This column was first published in Business Day.
We’ve become disillusioned and almost numb to the years of corruption and fruitless expenditure across government departments, feeding into a confidence crisis that has tripped up efforts to propel economic growth, despite the Covid-19 pandemic. For a change in our fortunes and a boost of business and consumer confidence levels, there has to be a marked improvement in the management of the public purse, which will be achieved only by a culture of accountability. It’s a central ingredient, and last week there was some evidence of a bit of shift in that regard.
While tabling the government audit outcomes report, auditor-general Tsakani Maluleke said irregular expenditure among national and provincial government departments decreased to R54bn from R66bn in the previous year. Overall, audit outcomes improved, with 66 auditees improving and 35 regressing.
It’s an improvement that we welcome as a business community but as with all matters relating to a state that has just been through a decade shaped by a purposeful collapse of governance, not everything in the report pointed to a break from past practices. Nearly a third of auditees failed to disclose irregular expenditure and Maluleke’s office could not audit R2bn in contracts due to missing or incomplete information. Auditees continue to have a poor track record regarding dealing with irregular expenditure and ensuring accountability and about 69% did not comply with legislation though that is lower than the 73% recorded in 2020.
It’s by no means perfect and, if anything, shouldn’t breathe any sense of complacency into the important task of rebuilding the capacity of the state. The state’s incapacity has long been highlighted as one of the key risks to SA’s investment outlook. Ratings agencies pushed its credit ratings deeper into junk territory due to concerns such as that it impinges on the ability of the state to undertake the structural reforms necessary to bolster SA’s long-term prospects. Still, we should take some encouragement from the improved outcomes in some of our most economically depressed provinces such as the Eastern Cape, Free State, Limpopo and Mpumalanga.
If we are to ensure the audit outcomes aren’t just a blip, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration has to inculcate a culture of accountability in the public service. The draft national implementation framework towards the professionalisation of the public service is central to our hopes for the state to lay the groundwork for businesses to take advantage of the opportunities in areas such as energy and telecommunications.
Business Leadership SA has offered assistance to the state in areas such as policing and prosecution through our division Business Against Crime but has found it difficult. We hope that professionalising the public service opens the door to easier co-operation with the private sector to help increase efficiencies.
Too often and too easily, business and the state are pitched on different sides of the aisle. But we are as invested in the proper functioning of the state as policymakers themselves. The performance agreements that the president has signed with his cabinet ministers is another mechanism that will help foster the culture of accountability and consequence management.
The breakdown in governance in the civil service has been caused by a blurring of the lines as political principals have interfered in the administration of the public service. This has caused instability in government departments as senior managers are swapped or replaced each time a new minister is appointed. Institutional knowledge has been the casualty of this merry-go-round.
Public servants from national to provincial level must be able to continue doing their jobs regardless of the political changes and be appointed on merit and performance, after occupation-based competence assessments. Integrity tests for all shortlisted individuals must be introduced.
We will support these measures in whichever way possible to depoliticise and build a more capable and efficient state. Only through that can the people’s lives improve.
What has never been questioned about SA is its ability to generate strategies or plans such as the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan that was adopted last October to put the economy on a much sturdier footing. Rather, the main concern has been the capacity of the state to follow through.
We thus welcome the slight improvements in the auditor-general’s report but there is still some way to go in building a culture of accountability and consequence management in the state.
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