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COMMENTS & OPINIONS  

A MISALIGNMENT OF EXPECTATIONS IN PUBLIC ACCOUNTABILITY
By Titus Boye-Thompson, Strategic Media and Development Communications Unit
Feb 14, 2013, 17:00
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The Auditor General's report for 2011 was laid before Parliament In accordance with Section 119 (4) of the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone, accompanied by a transmittal letter dated 20th  December 2012. This exercise was in keeping with the statutory obligations of Audit Sierra Leone under Section 119 of the Constitution of Sierra Leone mandates the Auditor General to audit the Public Accounts of Sierra Leone and all public offices, including the Courts, the accounts of the Central and Local Government Administration, of the university and public institutions of like nature, statutory corporation, company or other body and organisation established by an Act of Parliament or statutory instrument or otherwise set up partly or wholly out of public funds shall be audited and reported by or on behalf of the Auditor General.

 

The Auditor General sets out the role of Audit Sierra Leone thus, "the role of ASSL is to independently review the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of government as the custodian of public funds and to ensure that these moneys are used in the manner intended by Parliament as well as being clearly and accurately reported." Essentially, the Auditor General is tasked with providing the citizens through Parliament with the requisite assurances that the public finances are in order and that public expenditures as stated in the Public Accounts are in accordance with their stated purpose and objectives.

 

Anecdotally, it was an Audit report that stated some while back that it cost more than 1,000.00 (One Thousand Pounds Sterling) to change a light bulb in a Government office in England. While this cost was excessive, the same Audit report allowed the cost, under the circumstances. The reason for this example is to point out that while the role of the Auditor General is to safeguard the public purse from unwarranted error or fraud, there is a duty to circumscribe the exigencies of each case of expenditure within limits of reasonableness and expedience.

 

The report for the financial year 2012 is therefore a comprehensive document detailing the audit of the Government of Sierra Leone. The audit report however came with a "Disclaimer of Opinion" - a technical audit term which sets out the rationale for why the Auditor cannot give a professional opinion of the audit carried out. While this is a very serious cause for concern, it must be noted that a more serious situation may likely have existed wherein the Auditor may refuse to give an opinion at all, in which case such a stance would point to very grave and serious lapses in the public accounts to the extent that an adverse opinion arises to evidence issues in the financial statements being so pervasive that they do not present a true and fair view. In this case, a disclaimer of opinion was thought to be professionally sound and that course was followed in accordance with internationally laid down guidelines.

 

Recent reports in the press have highlighted some very negative aspects of the Auditor General's report but none have looked analytically at the main issues raised by the Auditor General nor have some of the positive hallmarks of the Public Accounts been given any light whatsoever. For clarity, it may be well to posit here that responsibility for preparation of the Public Accounts rests with the Accountant General under the auspices of the Ministry of Finance. It is the resultant Public Account that is the subject of an audit by the Auditor General. The opinion or not as expressed by the Auditor General has to do with the mode and method of preparation of the Public Accounts as much as it is cognizant of the source documents and internal control procedures in force across the Civil Service and the MDAs. In the event, the Auditor General's disclaimer of opinion in this instance points to a lack of supporting documents to ascertain and provide her with the reasonable assurances that figures in the computation of the Public Accounts are not inconsistent with a propensity for material mis-statement or gross error to the extent that a disclaimer of opinion is issued here in line with established international standards and guidelines for audits of public finances. Whilst much recognition must be given to the Auditor General for the professional way in which she sets out her arguments and for the approach that was taken to arrive at her conclusions on the Public Accounts, there ought also to be commended, those within the Public Service who did all they could to support the work and findings of the Auditor General and for her to have come to the conclusions that she did. As she herself stated, "having to issue a Disclaimer of Opinion is all the more unfortunate because it may seem to minimize the good work being done by many public officials and others across this country to address public financial management."

 

This brings us to the very serious and pervasive incidence of the commonality of issues found across Ministries, Departments & Agencies to which the Auditor General alludes. That there seem to be such a commonality of mistakes or failings would point to a misalignment in the expectations of public finance personnel and their skill sets or professional acumen to undertake the tasks to which they have been assigned. As Auditor General raised three issues  across the service, for those responsible, those are issues that go directly to weak internal control procedures, weak internal audit systems and a perforated financial management system and ethos in the conduct of public finance functions. The issues raised include a  general failure to effect bank reconciliation, a procedure so simple in its implementation that it is alluded that such a weakness is "a victory of unwillingness over skill"; a weak financial control system within the NRA, the custodian and collector of Government revenue and a general disregard for procurement law and its requirements, guidelines and regulations.

 

While it is difficult to impute that public finance personnel are intent on mis-stating the public finances by a deliberate effort, the general public must be minded to note that in his first term, President Ernest Bai Koroma did much to reduce the incidence of fraud on the public purse than any of his predecessors. The mandating of the Auditor General's powers to levy charges is an example of a firm and robust effort to combat fraud within the public sector and a firm commitment to arrest miscreant behaviour at the point of incidence. The strengthening of the Anti-Corruption laws are also another example of this Government's  commitment to addressing failures in relation with public finance management. The issues raised by the Auditor General may very well go directly to the principles underpinning the Agenda for Prosperity and for that very reason, this Government would be expected to take any incidence of malpractice within the public sector as legitimate cause for concern and redress.

 

An adverse Audit report is a hallmark of a functioning open Government and a precept of a vision to make Government and public officials accountable. Such is also a testimony of a functioning state mechanism, opening Government up to scrutiny whilst levity of the office of the Auditor General to discharge her duty is secured by Parliament. The Country can only learn from the issues raised by this report and it is hoped institute appropriate procedures to remedy all the grave anomalies identified by this report. The report alludes significantly to Transparency International's ranking of Sierra Leone in terms of the improvements in Governance. Such a report would do well to raise the prospect of a further improvement in the effectiveness of the Governance mechanisms which accords for Public Officials such as the Auditor General can do their job within a professional context, free from intimidation or approbation. Finally, as the Public Accounts holds out the prospects of a healthy balance on account, spare a thought for one of the countries in the Southern part of Africa whose Minister of Finance announced recently that they had much less than a thousand dollars in their treasury!


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