Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The rot at the top

There is no lifeguard facility at the proposed Amerindian Village along the Blanchisseuse Road. In 2013 this did not stop the Ministry of Tourism from taking money approved for lifeguard facilities and using it for the village. Someone broke the law, but who will account? Every day, pervasive disregard and weakness in accountability questions the quality and reliability of oversight and supervision across the public sector. And, when permanent secretaries, the Constitution’s supervisors of ministries, “go missing” as the another newspaper just reported, fingers point to the Public Service Commission (PSC) which faces an annual chronicle from the Auditor General of massive gaps in accounting for the people’s money, including some allocated to the lifeguards. 

The report that Ministry of Tourism’s Permanent Secretary Juliana Johan-Boodram forgot to follow protocol for her travel to Argentina comes just as the annual public angst over the latest Auditor General’s report unfolds. The report contains numerous findings across the public sector of disregard for the law; a critical need for staff training; weaknesses in internal controls; grave concerns over the internal audit function; non-submission of information; and “pervasive issues” covering the usual complaints made by the Auditor General. Maybe forgetfulness will be added to the list. 

At the heart of the crisis, there is evidence that the country’s permanent secretaries, accounting officers, and public sector professionals are not performing the oversight roles for which they are paid. Maybe, the public sector’s gatekeepers are forgetting their duties under the law, but the PSC is also failing to provide corrective action. Disciplinary action triggered by an Auditor General’s report remains unknown.  

In the recent report, breaches at Johan-Boodram’s ministry covered lack of expenditure control, improper use of funding for development programmes, and failure to produce procurement records for audit. Even the limited sampling by the Auditor General suggests a more pervasive problem of accountability. For example, a small sample of 11 vouchers for promotions showed no evidence that $2.2 million was spent for the approved purpose. The Auditor General merely scratched the surface. So how pervasive is forgetfulness within the ministry? 

The magnitude of the dereliction of duty in the public sector is mind-boggling, even on the basis of the Auditor General’s limited sampling. In the recent report a $5 billion figure stands out at the Ministry of Energy and Energy Affairs. The Auditor General found no evidence that before it paid two companies $5 billion in subsidy claims, the ministry checked for validity and accuracy. By the time full audits are conducted at these ministries, the players would have moved along the spectrum, no consequences in sight.  

In that ministry the Auditor General uncovered major problems with revenues. The last entry in the contracts register used to determine revenues was made in 2009. There was no evidence that the ministry operated a system to monitor revenue and receivables; no evidence that it verified production data from oil companies used in the calculation of royalties from oil and gas and the country’s share of profits; no work plans and status reports on audits of production sharing contracts were provided; and overall, there was no evidence that internal audit checks were performed. No surprise therefore that in 2013 revenue from production sharing contracts declined by 26 per cent.

Each year we go through this ritual. This year the Auditor General issued strong warnings, using the word “pervasive” throughout her report. Any change initiative will encounter the pervasive tide of slackness among politicians and gatekeepers. And, without a distinct tone at the top of the public sector the Auditor General will be forgotten until next year’s report. 

Clarence Rambharat is a lawyer and a university lecturer