Relatively few people read the Annual Report of the Auditor General. Perhaps ordinary Guyanese just couldn’t be bothered with the details of how the government spends their tax dollars. Government ministers and heads of state agencies probably find it unpalatable. Its contents remind them of the profligacy, recklessness, corrupt practices and instances of stealing from the public purse that occurs under their watch.
It’s hard to think of a periodic public report that is as important as the Auditor General’s. Its primary function, as set out in its mission statement, is “the execution of high quality audits of the public accounts, entities and projects assigned by the Audit Act.” It is too a visible manifestation of the constitutional provision of the public’s right to know. This, in circumstances where that right is, in other instances, circumscribed on account of government’s undemocratic control over other information about how the state is managed that ought correctly to be placed in the public domain.
On the whole, the Report of the Auditor General can be a tedious document to read. Sections of it detail the public debt and include tables regarding financial allocations to state agencies. Those are specialized sections, of interest to limited audiences.
There are other sections like those placed under the heading ‘Reports on the Accounts of Ministries/Departments/Regions,’ that are of more general interest. The report on the accounts of state agencies speaks to the management of financial allocations. These make for most absorbing, sometimes shocking reading. What is perhaps most shocking is the sheer number of occasions on which laws are broken and procedures set aside.
What makes the Auditor General’s Report interesting too is the fact that – its known limitations notwithstanding – it provides information which government, if it had its way, would unhesitatingly expunge from the document. If you read it you get to know things that the government wouldn’t otherwise want you to know, like the fact that the Office of the President is as guilty of practices upon which the Audit Act frowns as any other state agency.
The 2010 Report reveals, for example, that audits for nine state agencies which fall under the purview of the President’s Office have not been laid before the National Assembly for at least five years. In the case of one such agency, the Institute of Applied Science and Technology, no audit has been done for the past eight years.
The Auditor General’s 2010 Report will also tell you that out of the 177 instances of seizures of goods of one sort or another carried out by the Customs and Trade Administration in 2010 only “141 files were presented for audit examination” up to in July 2011. In this matter the acting Auditor General concluded “that not all the seizures may have been processed and brought to closure” though he stops short of telling us what the implications of an unprocessed seizure might be for the eventual fate of those seized goods. Of course, only a fool would not recognize the potential for corruption in circumstances where records for seized goods cannot be produced for audit.
It is also the Auditor General’s Report that often sets before us the smoking gun in the corruption-driven twisting and bending of tender procedures to facilitate the allocation of state contracts to favoured contractors. Again in the case of the Customs and Trade Administration the 2010 report details the failure of a Customs station to keep a register of used and unused receipts – so that, “it was difficult to ascertain the number of receipts issued and used.” Again, it requires no great scholarship to discern that unaccounted for receipts raises the spectre of misappropriation of state revenues.
Sometimes the report offers some gems that would be hilarious were they not so disturbing, like the case, some years ago, of a contractor – a relative of an employee of a particular regional administration – supplying millions of dollars worth of goods to that region from a trading address that turned out to be the address of a stall in a municipal market; in another case, state auditors having been presented with receipts for repairs to particular items belonging to a government ministry, subsequently discovered that there really had been no need to repair the items in question since they were in perfectly good condition, having never been put into use!
Then there are cases, scores if not hundreds of them, of contractors being “overpaid” and in some cases, contracts not being completed to original specifications. Sometimes the explanations for “overpayments” and incomplete contracts are laughable. Some of these cases appear in successive reports. Again, the overpaid sums are, in many cases, unlikely ever to be recouped.
A few years ago the auditors, having ventured into the stores of the Guyana Elections Commission (Gecom) storage bond discovered millions of dollars worth of items, including film and batteries, stored there and rotting.
Apparently, after they were bought the items were deemed unusable and the auditors were regaled with a Gecom story about a botched arrangement with a private business that should have seen the goods taken off its hands before they started to rot. Perhaps the items have been dumped by now.
These instances are only the tip of a giant iceberg of ‘funny business’ and fraud which are documented in the report year after year.
Nor should it be concluded that these discrepancies apply only to the present political administration. In fact, these days, Reports of the Auditor General are published with far greater frequency than under the previous administration. If we can do no more than speculate over what went before, it has to be said that the reports of recent years tell a story of a political administration that has presided over a shocking level of mismanagement and misdirection of public funds.
Sections of the privately-owned media do cover the report at some level. The state media steer clear of reporting on the seamier side of the report. Reports by the private media focus on the more alarming irregularities. The myriad cases of distorted tender procedures, overpayments to contractors, the absence of proper log book records for state-owned vehicles, salary overpayments that are never recouped and other areas of discrepancy frequently never come to light.
The irregularities are ingrained. More worryingly, one gets the impression that the Auditor General’s pronouncements are not taken seriously. This newspaper recalls the case of a senior state official remarking that he had “better things to do” when asked to comment on a reference made in a report to the circumvention of ministerial tender board procedures in the process of awarding a contract.
Required to account for infractions and anomalies, other heads of state agencies consider it entirely reasonable to tell the auditors the same story, year in, year out; a particular matter is still under investigation or a file cannot be found or an officer is still to respond to a memorandum or a contractor is still to refund an overpaid amount. Infractions slip quietly from one year into the next and no one, it appears, is ever required to take the ultimate responsibility. More worrying, perhaps, is the fact that the government never really gives the impression of being troubled by what the Auditor General has to say.