‘Inability to manage finances is the underlying root of service delivery collapse’
AN INABILITY to manage finances properly is the root cause of botched service delivery – and a failure by top government officials to take audits seriously is the reason so many municipalities and provincial and national departments fail to get a clean bill of financial health.
This was the blunt message delivered by Auditor General Terrence Nombembe yesterday at an unprecedented meeting of parliamentary and provincial legislature committees tasked with making sure the government is doing what it is supposed to do and is spending taxpayers’ money wisely.
The meeting took place in the context of President Jacob Zuma’s pledge to root out corruption and turn around failures in the delivery of crucial services.
While scrutiny of audit reports by the Office of the Auditor General has traditionally rested with public accounts committees, Nombembe was in Parliament to urge the committees that oversee individual departments in the national and provincial legislatures to start using them as tools to sharpen up their game in holding officials to account.
“The reality in South Africa is that … you need to have people who understand finances,” Nombembe said. “Our assessment is that the quality of financial skills, disciplines and execution in every department that we have got a concern about, is rather weak and shaky.”
There were “pockets of excellence here and there”, mostly in national departments, but skills were more scarce at provincial level and “when you get down to local government, they’re spread very thin on the ground”, Nombembe said.
Ironically, most service delivery is the task of local and provincial government, and not national departments.
Nombembe urged MPs to act on the findings presented in the reports compiled by his office. “The information is there. The question is, how do you act on that?”
Some of the problems his auditors picked up included basic failings, such as officials being unable to produce the receipts for money spent on goods or services. Without a paper trail, it was difficult to reconcile departments’ accounts, Nombembe said, resulting in qualified audit opinions.
“The underlying root of the collapse of service delivery is the inability to manage finances,” said Nombembe.
He said internal auditors could be recruited and that their skills may not be as scarce as was popularly believed: “There may not be a shortage of these skills. They are in abundance in the private sector, in retirement homes, in holiday homes. Our ability to attract them may not have been as focused and determined as it may have been.”
Nombembe stressed the importance of good leadership. Departments that failed to pass financial muster were often headed by officials who were unavailable for meetings with his auditors, or who failed to take the audit process seriously. This behaviour showed that some civil servants entrusted with important responsibilities did not respect the work done to ensure their departments’ books were clean.
Nombembe said the onus was on MPs and members of provincial legislatures (MPLs) to ensure there was clean governance and that money was spent properly. Without decisive leadership, problems would persist, he warned.
He said it was up to those who served on oversight committees to crack the whip on government officials to shape up when it came to financial management, and not the auditor general’s office.
“We will be excited, as an office, if action could be taken on the findings,” Nombembe said.