The Office of the Auditor-General is charting a renewed institutional course to 2030 broadly in line with amendments made to the Public Audit Act that give the Chapter 9 body more teeth and powers. Top officials from the office recently took legislators into their confidence about the institution’s draft strategic plan and budget for 2022-2025.
Against the backdrop of constraints experienced because of the pandemic, the Auditor-General’s office ended the 2020/21 financial year in a deficit, while debt owed to the office crept up to R1-billion, according to a presentation to parliamentarians.
This places considerable strain on the office’s resources as it simultaneously faces increasing expectations to make inroads on declining audit outcomes and enforcing service delivery, according to its officials. The deficit and outstanding debt have delayed the office’s “programmes to acquire modern tools for audit and data analytics”.
The office accounts to the Standing Committee on the Auditor-General, to which its officials submitted the draft strategic plan and budget for 2022-2025. The plan is intended to roadmap how the institution will operationalise and achieve the objectives set out in its 2030 strategy. Detailing the inner workings of the institution is not only designed to keep it accountable, but helps ensure it remains credible.
In many ways, 2020/21 was a trying period for the Office of the Auditor-General. Challenges that emanated from the auditee side included the unavailability of staff because of remote work, obtaining documents – an otherwise routine undertaking – became cumbersome, and then there were delays in submitting annual financial statements.
Taken together, the above had a bearing on auditing timelines and created backlogs for the office.
“The pressure to catch up on backlogs has taken its toll on staff health, wellness, and morale,” writes Auditor-General Tsakani Maluleke in the draft strategic plan 2022-2025.
Maluleke also notes that there is a growing unease in South Africa about deteriorating public audit results and the lack of tangible consequence management outcomes – be it greater enforcement of service delivery standards or cases being opened against wrongdoers.
“We enjoy a good reputation and high levels of public confidence. Our independence is undisputed,” writes Maluleke, while noting that “our reports, though, are seen as not making a direct difference in the lived reality of South African citizens. Our findings are seen as not adequately linking back to the impact for citizens and their human rights.”
To address this, the office will implement its material irregularity (MI) process across the board with all auditees and “ramp up towards a sustainable volume of high-quality MIs, by which we mean MIs with a high impact and resultant consequences”.
The MI process is a direct outcome of the office’s extended mandate. Its scope includes financial mismanagement, maladministration, fraud, theft and serious breaches of fiduciary duties which “could result in a significant loss or misuse of financial or public resources, or harm to the public or a public institution”.
The reason the MI mechanism has given the Office of the Auditor-General more teeth is because it “can trigger decisions by the Auditor-General that require specific attention by accounting officers and accounting authorities, as well as those charged with oversight”.
Moreover, it leaves little room to evade accountability by passing the buck. That is so because the process draws a clear line about the duty of care which ought to be exercised by those given the responsibility and privilege to oversee public institutions and entities.
However, the Office of the Auditor-General envisages that the MI process will only be implemented at all auditees in 2024/25 because the institution does not have sufficient capacity to fast-track roll-out.
At core, the Office of the Auditor-General wants to drive a programme that will result in a cultural shift in the public service. Documenting and reporting on public malfeasance has not resulted in substantial changes in audit or service delivery outcomes. The office recognises this dynamic. In the interim, the office will focus on training more audit teams in anticipation of the 2024/25 full-scale phase.
In its phased approach, the office’s other priority area is “working to achieve a culture shift among a critical mass of auditees across the value chains that deliver water and sanitation, human settlements, infrastructure, and energy, including the metropolitan municipalities, such that it results in a direct, meaningful, and consistent impact… [on] ordinary South Africans”.
In addition to fulfilling its mandate, however, the office has had to contend with the ever-present threat of obstructionist behaviour. As it deals with various forms of pushback and develops reporting protocols for staff, new variants of threats emerge.
Deputy Auditor-General Vonani Chauke has vowed that “we will be vigilant in protecting our staff and continue to enhance our programmes in this respect so that we can execute our mandate without fear”. BM/DM