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BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Watchdogs of the public purse


TONY BEST

BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Watchdogs of the public purse

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THE OFFICES HAVE different names in different places. In Barbados, it’s the Audit Office and the annual report of the Auditor General Leigh Trotman that’s submitted to Parliament in accordance with the nation’s Constitution and the Financial Management and Audit Act 2007 is considered essential reading by members of the House of Assembly and the Senate.

In Washington, lawmakers, bureaucrats and a host of others know it as the Government Accountability Office, a sprawling agency with a staff of about 3 000 bean-counters who check on the way the Federal government spends trillions of dollars.

But in New York City, the fiscal watchdog goes by the name of the office of the Comptroller while in Iraq people know it as the Audit Board and in Tunisia, it is La Cour des Comptes, the court of auditors.

Whatever the name, the bottom line is essentially the same: keep the feet of government officials to the fiscal fire.

Almost every United Nations member state has an office of number crunchers whose work varies in quality. The differences were spotted in a new book, The Art Of Audit, a 104-page publication written by Dutch journalist Roel Janssen, and it tells the stories of eight “remarkable government auditors”, including the heads of agencies in the United States, Iraq, the Philippines, the Netherlands and Tunisia.

Although the work of current or former auditors general in Barbados wasn’t cited in the book, what seems clear is that the island nation’s central audit agency is performing an essential function and is doing so effectively.

“The auditor general’s office has been reasonably effective in allowing us to understand where we need to improve the systems of governance and where there is too much wastage. But I do feel there is a need for the auditor general to be de-linked from reliance, meaning not to be reliant on the Ministry of Finance [for its funding] and on the Ministry of the Civil Service for the creation of posts,” said Leader of the Opposition Mia Mottley, a position that makes her chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

“We need to provide it with greater independence and it should be provided by Parliament so that it is not dependent on elements of the executive.”

That kind of independence is a reality in Washington where the 94-year-old Government’s Accountability Office issues independently crafted and highly critical reports on government spending. It also hits out at the impact of measures approved by Congress on the country’s finances and its budget deficit.

It’s also a fact of life in both Iraq and the Philippines where, unlike Barbados, a country that takes the auditor general’s reports in stride when they draw public attention to questionable fiscal practices, the watchdog’s assessments in many nations can trigger threats of violence or even death.

In Iraq, an auditor general and several professionals were assassinated because of their work. And a head of the agency barely escaped a similar fate when he spotted a bomb under his car. The latter’s fate was almost sealed because of his unrelenting fight against corruption, especially graft in the Ministry of Defence, that landed a minister a jail sentence.

When Heidi Mendoza, head of the Philippine’s court of audit focussed attention on government fraud, she had to be provided with round-the-clock security to ensure her safety. Although Mendoza’s counterpart in Barbados doesn’t have to fear such potentially lethal reaction from those who feed at the public trough, Trotman may have to worry about the Audit Office’s ability to get the staff positions filled when experienced  and highly skilled professionals retire at a time when more responsibilities are being piled onto those left behind.

For example, in the 2014 report to Parliament, Trotman said yes the Ministry of the Civil Service and the Personnel Administration Division had “already taken the initial steps to fill a number of vacancies in the office”. But what’s also true is that now the Audit Office is “being asked to take on additional responsibility” by having to audit state enterprises whose books were formerly audited by private sector accounting firms.

“Due to the limited number of staff currently at my disposal, the office is unable to audit all Government agencies annually,” Trotman complained.

The Audit Office’s work drives the activities of Parliament’s PAC, the watchdog over public finances. “We rely heavily on the auditor general’s report,” said Mottley.

In last year’s report, Trotman drew attention to a lingering sore, “a glaring shortcoming in the accountability process in Government”. It was a “lack of compliance with statutory requirements by state agencies”. In short, many of the state agencies “are not being held accountable for their actions or lack thereof”.

As Sir Courtney Blackman, a former Central Bank governor often insisted, the absence of the reports was a major obstacle to effective management and accountability.

Yet “there is little evidence that relevant corrective action has been taken,” complained the auditor general.

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