No substance behind transparency without enforcement

An Audit Office report into Government Ministries' financial management tabled in Parliament this week paints a sorry picture of bureaucratic agencies routinely flouting the rules and disregarding the taxpayer’s tala.

A story on the front-page of the Monday edition of the Samoa Observer laid bare how deep disregard for proper procedures is among Ministry leaders (“Broken procurement process risks embezzlement, fraud: Auditor”.)

The findings of financial misconduct are particularly galling when the Government is scrambling to offset a record economic plunge and Parliament is debating the size of the national deficit. 

Senior Ministry officials have been repeatedly breaking Government rules designed to make procurement and accounting processes fair and economical. But they are not facing any consequences for doing so. 

We commend the Controller and Auditor General, Fuimaono Afele Taimalelagi, for the contents of his review for the fiscal year 2018-2019 released this week. 

Fuimaono and his broader office have shown themselves to be meticulous guardians of taxpayer’s money. 

The independence of Samoa’s institutions have been tested severely in recent times but the Audit Office has continued to pursue its mission of painting an accurate picture of the Government, warts and all. 

For this principled and meticulous reporting, we can only extend our gratitude. 

But a Government watchdog is only as valuable as the consequences it brings down upon the mismanagement it unveils. And Fuimaono’s report shows that some Ministries have even failed to self-regulate and ignored past auditing recommendations. 

In a sample of nearly 990 Government procurement projects examined to determine if they were in line with procurement guidelines, just under 100 were found to have been in breach or making use of inaccurate information. 

For some ten per cent of Government projects to be in violation of regulations is a symptom of a Government in serious need of repair. 

“We found that some vouchers [and] batches do not match with the [information] that is entered in the system, causing discrepancies and increasing the chances of a fraud or erroneous reporting from the system,” the report concluded.

“We [...] recommend that Ministries be more diligent in handling payments that require proper authorisation.”

And these warnings should not be taken as abstract. In the past year alone we have seen senior officials at the Justice Ministry and the state-owned Electric Power Corporation face charges of embezzlement on a grand scale. 

The report points to several instances of individual financial mismanagement by Ministries, but taken as a whole the report makes it clear that the Government as a whole is suffering from a culture lacking in accountability. 

The report further found that a total of 379 projects under review were rejected or investigated because they were not supported by the documentation required under the Samoa Public Finance Management Act.

That legislation has been in place for close to two decades. That it is still being ignored by Chief Executive Officers speaks volumes about the culture across Government. 

A review of the Ministry of Health, for example, found that financial mismanagement was rife at the organisation. This led to overspending, running up debts, and failure to properly document spending for accounting purposes even including the payment of an employee’s long-service leave.

This is not the first time that the Ministry has been told to change its ways iregarding its financial management procedures; previous audit recommendations were found to have been ignored. 

“We found a number of inaccurate and incomplete records associated with staff leave cards. And therefore, we were unable to confirm if employees taking leave were properly authorised,” the report found. 

“Previous management [letters] reported a number of issues with recommendations for improvement that have not yet been implemented as evident in the current audit.”

Even the best auditing systems amount to very little when their findings are not acted on and have no force of penalty behind them. 

Another very specific instance of Government failure identified by the Auditor-General related to a failure to adhere to tender process guidelines.

There is a clear laddered structure for who has and does not have the authority to approve tenders up to a certain value. 

Those of up to $50,000 can be decided upon by a Chief Executive Officer of a Ministry. 

But for amounts greater than that, between $50-$150,000 in value must be approved by the Tenders Board or a public body’s board of directors. Amounts above $500,000 require the approval of the Cabinet and an open tender process

There is no ambiguity about these guidelines.

And yet, the Auditor found that they are often being ignored.

“Non compliance with the Procurement process [included] purchase orders [being] sent after an invoice was provided, or simply not following the process as required by the Tender Board,” the report said. 

“This weakness may lead to fraud [and or] embezzlement. And we strongly recommend the Ministry of Finance to ensure compliance with proper procurement procedures.”

Samoa has a long history of problems of corruption relating to Government tendering. Officials such as the Controller and Auditor General are meant to serve as a check against such failings.

But ultimately their mission is being undermined by a culture being shaped from the top. 

We have seen several recent high-profile cases involving the Minister of Finance, Sili Epa Tuioti, attempting to assert his authority over improper tendering only to be railroaded by Cabinet colleagues. 

In a famous case last August, the Ministry of Health was found to have paid $500,000 for tent rentals in a contract that was never put out to tender in clear violation of the rules.

The Ministry’s top brass were supposedly given a “final warning” by Sili for this breach. 

But Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi came to the Ministry’s defence and said that the tender was simply “common sense”.

But as the Auditor’s report makes clear the health Ministry has had more than its share of second chances.

So long as excuses continue to be made for rule-breaking we can expect many more such final warnings

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