This is a priority
November 7, 1998
The spirited exchange on Thursday between Finance Minister, Bharrat Jagdeo and Auditor General, Anand Goolsarran on the fortification of the state audit office cuts to the core of several key issues.
During the presentation of the audited accounts for 1997, Goolsarran made an impassioned appeal to Jagdeo for more funds for the audit office and the bolstering of its emoluments so that it can attract scarce and requisite skills.
Among other things, Jagdeo said:
-the state was strapped for cash but that the issue would be addressed in a US$30M public sector modernisation programme and other possible areas of funding;
-the shrinking public sector militated against the expansion of the audit office and the creation of a public enterprises division;
-eventually there would only be four public enterprises once the privatisation programme is completed;
-financial institutions prefer one of the five recognised international accounting firms auditing public sector projects than the state audit office;
-the inspectorate division of the Accountant General's Department was being buttressed and this would ease the load on Goolsarran's office.
Goolsarran has been imploring the government for several years now to give the audit office the legislative clout to report to Parliament directly and to staunch the haemorraghing of staff (120 instead of the 256 it needs). Furthermore, Goolsarran said it had become quite difficult to complete the annual report on the accounts and that audits of key public sector projects had been put at risk.
The fundamental issue is whether the government is irrevocably committed to allowing a no-nonsense watchdog to jealously police the manner in which taxpayers' money is carved up.
This is not the first time that Goolsarran is fighting this battle he did so prior to 1992 and may have felt a greater sense of certainty of what the PPP/Civic would allow his office while that party was in opposition. The reality is somewhat different.
There is little cause for comfort in Jagdeo's assurances. Given the number of years that the audit office has been pressing for more resources it is hardly likely that any programme coming on stream will provide relief shortly.
While the public sector is shrinking there is a burgeoning public sector investment programme which from a variety of reports requires painstaking monitoring by some agency such as the audit office. Recent developments in the Ministry of Works in relation to road projects are appropriate examples. Moreover, given the glacial pace with which the privatisation programme has proceeded, the public sector might for a long time be larger than the four enterprises envisaged.
As to the argument about the preference for recognised accounting agencies by the international institutions, their major preoccupation is with strict accountability and perhaps they too are concerned at the incapacity of the state auditors.
The strengthening of the Accountant General's Department in the Ministry of Finance will help to ensure the ready availability of accounts but will not necessarily impact on the tasks of the audit office.
It has been argued by some that the Auditor General's office has tended to overreach its jurisdiction on various occasions. That is an issue that will always crop up wherever a vigorous attempt is being made to pore over public accounts and make certain to the nth degree that taxpayers are not being ripped off. An equipped and dedicated watchdog, unswayed by political concerns should be the dominant concern of the government and the public.
The government should not betray even a hint of insecurity at having a well-endowed state audit agency. Its delay in acting on the pleadings of Goolsarran and the convenient excuses are a means of fobbing off responsibility for the issue and doing nothing.
The ordinary citizen needs firm assurances that public funds and loans and grants from international institutions are being used wisely. This is a duty that should not reside with the government but should be ensconced in the state audit agency.
Priority must be given by the state to this issue and the feeble excuses should be set aside.