Auditor General offered UN post in Sierra Leone
Would like to see modern public accounts in place
Flouting of tender board procedures remains key problem By Gitanjali Singh
Stabroek News
July 17, 2002

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"The time is fast approaching when I would have to move on and make way for someone else, if the opportunity presents itself," said Auditor General, Anand Goolsarran, credited with the single-minded determination to return public accountability to Guyana after a ten-year gap.

Goolsarran, 52, has been offered another posting by the United Nations, this time as Chief Resident Auditor for its peacekeeping operations in Sierra Leone for an initial six-month period. He had been nominated two years ago for the post of Head of Internal Oversight, an Undersecretary General post in the UN, but this had required intensive lobbying on the government's part. Goolsarran had been proposed by his counterpart office in the US, the United States General Accounting Office, for that post and it is not clear what steps the government took to push for his appointment.

This time around, Goolsarran received clearance from the government to attend the interview for the new position and yesterday said he was willing to sign the letter of acceptance. However, for the UN to proceed with his appointment, the government has to sign a secondment note releasing him. This note is currently with President Bharrat Jagdeo.

"For me, this offer represents a promotion and a good career move since I would be serving in an international capacity. I would be serving 189 countries, instead of just one. It would be very good exposure for me which I can bring back to my present position," Goolsarran said.

With 30 years of service in the public sector, including the last 11 in his current post, Goolsarran said the UN would like to have him in position within the next week. However, he does not want to relinquish the post as Auditor General since there is still much to be done, including seeing a modern system of public accountability to fruition. Goolsarran feels he can contribute significantly towards this. And in the case of the audit office itself, Goolsarran would like to see the reforms he initiated reach a satisfactory conclusion. This would include a strong and effective legislative audit serving the public interest to the satisfaction of all Guyanese as well as the international community.

Goolsarran, who sees his term as Auditor General as having been very successful, says the selection of someone to succeed him is very important if he is to be seconded. He said someone has to be identified who would take the office in the direction in which it is being charted and who can continue to influence what is taking place in government in terms of financial management.

Goolsarran was appointed Deputy Auditor General in December 1987 and Auditor General in September 1990. He began his advocacy for the return of public accountability in 1987 but was only able to meaningfully push this forward after the change in government in 1992, when the government agreed to his proposal to adopt a decentralised approach to producing accounts of the various ministries, departments and regions and for the country as a whole. Previously, such accounts were centrally kept at the Ministry of Finance using a mainframe computer.

When he began with the Audit Office, no accounts had been prepared, audited and published for the preceding five years as the mainframe computer at the Ministry of Finance had collapsed and with it its central data retrieval system. Goolsarran began to advocate that each ministry/department attempt to produce its own accounts and maintain adequate records of receipts and disbursements. This did not happen until 1992 but by then there was a ten-year gap in financial accountability. The last set of audited public accounts had been in respect of 1981 and published in 1985.

Goolsarran recalled that Head of the Presidential Secretariat, Dr Roger Luncheon, having listened to his proposals for a return of public accountability, instructed that the accounts be prepared in a decentralised manner and this process began somewhat reluctantly. However, Goolsarran noted that his first two reports on the government accounts were challenged by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of Parliament at the time and instead of the accounting officers being asked to explain what the reports were highlighting, he, Goolsarran, became the subject of intense scrutiny. This continued after the accounts of 1993 were published.

"That was an unfortunate period for us. We had to defend our work and it was a sad moment as we thought that we were doing something which we felt was right and we were being faulted," Goolsarran remembers. He said he began to stay away from the PAC meetings because he was unable to cope with the stress associated with trying to defend his reports and being virtually put on trial.

But that situation changed when PNC MP Dunstan Barrow became chairman of the PAC, followed by Winston Murray, the current chairman. Goolsarran feels accounting officers have since come to accept that they have a legal and moral obligation to be accountable. He said the state of accountability in the government has improved with a number of accounting officers taking their work seriously.

He said over the years a number of ministries and departments have shown improvement, notably the Guyana National Service, the Guyana Police Force, the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport and the Ministry of Agriculture. However, a number of other ministries and departments have not shown any signs of improvement.

Tender boards

"All is still not well. The number one problem remains adherence to tender board procedures, be they Central Tender Board, Ministerial or Departmental Tender Board" the Auditor General said.

He noted that because the present system was bureaucratic, archaic and cumbersome, and was in dire need of review, he sympathised with the Accounting Officers who have to complete their work schedule in a timely manner but find themselves cash strapped because of the pattern of release of funds coupled with the undue delays in having the Central Tender Board adjudicate on major contracts. Some of them, unfortunately, sought to circumvent the Tender Board Regulations through contract splitting, he noted. "I think I have a fair understanding of where the problems are in the case of public procurement and that is why I felt I should have been given the benefit of offering comments on the final draft of the recently passed procurement legislation," Goolsarran said. He has been arguing for the composition of the Central Tender Board (to now be called the National Procurement Board) to be more broad-based and to include representatives of the Engineers Association, the Consumers' Association, the Trades Union Movement and the University of Guyana.

Another worrying issue for him in this regard, has been the keeping of proper minutes of meetings of all tender boards. At present these are hopelessly inadequate and do not allow for satisfaction about the basis of the award of contracts. He is not sure if the new legislation addresses these issues.

Goolsarran also said that all things being equal, the award of contracts should be to the most competitive bids. However, some contracts are awarded because bids are closest to the Engineer's Estimates. He noted that the existing regulations give no clear guidance in this regard.

Additionally, Goolsarran said he was not convinced of the integrity of the Engineer's Estimate. This estimate should be kept with the highest degree of confidentiality, sealed and placed in the tender box, he argued. The contents should only be made available on opening of the bids. He said he noted recently that one bid for a major contract was submitted with the exact figure shown on the Engineer's Estimate. Contract variations are also a sore point for Goolsarran. He said there are too many variations after contracts are awarded, indicating prima facie that proper assessment of work to be done was not being carried out. The Auditor General also noted that independent consultants normally monitored the progress of work on behalf of the State and certified payments based on measured work. Yet several instances were uncovered where contractors were paid for work not done or unsatisfactorily performed.

Apart from the tendering problems confronting the system of public accountability, Goolsarran said, there remained hundreds of government bank accounts which are not properly reconciled because the system is largely manual in an age of computers. Some accounts are in serious overdraft, while others have significant sums of money. The Consolidated Fund at the end of 2001 was overdrawn by $63.7 billion but the overall state of the government accounts shows a positive balance of $15.9 billion. Goolsarran said reconciling these statements manually was practically unmanageable and an effective accounting software package could solve the problem.

But despite these recurring problems, Goolsarran said, two big pluses have been (a) the fact that accounting officers have accepted their legal and moral responsibility to be accountable and (b) the role that the PAC has been playing under the chairmanship of Barrow and now Murray. He said when Barrow took up the chairmanship of the PAC in 1994 all members put aside partisan political interests and put national interest first. He singled out for special mention Dr Rupert Roopnaraine, Dr Leslie Ramsammy and Dr Motilall. This trend continues under the chairmanship of Murray. "I have been so touched by this display of national interest over partisan political interest that I sometimes wonder why the full National Assembly cannot operate in like vein," Goolsarran said.

Goolsarran argues that the recurring problems highlighted in his reports are a direct result of the bureaucratic, archaic and cumbersome systems and procedures. "We have inherited the present system from colonial times and the system has outlived its usefulness. We need to sit down and develop a new model which takes into account the local situation, the level of skills available, what is considered good accounting practices and the use of information technology," Goolsarran said. He posited that taking a hard look at the system was necessary and if it were changed, at least 50% of the problems currently still plaguing government spending will be eliminated.

He said a new system of accountability would remove suspicion and doubts and noted that in relation to the awarding of contracts, only the winning bidder was informed. In such circumstances, it was conceivable for unsuccessful bidders to harbour the feeling that they were not fairly treated. This would result in allegations of impropriety being levelled against those responsible for the adjudication of the award. Goolsarran is of the view that those failing to secure contracts should be written to and given three days to make any objection to a higher body. This body should be given another three days to dispose of any queries so that the contract can be awarded within seven days.

Goolsarran also believes that once per fortnight a list of all major contracts awarded should be published along with the number of bids received for each contract and the basis of the award. This practice would go a far way in removing any allegations of corruption. "If we operate a transparent system, then perhaps 50% of the allegations of impropriety in the award of contracts can be removed." Goolsarran sees his contribution to public accountability in two areas: public officials' acceptance of their moral and legal responsibility to be accountable; the non-partisan role of the PAC in monitoring and controlling public expenditure, assisted by the work of a credible institution in the Audit Office.