Accountability is crucial

2013-11-14 00:00

HOW many more times do we have to witness the Standing Committee On Public Accounts (Scopa) laying into politicians and their departments’ public servants over wasted, frivolous or corruptly spent public funds before something is done?

Sadly, this state of affairs continues under the watchful eye of the powers that be, who show a limited sense of urgency to rid the government of the associated risks linked to wasteful expenditure of public funds.

Is there political will to take action against officials who do not abide by the regulations governing the use of taxpayers’ money?

In recent years, those falling foul of Scopa have been given little more than a slap on the wrist. Scopa, while having the power to subpoena public servants and politicians to appear before it, cannot mete out punishment. This is left to the MECs or senior managers. Unfortunately, their willingness to wield the rod is rarely seen. Public servants who tremble at the prospect of appearing before the committee are then protected by a culture of entrenched cadre deployment, which makes it difficult to take action against errant fellow comrades.

It is common knowledge that the initiator of disciplinary action may ultimately land in hot water, for one reason or another. So, instead of taking action, heads of department use every trick in the book to avoid the ensuing embarrassment. Heads of department use phrases like “we are investigating” or “investigations are continuing”, to make it appear as if action is being taken, but it is, most often, a ruse to stall investigations.

Even when investigations are conducted, findings are unlikely to be made public, on the grounds that civil or criminal charges might result.

As a result of this lack of accountability, the KwaZulu-Natal provincial government recorded a total of R2,2 billion in irregular expenditure as at March 2013.

Year after year, the auditor-general has pointed out that there are inadequate record-keeping systems in place in some KZN government departments.

The lack of a paper trail suits some and excuses are made to ensure the system does not change. Scopa again made this observation when it held public hearings for the departments that managed their finances poorly in 2012/13. It was in this spirit that parliamentarians serving on Scopa demanded that those found responsible for the transgressions be brought to book. The tone and message coming from parliamentarians were welcome and encouraging, but more is needed from them if the mismanagement of finances is to come to an end. It is not adequate for Scopa merely to ask for breakdowns of irregular and unauthorised expenditure from departments, or to be furnished with the names of those who have been hauled before a disciplinary committee, as they have done.

The Public Finance Management Act is very clear on what heads of departments need to do to prevent unauthorised, irregular and wasteful expenditure.

Where an officials fails to perform his or her duties, he or she is deemed to have committed financial misconduct, which should be followed by disciplinary action. But this is seldom enforced.

It cannot be business as usual if there is to be proper management and accounting of our public resources.

Disciplinary action should be taken against public servants who fail to prevent irregular expenditure. The starting point for the rolling of heads has to be the heads of department themselves, who should be held accountable for their subordinates’ mismanagement. Failure to act against heads of department will mean that next year, Scopa will once again complain about the findings and express a desire for action to be taken against those responsible.

Mechanisms have to be put in place to ensure the performance agreements they sign are strictly adhered to.

Accountability cannot be over emphasised if there is to be proper management of the public funds. But this requires the premier and MECs to play their part.

This is possible if they show commitment and the will to ensure that the noises made by parliamentarians about disciplining senior managers are not trapped in the KZN Legislature corridors, but find their way into the departments.

• Mayibongwe Maqhina is a senior political correspondent at The Witness.

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