‘In­abil­ity to man­age fi­nances is the un­der­ly­ing root of ser­vice de­liv­ery col­lapse’

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - NEWS - SIYABONGA MKHWANAZI

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.

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