South Africa

PUBLIC SECTOR AUDITING OP-ED

The South Africa we want will be realised only if all roleplayers in the accountability ecosystem work together

The South Africa we want will be realised only if all roleplayers in the accountability ecosystem work together

All in the accountability ecosystem need to diligently discharge their responsibilities to ensure maximum impact. Success lies in and largely depends on all these roleplayers doing their part and fulfilling their roles to ensure that those in positions of stewardship of public funds are held to account.

When President Cyril Ramaphosa declared and proclaimed the provision of energy as a disaster during his recent State of the Nation Address, he also requested that the Auditor-General of South Africa (Agsa) monitor the expenditure of the funds allocated to this disaster.

We welcome this call by the government to provide real-time independent assurance on public expenditure as we have done in the past — during the floods that devastated parts of KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape last year, as well as during the Covid-19 disaster.

But this call to national duty alone is not enough to bring about accountability. All roleplayers in the accountability ecosystem need to diligently discharge their responsibilities to ensure maximum impact. Success lies in and largely depends on all these roleplayers doing their part and fulfilling their roles to ensure that those in positions of stewardship of public funds are held to account.

The accountability ecosystem is wider than just government: it includes citizens, civil society organisations, non-government organisations and a range of other stakeholders. The South Africa we want will be realised only if we all work together, and this is an excellent opportunity for everyone to be actively involved.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Call to action: Know how every cent misspent, squandered, stolen or unused hurts vulnerable people

Recently, we presented a report on the implementation of our enhanced powers which took effect in April 2019. These powers allow the auditor-general to identify and notify accounting officers about material irregularities (MIs) to enforce accountability. As a result of the MIs we have identified, financial losses of R148-million have been recovered, potential financial losses of R636-million have been prevented and financial losses of R509-million are in the process of being recovered. These funds can now be directed to improving service delivery and, through this, people’s lives.

However, more losses could have been prevented and recovered and more funds would thus be available to use for their intended purpose if the accountability ecosystem was operating optimally to prevent losses from occurring and recover those losses that did occur more quickly.

As the Agsa, we derive our mandate from the Constitution, first and foremost, which bestows on us the responsibility of being the country’s supreme audit institution (SAI). The United Nations recognises and affirms the work done by SAIs as promoting the efficiency, accountability, effectiveness and transparency of public institutions so that they are positioned to achieve national development objectives and priorities, as well as internationally agreed development goals.

The International Organisation of Supreme Audit Institutions (Intosai) goes further in defining the role of the public sector auditor as an important factor in making a difference in the lives of citizens. In 2013, the organisation declared:

“Public sector auditing, as championed by the Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs), is an important factor in making a difference in the lives of citizens… Once SAIs’ audit results have been made public, citizens are able to hold the custodians of public resources accountable. In this way, SAIs promote the efficiency, accountability, effectiveness and transparency of public administration. An independent, effective and credible SAI is therefore an essential component in a democratic system where accountability, transparency and integrity are indispensable parts of a stable democracy.”

Promoting democratic governance

Through our audit activities, we play an important role in enabling accountability and thus promoting democratic governance in South Africa. We do this by providing independent assurance to the various legislatures on whether government departments and entities that use public funds have managed their financial affairs in line with sound financial principles, have complied with the relevant legal framework, and have provided credible information on the achievement of their financial and performance objectives.

It is evident that some auditees do not respond adequately to our findings and do not implement our recommendations. This is particularly the case with those auditees that have the largest impact on the lived reality of the people of South Africa.

We are aware that, to remain relevant as independent auditors, we need to move beyond numbers and, to the extent possible, drive impact into the lived realities of the people of South Africa.

This is why we aim to activate all roleplayers in the accountability ecosystem to be part of the solution in holding accountable those who are responsible for managing public funds.

The term “accountability ecosystem” refers to the network of stakeholders that have a mandate and/or responsibility (whether legislative or moral) to drive, deepen and/or insist on public sector accountability.

We refer to these stakeholders as an ecosystem due to the mutually reinforcing connections that exist between them; and thus the need for them to not simply operate within their silos, but to work together with an awareness of how their respective roles influence both the roles of others within the ecosystem and the ecosystem at large.

If any part of the ecosystem fails to effectively play its unique role, this has a detrimental impact on the effectiveness of the ecosystem as a whole. Such failure also tends to undermine the ability of other stakeholders to effectively play their given roles.

A new organisational strategy

We have adopted a new organisational strategy with a strategic aspiration to shift public sector culture to a culture of accountability, integrity, transparency and performance by 2030. In addition to directly influencing this culture shift, our resources and activities over the strategic planning period will be deliberately focused on influencing the accountability ecosystem towards being more active and engaged in driving accountability.

We see this as a critical element in shifting public sector culture, and we believe that if leaders are fully committed to turning government around to become the capable, efficient, ethical and development-oriented institutions envisaged by the Constitution, vast improvements are bound to follow.

A more active and engaged accountability ecosystem will add greater weight to the effort of shifting public sector culture, and will require us to work together to improve audit outcomes and enhance accountability.

The more roleplayers in the accountability ecosystem fulfil their mandates, the less pressure there will be on us to perform functions beyond the scope of our resources and mandate to achieve the desired results.

Ultimately, by the time we report, multiple failures have already occurred along the accountability value chain.

Once we conclude the work that falls within the scope of our mandate and resources, other steps are required. We aim to institutionalise reporting not only on the workings of our auditees but also on the manner in which the accountability ecosystem has performed relative to the achieved outcomes.

The roles and responsibilities of the different members of the accountability ecosystem detail how they are to be involved in driving, deepening and/or insisting on the accountability of public sector officials and institutions.

A call to all roleplayers

We call upon all roleplayers in the accountability ecosystem to participate actively in building a culture of performance, integrity and accountability in the public sector. If we all hold each other accountable, the result will be a system that delivers services effectively, safeguarding public funds and ultimately improving the living conditions of the people of South Africa.

We call on the accounting officers and authorities to exercise their authority and lead by example: they should not hesitate to enforce accountability and ensure that transgressors face consequences for their action or inaction.

By 2030, our goal is to rely much less on the punitive approach of MIs, for example. We hope that, by this time, a critical mass of auditees would have moved towards organisational cultures characterised by performance, accountability, transparency and integrity; that the predominant culture will drive sustained, consistent and meaningful improvements in the lived reality of all the people of South Africa; and that there will be a high correspondence between the established behaviours and the achievement of policy objectives and outcomes.

Roleplayers in the accountability ecosystem include: 

  • Accounting officers and authorities (municipal managers, heads of departments, directors general, chief executive officers of state entities and boards of entities);
  • Citizens, through civil society organisations, media, labour unions, family and friends;
  • Coordinating ministries and associations (including ministries such as public service and administration; monitoring and evaluation; public enterprises; national cooperative governance and traditional affairs, along with its provincial arms; and the South African Local Government Association);
  • Public bodies (including law enforcement institutions like the Special Investigating Unit, the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (the Hawks), the Directorate of Special Operations, the National Prosecuting Authority and the Competition Commission);
  • Oversight institutions (including Parliament and its various committees, municipal councils, municipal public accounts committees and other Section 79 and 80 committees);
  • Professional and academic institutions (including bodies such as the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants, the Southern African Institute of Government Auditors, the Chartered Institute of Government Finance, Audit and Risk Officers; the Institute of Municipal Managers and tertiary institutions);
  • Executive authorities (including ministers, members of the executive council and mayors);
  • Chapter 9 institutions (including the Public Protector, the Human Rights Commission and the Agsa); and
  • Audit functions (including internal audit units and audit committees).

All of these bodies have a specific circle of influence that Agsa is tapping into to ensure that there is a shift in the public sector culture and that stewards of public funds are held accountable and that, when they fail, they face the consequences. DM

Tsakani Maluleke, Auditor-General.

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