Given the annual lamentation ritual we go through as a country when the auditor-general releases audit results of national and provincial departments, including state-owned entities, this year I decided to pay particular attention to these and not to outsource my views to what I read in the media.
I read the auditor-general's detailed statement and sought to understand its nuances and some of the terminology it uses. What struck me immediately was the title of the statement: "Auditor-general reports a progressive, marginal three-year improvement in national and provincial government audit results." Improvement? Really? Does that mean our annual ritual would be meaningless this year?
I have too much confidence in the auditor-general, as a Chapter 9 institution, to be cynical about his opinion. If he says there has been an improvement then, indeed, there has been one. He substantiates this by stating for the period under review, 24 percent of the auditees improved their results. He also states public entities fared the best, with continuous improvement year on year and the number of auditees that received financially unqualified opinions (commonly known as clean audits) increased overall from 122 in 2013-14 to 152 in the year under review.
Such results must be celebrated and the leadership of those departments and public entities commended. From the auditor general's choice of the title for his report, and the focus on the slight improvement in audit outcomes, the nuanced message is the narrative that things are falling apart is challengeable. There are public servants who truly earn their money. In our annual lamentation about audit outcomes and our concerns about what it is going in the country, we do need a healthy dose of reality and a resistance to hyperbole.
But is it all rosy? Not at all. And the auditor general does not shy away from saying so. It is worrying that 14 percent of auditees have regressed - meaning their results are poorer than the previous period. Specifically, 13 departments and 19 public entities that had performed well previously lost their clean audit status in 2015-16.
One would not be surprised if the cause of this was, among others, the government's failure to retain talent. The public sector in general has a tendency to get rid of brilliant minds and retain those less competent. Where is the administrative leadership that achieved the clean audits in the previous year?
While the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Northern Cape and Gauteng showed significant improvement, it is clear interventions are needed in Free State, Mpumalanga and North West. Free State and Mpumalanga have regressed over a period of three years.
This is telling about the leadership of these three provinces. They might have taken their eyes off governance issues and focused more on intra-party politics and succession battles. I hope I am wrong. Well done to the provinces with the highest number of auditees with clean audits in 2015-16: Western Cape (79 percent), Gauteng (60 percent) and KwaZulu-Natal (35 percent).
The increase in irregular expenditure by almost 40 percent since 2012-14 to R46.3 billion is worrying. I was, however, comforted to learn irregular expenditure does not necessarily mean monetary losses (though some losses may arise) but "expenditure incurred towards procurement of goods and services without following prescribed processes."
The auditor-general states "89 percent of irregular expenditure arising from procurement was in respect of goods and services received." Given the weight of the word "irregular", the auditor-general might have to clarify and communicate this better in the future. It does tend to increase the nation's temperature.
The figure that should also be worrying us is the one associated with fruitless and wasteful expenditure which saw an increase of 14 percent in 2013-14. Here it means no value was received for the expenditure. The reduction of unauthorized expenditure by just over 50 percent since 2013-14 to R925 million means government is, relatively, succeeding on this one.
In conclusion, the time has come to increase the powers of the auditor-general to include punitive measures. It is when people's pockets are affected that they will take the auditor general findings seriously and correct them. The punitive measures should apply to the executive authority and the accounting officers, for starters. Otherwise, these reports become an annual ritual with no real impact.
PASTOR RAY McCAULEY IS THE PRESIDENT OF RHEMA FAMILY CHURCHES AND CO-CHAIRMAN OF THE NATIONAL RELIGIOUS LEADERS COUNCIL