Tuesday, March 05, 2013

'Public money being stolen without remorse'

'Public money being stolen without remorse'
By The Post
Mon 04 Mar. 2013, 16:00 CAT

Every year the office of the Auditor General unearthes so many irregularities in the way public funds and other resources are being misappropriated, misapplied and misused. But nothing is done to stop or correct the situation and punish the wrongdoers.

The Auditor General's work, if not accompanied by corrective action, is worthless. What does it profit this country and the taxpayers for the Auditor General's office to carry out expensive audits just to have dust gather on the reports they generate? So much money is being spent on the office of the Auditor General to carry out audits in public institutions. But what is the value of these audits if those in power do not use them to protect public resources from further misappropriation, misapplication and misuse?

If no changes are made in the way the Auditor General's reports are used, then it won't be worth spending so much money on such audits. The Auditor General's audits are not an end in themselves. They are meant to help us manage the meagre resources of our people with diligence and frugality.

The role of the Auditor General is to provide an independent oversight of government operations through financial and other management audits. The objective of the audits conducted by the Auditor General is to determine whether public funds are spent efficiently, effectively, and in accordance with applicable laws; evaluate internal controls and help improve governance in government and in public sector agencies; undertake investigations to assess whether illegal or improper activities are occurring; determine whether public sector agencies are in compliance with applicable laws and regulations, rules and procedures; and provide assistance to Parliament and the Public Accounts Committee in support of their oversight and decision-making responsibilities.

The Auditor General scrutinises the public sector to ensure there is proper accountability of taxpayers' resources and that the resources are not wasted - rather, that they are used efficiently and effectively to the benefit of all Zambians.

Accordingly, the Auditor General is an ally of all the people and Parliament. She must act, and must be seen to be acting, independently in carrying out all her powers and duties. This independence is the cornerstone of public sector audit, and therefore to properly discharge her responsibilities, the Auditor General must be free from pressure, influence or interference from any source that may erode that independence. But what is the value of this independence if the Auditor General's work is not put to any good use? In fact, not acting on the Auditor General's reports undermines the Auditor General's independence, it renders it useless or meaningless.

Accountability within the public sector is traditionally established when Parliament confers responsibility on public sector agencies, subject to the control of a minister, to account through that minister for all that is done in the exercise of their authority, the manner in which it is done and the ends sought to be achieved. The Auditor General's responsibility, conferred by Parliament, is to audit and report upon the manner in which conferred responsibilities have been discharged by agencies.

As such, the Auditor General has a responsibility to the nation generally and her role is superimposed on the accountability relationship between the responsible minister and Parliament.
The role of the Auditor General is not simply about ensuring that public money is spent according to the rules - it is also about ensuring that the community receives value for its tax money.

The Auditor General, therefore, conducts comprehensive examinations of government activities to ensure they are both efficient and effective. The Auditor General's audits do not question the objectives of government programmes, but focus on whether stated objectives are being met. Ultimately, they deliver reports to Parliament, detailing findings, identifying matters of significance and making recommendations for changes that will improve public sector performance. By highlighting examples of good practice in these reports, Parliament becomes better informed in assessing government performance.

To make our country prosperous requires intense effort, which should include, among other things, the effort to practice strict economy and combat corruption, abuses, thefts, misapplication, misappropriation and all sorts of misuse of public resources. In a word, we need to build up our country through diligence and frugality.

Diligence and frugality should always be practised in running public institutions and affairs. The principle of diligence and frugality should be observed in everything we do. Given the limited financial resources available to our country, we must particularly advocate diligence and frugality and pay special attention to economy. We must avoid taking a short view and indulge in wastefulness, extravagance and corruption.

Those who misapply, misuse and misappropriate public resources should not be allowed to go scot-free. We must take resolute measures against anyone misusing, misapplying and misappropriating public resources. Given the limited resources we have, we have no choice as a nation but to pay special attention to thrift and economy. Thrift should be the guiding principle in our government expenditure. Today we have a situation where government ministries and departments are buying supplies such as bond paper from all sorts of suppliers and at different prices. Why should this be so?

It should be made clear to all public sector workers that corruption and waste are very serious crimes. Those who work in our public sector today know that the Auditor General's work to unearth misappropriation, misapplication and misuse of public funds is worthless; it won't get them fired, arrested, prosecuted and sent to prison; it won't make them lose their loot.

And the Auditor General's work is loosely debated in Parliament and matters usually end there. And because of this, no one is scared of misusing public resources because there is no follow-up to make those who are found wanting disciplined.

The work of the Auditor General is very important. There has to be increased accountability and transparency in the use of public resources. But if the reports of the Auditor General are not acted upon by the authorities, then it's not worth it for the taxpayer to continue financing these audits.

If our attitude as a nation towards the Auditor General's reports does not change, there is no need to continue wasting taxpayers' money on these useless audits. And the Auditor General's office should be closed because it is not producing work that is of use or of value to the taxpayer. In short, there is no value for money in those reports of the Auditor General if they are not acted upon. But doing away with the office of the Auditor General is imprudent and suicidal. We need that oversight. And there is no sensible alternative to the Auditor General's work. What remains is simply for us to ensure that there is action taken on every report of the Auditor General.

And the frustration of Auditor General Anna Chifungula is understandable. She says it is frustrating to see public money being stolen without remorse and that something should be done to stop the continued looting of taxpayers' money. She says "people are stealing money at will and this theft has increased to unprecedented levels... and it is frustrating that very little is being done to address these matters". What more should we wait to hear from the Auditor General before we can start acting on her reports?

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