bid documentation for bid awards to the value of R40.9m could not be provided during the audit. “In these circumstances,” noted the Auditor-General, “the possibility of collusion, fraud and corruption cannot be excluded.”

The Department of Social Development also received an adverse opinion, (with seven disclaimers and one qualified audit in the previous ten years), and the Auditor-General noted, amongst others, the following areas of non-compliance, during the 2006/07 financial year: The Department was unable to provide accurate listing of payments made to the amount of R342.6m. The Auditor-General was therefore “unable to determine the completeness and accuracy of the transfer payments reported”; In terms of agreements between the Department and NGO’s, funding to the latter was to be based on actual service provided. However, the NGO’s were paid on the basis of their allocation, and not on the claims they submitted. This resulted in overpayments of R15.9m. Payments to NGO’s amounting to R55.7m were found to have been made without approval from the accounting officer and the chief financial officer as required by departmental procedures, and payments of R1.2m were made to NGO’s that appeared to have ceased operating However, the Auditor-General was unable to determine the full extent of such payments “without a complete investigation”; Various instances of irregular expenditure, including payments totalling R5.1m which could not be supported by adequate documentation and the absence of a competitive bidding process for services costing R7.4m. The Auditor-General noted, with regard to such irregular expenditure, that “No disclosure of the amounts was made in the annual financial statements and…it was not possible to determine the full extent of irregular expenditure”; The Department could not provide adequate documentation needed for the audit of compensation of employees, and it was not possible to determine the validity and accuracy of such payments. The total figure for compensation of employees included in note 4 to the annual financial statements was R222.3 million; An amount of R7.3m paid out as performance awards was made in the absence of approval from the executive authority. Such payment was regarded by the Auditor-General as irregular expenditure.

The Department of Housing managed its finances somewhat better than the other three departments, and it received a qualified opinion (having received nine disclaimers and two qualified audits in the previous eleven years). Nevertheless, the Auditor-General noted, amongst other problems, that the Department had not complied with all the requirements of section 38(1) (j) of the PFMA before transferring funds to municipalities.

In view of the numerous breaches of the PFMA identified by the Auditor-General in the Departments of Education, Health and Social Development during the audit of their 2006/07 financial records, the Public Service Accountability Monitor calls on their respective MEC’s and accounting officers – and the Provincial Treasury – to explain why disciplinary action (and criminal action where appropriate) has not been and should not be instituted against officials responsible for this non-compliance with the PFMA.

We are aware, of course, that this call is likely to fall on deaf ears. Given the dismal failure of the Eastern Cape government to implement either the recommendations of the Auditor-General or disciplinary action with regard to breaches of the PFMA and instances of financial misconduct committed in the past, one lesson becomes clear: the public, civil society and the media must strengthen their capacity to hold politicians and government officials accountable for their mismanagement of public money.

This message is contained in the “Report of the ad hoc Committee on the Review of Chapter 9 and Associated Institutions”. The Committee stated that the Auditor-General “has identified the need to inform the public of its work as a priority and has begun to engage with the media and with civil society in this regard. In the case of civil society, fostering such relationships may become increasingly important, particularly with regard to issues of corruption”.

For a start, the public should read the Auditor-General’s reports in order to appreciate more fully the seriousness of the problems associated with financial mismanagement in the Eastern Cape. By reading these reports, citizens will be better placed to insist that the Auditor-General’s recommendations are implemented by those responsible for doing so. They will also be better placed to insist that disciplinary action (and criminal action where appropriate) is instituted against officials responsible for non-compliance with the PFMA. It is their Constitutional right to do so.

Secondly, Heads of Department need to be more responsive to their oversight bodies, and to fully account to them for the management of their department’s finances. At the same time, members of these Standing Committees, including the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, need to be more assertive in insisting that Heads of Department be held accountable for improving the management of departmental finances. In particular, they need to ensure that departmental turnaround strategies, based on Auditor-General recommendations and designed to meet financial management shortcomings, go beyond the paper on which they are written.

It is high time that the Eastern Cape government started taking the hard-pressed staff toiling away in the offices of the Eastern Cape Auditor-General more seriously. But this is unlikely to happen until we, the public, do so too.

The PSAM has made the Auditor-General’s 2006/07 annual audit reports for the Eastern Cape Departments of Education, Health, Housing and Social Development available at www.psam.org.za. Click on the “What’s New” and “Reports and Papers” icons, or call 046-603 8358 for further information.