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Public accountability


Shantal Munro Knight

Public accountability

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I started out this week thinking I was going to write about innovation and the importance of this concept to participating in the knowledge economy which is shaping the world. However, I was stopped in my tracks by the report of the Auditor General which was laid in Parliament last week.  
First, thank God for whoever or whatever historical process gave birth to the position of Auditor General. I certainly do not always reflect on the importance of this position in the daily humdrum of our politics but bless him and his work. I am sure that this has to be one of the most unappreciated and perhaps unenviable positions in the entire Government service. Without him, though, how would we know the level of wastage and irregularities which continually plague political administrations?
This recent report caused me to reflect on other such reports, which altogether point to an epidemic of failures in the proper administration of public funds.  
My first thought was, how dare they? We are taxed to the hilt to service the high debt burden of this country, public sector incomes have essentially been diminished, consumers are berated every so often by politicians about particular spending habits, yet the accounting of our monies continually remains in shambles.
The Auditor General’s Report indicated that he was unable to give a favourable opinion on the Government financial statements. Anyone who runs a business or organization would know that is the last thing you want to hear from an auditor. I would assume that any sitting Government hearing the report of the Auditor General would have to feel some measure of embarrassment, but clearly whatever embarrassment is felt does not last long enough for anyone to do anything about it.
Yearly the reports remain the same – different issues perhaps but the same underlying problem.  
On the basis of what information did the board of the National Insurance Scheme determine that our monies (yours and mine) could support Four Seasons? The organization has not had an audit in eight years. How did they assess the true financial health of the organization?
More disturbing for me was the report that after investing approximately $70 million in Invest Barbados, we cannot adequately account for the results produced by that corporation. If I ran my household budget like it appears our public coffers are run, I would be out begging or, much worse, on the street.
Having worked in the public service for a short period, I have perhaps only been exposed to a minutia of the complex labyrinth that is Government accounting, but clearly something is going wrong. I think that for the most part we have a highly talented Civil Service.
I have had the good fortune to meet some very professional and hard-working Permanent Secretaries and other staff throughout the Government service. Our Parliament is usually filled with intelligent, well intentioned men and women, so why do we continually have this problem of poor accounting and more importantly, lax accountability in the system? Is this one of those things no one can understand or change? It remains elusive out in the cloud somewhere, unfixable?   
For many of us these issues remain remote, mostly because we perhaps do not see the cumulative contribution our individual taxes make to overall Government affairs. We pay our taxes, then the money belongs to the Government and we close our eyes and pray they do a good job, in Jesus’ name.
Public accountability is the bedrock of our democratic system. It is the expression of the trust that we place in the hands of our Government and policymakers to serve in our interests to the best of their ability. It is perhaps quite fine and dandy to talk about how many houses and roads you built or repaired or about how much money the country will save from privatization. It is another thing altogether to report on how much more could have been done if there was better accountability in the administration of the public finances.    
Public accountability, though, needs an engaged and vigilant public. The question is, is there enough interest on either side to generate change?
• Shantal Munro Knight is a development specialist and executive coordinator at the Caribbean Policy Development Centre. Email [email protected]

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