Setting an example

2011-10-19 00:00

THE KwaZulu-Natal Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) certainly comes across as one of the hardest working committees in the local legislature.

Scopa is currently interrogating the audit reports on the province's government departments and related entities. It is clear from the probing questions asked, that all its members have read the masses of documents piled high on their desks.

Unlike the bungling South African Football Association (Safa) officials, who did not read the fine print, it is evident that Scopa members have been going through the reports with a fine-tooth comb. African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) member Jo-Ann Downs said she almost fell off her chair when, going through the columns of figures of the tourism authority, she noticed that the chairperson's emolument was R19 million. "I'm shocked, utterly shocked," Downs said.

Later, she described a similar reaction when reading the Liquor Board report that 12 family members are listed as working in the entity. "What's going on here and who is this family?" she asked.

There will probably be a lot more chair mishaps before the hearing is over. It turns out that both these items Downs picked up were errors in the reports. The number of zeros on the chairperson's allowance was a printing mistake and this was confirmed by provincial auditor Herman van Zyl, who sat through last week's hearings. Perhaps it was a Freudian slip, but it was clarified that the word "family" was superfluous and the Liquor Entity report should have read "number of members".

All this points to a lack of proofreading on the part of the departments, shoddy work that Scopa is not tolerating. Chairperson Makhosi Khoza called for the different portfolio committees that have oversight to scrutinise the reports. "They look nice and glossy but when you start engaging with the information contained in them, then it becomes problematic," she said.

The Scopa sittings are marked by attention to detail which is refreshing. Many of the audit problems are because of not paying attention to the little things like shoddy collation of information, lack of controls, poor record keeping and management, which all add up to undermining the credibility of government and whittling away at the public purse.

However, bigger issues are emerging from this hearing. The committee is challenging a national resolution passed five years ago that no action can be taken against public servants who fraudulently accessed social grants. All the errant employees have to do is pay back the money. "How do you convert fraud into a loan?" asked Khoza.

She went on to say that the argument that there would be a shortage of teachers if those found to have stolen the grants were fired, was shocking. The committee has resolved to investigate championing a policy revision on this matter.

Its stance has struck a chord at higher levels and national Scopa chairperson Themba Godi indicated in a radio interview that this is an issue his committee may also take up.

Here's hoping that Godi remains in Parliament. He too has been praised for his role in guarding the public purse. However, there are ructions in Godi's party, the African People's Convention (APC), with some members challenging him for leadership.

Back in KZN, Scopa members are concerned about the high level of irregular expenditure, believing that this warranted some departments getting qualified instead of unqualified audits. Irregular spending in KZN departments increased from R893 million in 2009/2010 to R1,2 billion in the 2010/11 financial year.

An interesting debate followed when Van Zyl explained the fine line between a qualified audit report and an unqualified one with matters of concern. He said the latter is not good and not something departments should be proud of. Matters of concern point to errors that raise concern. If departments can correct them it tips the scale from a qualification to a matter of concern. Van Zyl said there is room for debate on what constitutes financial statements being fairly represented and he is prepared to engage with Scopa on the issue.

Similarly, Carol Coetzee, head of the Economic Development and Tourism Department, engaged Scopa on what constitutes irregular spending and pointed to her department and the auditor general's office having different interpretations of what emergency conditions allow for bypassing normal procurement policies. It was made clear during the hearings that these are issues the committee is intent on following up with both the auditor general and the departments. That's part of the attraction of Scopa meetings — the cut and thrust of debate.

There has been a downside to the past week's hearings reflected in members' concerns over performance management within departments and whether departments are using the right indicators and measuring performance adequately. In other words, are they really fulfilling their mandates?

Judging by the performance of a number of officials who appeared before Scopa during the past week, poor performance is an issue. Many officials were ill-prepared compared with the Scopa members, having not done their homework or read the fine print.

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