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How financial discipline and accountability in govt could be attained

6th May 2012
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The underlying problem in our society is more complex than just a cabinet reshuffle. Additional points relate to the role of the Controller and Auditor General’s (CAG) office in advising ministries, departments and agencies (MDs) as custodian of public resources.

It’s not very clear to what extent this good office should go to advise MDAs on how to prevent the misuse of resources so that it doesn’t not only wait to report about such weaknesses at the end of each fiscal year.

I am particularly concerned about the ability of internal audit systems, which in essence, if well established, should go a long way to preventing the occurrence and recurrence of such fraud. Prevention is better than cure: and so I wonder to what extend our permanent secretaries are administratively and legally empowered to decline approving suspect expenditures or detecting the occurrence of fraud.

Do existing financial regulations empower permanent secretaries (PSs), district executive directors ( DEDs) or regional administrative secretaries ( RASs) to take corrective actions, including suspending any officer suspected of committing fraud? And how should the DED handle cases where councillors connive to defend a thieving officer?

I recall several occasions on which President Kikwete asked district executive officers and chairpersons of district Councils why they were not taking to court officials implicated in the embezzlement of funds. Perhaps we need to re-examine the operational powers vested in the office of the district executive director.

Do we need to give more powers to PSs and DEDs to instill discipline in resource management? Perhaps they need to have some protection against victimisation by elected leaders who get upset when the officers strictly follow established procedures. Perhaps PSs and DEDs should be appointed on result-based contracts with security of tenure?

As you can see, the security of tenure given to the CAG has given him the confidence of revealing his findings without fear or favour. I suspect that most PSs would like to be as bold as the CAG, but tend to have a second thought for fear of receiving veiled threats on their positions from their ministers or deputy ministers.

Another way of reducing misuse of funds is through a well capacitated devolution of powers and responsibilities tied to a reward-and-penalty system. This approach was proposed and adopted by the Local Government Reform Programme where qualification to access capitation grants would be pegged to performance ratings in he previous year's budget.

The idea was that if funds are misappropriated, then that district should be penalised by withholding further funds. That way our councillors were supposed to be more vigilant, or at least desist from temptations to bless misuse or abuse of public funds for personal gain.

Unfortunately, our parliamentarians didn’t support this approach, arguing that their voters shouldn’t be made to suffer because of the misdeeds of public servants! It was like saying they didn’t trust the councilors to seriously take to task mischievous government officials and that the voters were not likely to use district or town councils' financial performance as a yardstick for voting out councillors who failed to properly supervise public resources.

I know that some extra work will be needed to build the capacity of organs below the district council, say at the ward and village levels, in order to ensure proper accountability of public resources.

I have first-hand experience in Uganda where I supervised funds allocation directly to what they call sub-county level (the equivalent of wards in Tanzania). The results in those pilot areas were amazing as village leaders ensured that funds were properly utilized.

Of course, there never was a lack of greedy district level officials who either purposefully delayed disbursement of funds or approached village leaders to forge documents! This brings me to a third point in the whole ward against public misuse of funds - that of morality and ethics in our society.

However hard we try to put up systems and institutions to prevent and fight corruption, it is as helpless as ‘pounding water’, as the Swahili say, if the society at large doesn’t frown upon ill-gotten riches.

We have to critically re-examine ourselves to understand where we went wrong to the extent that those who are upright are regarded by their peers as "not sharp enough" or outright stupid. Several reference persons will be cited how they "cleverly" used this or that trick and were therefore well off compared to this "stupid" officer who worked so diligently and retired a materially poor person!

But I believe there is a way out of the mess we are in as a nation. What is needed is political will to support administrative and legal interventions at all levels of the society. As we know, the cancer of dishonesty has not spared any part of the social fabric: from the farmer adding pebbles or water to increase the weight of cotton (to counteract the effects of adjusted weighing machines by dishonest clerks), to middlemen who produce buyers (madalali) insisting on "lumbesa" type of bags whose weight is above 150kg instead of the standard 100kg and inflated multimillion-shilling infrastructure projects.

I am confident that we can collectively correct this anomaly if our leaders, irrespective of party ideologies, agree to come together and solve the problem. We have dedicated people in this country who can sort out the mess if given the necessary political, legal and moral support by our political and opinion leaders, including the media.

Dr Lunogelo is executive director of the Economic and Social Research Foundation ( ESRF)

SOURCE: GUARDIAN ON SUNDAY
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