Saturday, May 02, 2009

Transparency and accountability

Transparency and accountability
Written by Editor

There are many wrong things that are being revealed by the Auditor General’s reports and by the work of the Public Accounts Committee, but very little action follows it. But the question is, why is this so?

It is not enough for the Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee to do all this work if no serious corrective action is taken. Clearly, the work of the Auditor General and that of the Public Accounts Committee is insufficient on its own. Equally, laws, regulations and codes of conduct are insufficient on their own. Their observance has to be monitored, deviations identified with those responsible and corrective and deterrent steps taken. This is the more difficult side of the coin.

But experience shows that corrective action is too often limited to the recovery of losses from delinquent officers. There is need to strengthen systems and to punish offenders in order to prevent recurrence.

There is need to realise that it is impossible to have meaningful democracy without transparency and accountability. In this sense, transparency means that citizens are accorded free access to governmental political and economic activities and decisions. Accountability entails the government being held responsible, by both the citizens and their elected bodies, for its choices and actions.

Transparency and accountability means according citizens the right and opportunity of summoning their government to reveal its income and expenditure, as well as strategies and ambitions. Transparency enables the Zambian people to see the structure and functions of the government, its policy intentions and fiscal projections, and accounts for past periods.

The main purpose of opening these windows should be to render those inside accountable and answerable for their decisions and actions. Accountability is the obligation to render an account for the responsibility conferred to those in government by the Zambian people.

There is need for strengthening the internal control systems of all government operations from the lowest government unit, department, ministry and all the way up to State House. Wherever taxpayers’ money is used, there has to be adequate controls to promote orderly, economical, efficient and effective operations; to safeguard public resources against loss due to waste, abuse, mismanagement, errors, fraud; to adhere to laws, regulations and management directives.

The mismanagement, abuse and corruption of the Frederick Chiluba decade has contributed to a substantial erosion of credibility of governmental fiscal machinery and to a growing mistrust of government.

From what has been exposed by the Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee, and indeed the media, it’s clear that those running government generally engage themselves in circumvention of the laws.

And a gullible public may not always know what the government is doing. While the Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee can be said to be doing a good job, their efforts are, by and large, very limited.

It is clear that laws, rules and regulations are not being followed rigorously. For instance, while there are regulations to surcharge any public officer any loss to the government arising from that officer’s irregularity, this is not being done. Audit reports are full of irregularities but surcharges are rare.

There are several reasons for this inaction: a permissive culture – everyone does it, salaries are very low, and so on and so forth prevent the fair treatment of officers. It is revealing that most surcharge cases are against drivers of government vehicles, who negligently cause damage to them. In such cases, there is no sharing of responsibility for control of the vehicle, so it is relatively easy to pin down who is accountable.

Transparency implies not only that accounts are rendered but also that records are open and accessible to citizens, since government activities are undertaken on their behalf. Currently, there is a practice to classify records as top secret, secret, confidential and criminalise unauthorised disclosure.

The whole culture of government is one of secrecy. This is why those seeking freedom of information legislation want the redefining of the interface between the government and civil society. Instead of defining what can be disclosed, or authorising release of information on a case-by-case basis, they want all information to become public available on demand, without question, except for carefully defined exceptions.

There is a serious obstacle, opposition to such legislation and the major constraint to this is the fear of many politicians and civil servants of loss of discretionary power enjoyed behind the screen of secrecy.

And although the Public Accounts Committee has by any standards done a very good job, its work is still very limited and ways of improving it should be sought. Only after audit by the Auditor General does the legislature get a chance to review the execution of the budget. In principle, the Public Accounts Committee examines public accounts and reports with a view to ensure that the expenditure shown in the accounts as disbursed were legally available for the purpose on which they were spent; that the expenditure conformed to the authority governing them; that every appropriation was made in accordance with the rules and that all revenues were brought to account.

For this function, it can call on the heads of departments or other officers who are legally responsible for financial administration. The Public Accounts Committee holds hearings taking up the audit objections and reports back to the legislature. Reports also go to the respective heads of departments and to the Ministry of Finance for follow-up. But what has been happening so far is that their reports are ignored, there is very little that comes out of them. This needs to be corrected or else, this good effort will continue to be a waste of time and money.

There are great benefits in ensuring transparency and accountability in the administration of public finances. Poverty is the biggest challenge facing our country and our people today. And there is mounting evidence that this poverty is associated with poor governance, less accountable and responsive government. Since the poor lack the resources to give bribes, they do not get equal access to government services.

Clearly, transparency is a necessary condition for sound economic governance. Moreover, a transparent public financial accounting policy makes it possible for the people of Zambia to determine what the government has done and to compare budgeted and actual financial operations. Further, and as we have witnessed in the Dora Siliya tribunal, open procurement policies not only facilitate the achievement of basic macroeconomic policy objectives, but also increase the productivity of public expenditure.

And as for accountability, this imposes discipline in the nation by ensuring that those in power, those in charge of public funds are answerable to the general public for their decisions. Accountability thereby lessens the likelihood that those in power, those in charge of government will make imprudent policy decisions. More particularly, transparency and accountability should result in better informed public debate about the activities of government.

Of course, it goes without saying that one of the underlying objectives of improved transparency and accountability is to reduce the extent of corruption in the management of governmental affairs.

It is therefore very important that the nation pays a lot of attention to the work of the Auditor General and urgently address its limitations. It is also important that the nation, and our members of parliament collectively, pays special attention to the work of the Public Accounts Committee and make this legislative function more efficient and effective. If this is not done, we will continue to hear stories of this or that money missing, not accounted for, not banked on time and taking to task people who were not there when those things were happening.

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