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Poor accountability behind schools infrastructure backlog

2018-10-28 09:00

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Christine Botha

Recent reports outlining the vastness of "irregular" and "fruitless and wasteful" expenditure incurred by state departments left the public numb.

According to media reports the Auditor-General (AG) of South Africa recently announced in Parliament that the state's "fruitless and wasteful expenditure" defined as "expenditure which was made in vain and would have been avoided had reasonable care been exercised" had increased by 200%, from just under R1bn in the previous financial year to R2.5bn.

This waste of valuable resources also manifested in the audited financial statements of the Department of Basic Education (DBE). According to the AG's report, in the DBE's 2017/18 annual report, the DBE's "irregular expenditure" – essentially expenditure incurred in contravention of legislation – amounted close to R154.478m in the 2017/18 financial year. This, according to the AG's report, appears to be mainly due to supply chain processes not being followed. 

Central to this frustration is the fact that the frail chain of accountability in service delivery of a crucial aspect of access to basic education, namely infrastructure, appears to be a major recurring hindrance. The Financial and Fiscal Commission (the FFC) briefed the Portfolio Committee on Basic Education on 9 October and emphasised the lack of service delivery performance of the Accelerated School Infrastructure Delivery Initiative (Asidi). The FFC is constitutionally mandated to make recommendations on financial and fiscal matters of all organs of state.

The Asidi was introduced in 2011/12 to address the dire condition of public school infrastructure by allocating funds for this purpose. The initiative aimed to upgrade public schools to meet the 2013 Minimum Uniform Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure (Infrastructure Norms and Standards), which also provides deadlines for the provision of basic services such as water, electricity and sanitation to public schools and eliminating school infrastructure backlogs.

The school infrastructure backlog grant, an indirect grant, was specifically created to fund the Asidi and is spent by the DBE on behalf of the provincial education departments. The grant however, was only meant to be a temporary "high impact" intervention grant according to the FFC. One would therefore assume its spending would have reflected this.

Yet, as the FFC pointed out, the spending of the grant – despite improving in 2017/18 – had been poor, with an average spending performance of only 66% since 2011. This – coupled with the astonishing lack of progress on Asidi targets, such as the fact that only 189 "inappropriate schools" of the initial 510 targeted had been replaced by March 2018 – cannot simply be accepted by Parliament.

A key recurring problem appears to be the lack of oversight in the accountability chain. As the FFC pointed out, the Asidi school projects are managed by two implementing agents – namely the Development Bank of Southern Africa and Eskom. They in turn appoint subcontractors, who again appoint small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) to implement the projects. The chain of accountability is weak, with little oversight.

Critical weaknesses, according to the FFC's briefing, include "poor communication and information sharing", lack of an "effective monitoring system of service providers" and importantly, "disincentives related to the implementing agents not being the owner of the project".

The FFC also noted that school infrastructure projects at provincial level are further compromised by the fact that the planning, budgeting and implementation thereof is carried out by different departments and implementing agents – creating further lack of oversight and control. However, the delivery of proper school infrastructure remains the ultimate responsibility of the DBE, who has to account for it.

This fact was confirmed by the Eastern Cape High Court in Bhisho in July 2018, in the matter of Equal Education and Amatolaville Primary School v the Minister of Basic Education and Others. In this matter, Regulation 4(5)(a) of the Infrastructure Norms and Standards was, among others, declared unconstitutional as it essentially provided a loophole of accountability for the DBE by making implementation of the Infrastructure Norms and Standards subject to the resources and co-operation of other governmental departments.

This recurring theme of underperformance of the grant and failure to meet infrastructure targets largely due to lack of oversight in the accountability chain, was also emphasised by the FFC's briefing to the Portfolio Committee on Basic Education in October 2017. The FFC emphasised that R3.68bn of the grant was unspent from 2011/12 to 2016/17, and more importantly, that the unspent amount of 30% of the total grant allocation "implies there is enough money available in the system to address the historical backlogs in school infrastructure".

The FFC emphasised that an amount of R263m in "irregular expenditure" was reported by the DBE for 2016/17, and, in most cases, this relates to implementing agents appointed to roll out Asidi projects not following proper procurement processes.

In the FFC's briefing of October 2018, it strongly advised that the DBE should develop "clear performance evaluation frameworks" for its grants with specific performance indicators that one can monitor and that these indicators should be based on "quality, cost and time factors". Furthermore, more stringent penalties for underperforming implementing agents were also recommended, as per previous years.

These FFC recommendations are practical measures that should be reasonably easy to design and implement without much delay. There have been proposals, such as the much-debated Public Audit Amendment Bill (PAA Bill), which might in the future see the AG issue a certificate of debt and recovering this loss directly from a responsible party. However, there are means to address these systemic flaws now, such as the FFC's recommendations.

The South African public and Parliament cannot simply accept that there are not enough resources to ensure safe schools, especially where funds are clearly wasted. Infrastructure and safe schools form an integral part of the right to education, provided for in Section 29 of the Constitution.

Without safe schools, adequate sanitation and clean water this constitutional right would mean very little in reality and the DBE has the ultimate constitutional responsibility to give effect thereto. Parliament therefore must ensure the DBE enforces accountability and closes these glaring loopholes by applying the FFC's recommendations in the delivery of school infrastructure. We cannot simply accept this situation.

- Christine Botha is a legal officer at the Centre for Constitutional Rights.

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Read more on:    education  |  schools
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