Accounting officers are meant to prevent irregular expenditure, but there is a breakdown because, all too often, they fail to enforce their authority to protect state finances.
Describing their powers as a “blunt instrument”, Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu said: “If somebody fails an audit for five years and nobody takes them to task, despite the fact that the tasks of the accounting officer are clear, that’s where the break down is.
“The blunt instrument is that it is clear whose responsibility it is to prevent it. If it is not prevented and there are no consequences, nobody is going to worry about it.”
Makwetu said the law states that an accounting officer must prevent irregular expenditure.
“[But] you ask yourself why we have such levels of irregular expenditure recurring year in and year out; what is the blunt instrument?”
Makwetu was speaking to City Press ahead of a four-day plenary conference of the International Organisation of Supreme Audit Institutions, which begins in Cape Town tomorrow.
The event will see Makwetu host about 120 international public-sector auditing experts, including auditors-general from other countries.
South Africa chairs the international audit institutions’ capacity-building committee, which is tasked with finding innovate ways to build and improve the capacity of public-sector auditors in all member states.
Makwetu, while responding to City Press’ questions about the prevalence of irregular spending, said section 38 of the Public Finance Management Act, which is about the general responsibilities of accounting officers, clearly sets out the type of things the accounting officer must see to – the things that need to be done and be put in place to ensure protection of state finances, to the extent that it is desirable.
“When you look at our audit reports and you ask yourself what is the attributable reason, I would say that if section 38 was to be looked at with the view to enforcing it, maybe the bulk of those things will disappear.
“The issue is that, in any law, whether it is the Public Finance Management Act or others; if the instrument that brings about accountability is not being implemented, things break down...”
Makwetu said one of the things they want to highlight as South Africa during next week’s conference is the significance of the role that the Auditor-General plays in the space of capacity-building in so far as the coordination and the collaboration of the different corners of the world are concerned.
The capacity-building committee that South Africa chairs looks at issues of independence of the institution (auditors) and at things such as the professionalism of the people who are doing the auditing work, because, for as long as they demonstrate professional capabilities and ethics, their work will continue to be regarded as high quality, he said.
The committee’s role is also to forge links with all the auditors-general across the world and navigate across the different disciplines that they follow – some follow the Westminster model, while other jurisdictions follow the French model, which is largely about the court system.
South Africa also chairs the international auditors’ certification working group, which is largely focusing on issues that need to be considered globally when issues formal certification of public sector auditors is concerned.
South Africa will also be presenting to the annual meeting in terms of progress achieved since it undertook the task three years ago.
“We will be sharing with the meeting the likes of having developed a competency model that needs to be the foundation for developing a certification mechanism so that the competencies that are required of auditors-general are clearly defined,” said Makwetu.