Auditor-general Tsakani Maluleke on a ‘properly professionalised’ civil service
Competence, stability and accountability are crucial, says Maluleke
Auditor-general Tsakani Maluleke says that SA needs a “properly professionalised” civil service characterised by stability, competence and a culture of performance and accountability.
Without this there will be no real progress against the massive irregular and wasteful expenditure that continues to plague the public sector and deplete the fiscus.
“Beyond competence what we’re seeing as a real issue is stability. If directors-general and chief financial officers don’t stay long enough in their roles to build a competent team around them and a disciplined set of controls you really can’t make any sustainable gains,” says Maluleke.
The issue of tenure is problematic and it is up to the politicians to address it, she says.
“All our leaders across both spheres of government need to understand the impact of this level of instability.
“Government institutions need to be characterised by performance and a critical part of that is stability at key levels.”
The 2019/20 government audit outcomes report Maluleke tabled last week showed irregular expenditure of R54bn. This is down from R66bn the year before but only because almost a third of government departments and state-owned entersprises (SOEs) failed to disclose irregular expenditure, she says.
“The truth is it hasn’t improved much. The disciplines and financial controls that ought to characterise how procurement is done are not there.
“As a consequence contracts are issued without going out to tender, or they’re extended beyond the allowable period and the allowable amount, quotes are not properly sourced, specifications are not implemented the way they were designed — the same sort of matters my predecessor reported on.”
In 2017 the late Kimi Makwetu reported irregular expenditure of R45bn, which he said would have been R65bn if there had been proper reporting.
The controls were not in place, Makwetu said. They’re still not in place, says Maluleke, who was his deputy for seven years before being appointed AG in November 2020.
“They’re not there, they’re not adequate, they’re not being implemented effectively.
“When things go wrong people are not swift to detect that they’ve gone wrong. And when they are detected the consequences that ought to follow are not being applied.”
That is the role of the accounting officer, the DG, the head of department and, in public entities, the board.
The Public Finance Management Act and Public Audit Act amendment place them at the centre of accountability, Maluleke says.
“They’re the ones who should have the controls in place, who should respond if there’s an audit issue that comes up. By taking action, whether cancelling a contract that has been investigated and confirmed to be problematic, recovering losses, disciplining their officials internally and fixing the controls that had failed.”
If accounting officers don’t play their role then it is MECs and cabinet ministers who should be supervising them to ensure that they do, she adds.
And it is parliament that should be holding these politicians accountable if they’re not doing this.
The figures presented by Maluleke demonstrate quite clearly that this is not happening nearly enough.
“But we are seeing that the legislatures in different provinces and the National Assembly are starting to play a stronger role in holding accounting officers to account, and that executive authorities are starting to do more.
“The central point though is that we’ve got to get accounting officers who are competent appointed and staying in their roles long enough to have the impact they should.
“You can draw a direct line between the tenure of an accounting officer and CFO on the one hand and audit outcomes on the other.”
In short, what the country needs is a “properly professionalised” civil service, she says. “One that is characterised by skills and stability, and where there is a culture of performance and consequences for poor performance
Is she saying the civil service needs to be depoliticised?
“We’re saying that the civil service needs to be professionalised and given space to deliver,” she responds.
“The accounting officer needs to be accountable to the political leadership but needs to take charge of the administration, the people who are employed, systems, consequences, performance and delivery.”
Meanwhile, new powers given to her office two years ago are making themselves felt. “We’re seeing a greater level of responsiveness. Many accounting officers are taking the action they need to.”
But beyond responding to specific irregularities they need to look at the internal controls that are failing to prevent these irregularities.
“Only then do you lessen the chances of a repeat offence.”
They also need to be better at implementing consequences such as recovering lost funds, cancelling dodgy contracts, reporting matters to law enforcement and disciplining offenders.
Her office now has the power to refer cases for investigation, which it did most spectacularly during its “real time” audits of Covid-19 transactions when the personal protective equipment cases which horrified the nation were referred to the Special Investigating Unit (SIU).
These were dealt with quickly but more “historical matters” have not been given the same treatment, she says.
“Matters we refer at the end of an audit are taking a long time.”
The AG’s new powers do not include the power to refer cases to private investigative agencies if the SIU, Hawks and SAPS take too long.
Maluleke says there’s been a reduction in
instances of intimidation of her auditors by government departments and SOEs but suspects this may be because the working at home arrangement necessitated by Covid-19 created fewer opportunities for it to happen.
She’s concerned that the intimidation may return to pre-pandemic levels and discourage the highly qualified individuals she wants to attract to the AG’s office.
“Threats to the lives of individuals who’ve chosen to serve SA in this way, who quite honestly could be doing different work in the private sector within and outside the country but have chosen to do this.
“We’ve got to find ways to push back against these threats because they make it unattractive for our really professional teams to be here.
“If we’re unable to stem this tide it’s going to become incredibly difficult to recruit and still more difficult to retain the kind of people we need.”
The controls are not adequate, they’re not being implemented effectively
Tsakani Maluleke Auditor-general