The Public Accounts Committee last week tabled its first report in the National Assembly that proposed sound measures to enhance transparency and accountability in the manner in which public funds are managed in Zimbabwe. The mandate of the Public Accounts Committee is to scrutinise the accounts of Government, including public enterprises and local authorities and report to Parliament. The committee works closely with the Comptroller and Auditor General whose mandate is to audit government accounts. While the report focused on the Ministry of Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development for the year ended 31 December 2011, the findings and recommendations are generally applicable to all other ministries, public enterprises, local authorities and other government entities that continue to mismanage public funds.
Just like what is happening in most ministries, the PAC observed that the Auditor-General had in three successive years from 2009 been issuing a disclaimer of opinion on the Ministry’s accounts, a state of affairs which implied that there was fundamental lack of documentation to an extent that an audit opinion could not be expressed. The reason advanced for this is the continued breakdown of the Public Finance Management System. Surely, why the system cannot be fixed for more than three years remains a mystery. Of great concern is that ministry officials made false claims that the system was now up and running only for the members to discover that the 2012 ministry accounts were qualified on the same grounds and that there was no evidence of reconciliations being done on a monthly basis. Such falsehoods can attract contempt of Parliament charges.
Another issue of concern is unauthorised expenditure incurred by the ministry of nearly $15 million. Although not exceeding the total budget for the ministry, such large virements between budget lines result in budgeting and parliamentary approval lacking credibility. Again this is a problem common in government ministries that Parliament should put a stop to. Failure to keep up-to-date asset registers in some departments in the ministry was identified as a recurring problem. Why government ministries fail to implement a simple system such as asset registers boggles my mind. One can only conclude that this could be a deliberate ploy to abuse public assets.
Another recurring problem is that of ghost workers in ministries. It is highly disturbing that this problem cannot be resolved at a time when government is facing serious budgetary pressures. This can only be a reflection of a serious breakdown in public finance management in government. Those responsible for paying workers that do not exist must be held answerable and not allowed to walk away scot-free. These are public funds whose management require a high degree of transparency and accountability. Other issues highlighted by the committee common in most ministries included violation of tender procedures, unauthorised receipt of gifts and donations and lack of equipment for staff to carry out their duties. The committee made the following recommendations arising from its observations:
- The Ministry should put in place clear controls to prevent system variances in future and monthly reconciliations between bank statement public finance management system balances should be religiously carried out in order to detect errors of omission or commission.
- Though the Ministry’s expenditure was within the overall vote, effective control system must be put in place to ensure that unauthorised excess expenditure within line items does not recur in future.
- The Ministry should prioritise physical verification of assets and should maintain an up-to-date asset register in compliance with Treasury Regulations
- Since the Ministry had assumed the debt owed to Seed Houses, it should engage the Seed Houses, the Reserve Bank and officers who were responsible for Operation Maguta and get all the details relating to the exact figure of the debt and the beneficiaries of the inputs.
- The Ministry should provide documentary evidence to prove that the GMB guarantees had been disclosed and as matter of procedure it should maintain proper records of contingent liabilities.
- The Ministry should procure motor bikes for all extension officers through the establishment of a revolving fund in order for them to be mobile and provide a critical service to the nation. Allowing officers to assume ownership over the motor bikes would also motivate them to properly maintain them.
- The Ministry should seek Treasury authority to accept donations and engage the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructural Development to facilitate registration of the motor cycles.
- The Ministry should penalise officers for unauthorised use of vehicles and embark on the process of having the vehicles written off in terms of Treasury Instructions.
The report now awaits debate by the National Assembly before being adopted. Once adopted, the responsible minister will be required to respond to the report and specify actions to be taken. It is important that the committee follows up on the implementation of its recommendations so that its work does not become another academic exercise.