The financial health of South Africa’s cities and towns is worse than ever before, with only 18 out of 257 municipalities getting clean audit reports for the 2017/18 financial year. Surely it’s long past time to introduce more transparency into our government spending.
There are plenty of unenviable jobs in South Africa these days (university vice-chancellor, anyone?), but Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu and his team have been having a particularly hard time lately. Municipalities have been brazenly disregarding audit recommendations – the performance of 63 of them actually got worse last year, with only 22 doing better. To make matters worse, Makwetu says his audit teams have experienced people pressuring them to change their findings, questioning their motives, and even outright threats and intimidation.
Accountancy shouldn’t have to be an heroic profession, so it’s good news that the new Public Audit Act gives the Auditor-General stronger powers to press for further investigations and initiate binding remedial action. But relying on the auditors to catch irregularities years after they’ve happened is much too little, too late.
Like mould in a damp cellar, dodgy dealings, bad faith and even plain old incompetence thrive in darkness. Transparency and free-flowing information are the light and air a democracy needs if it’s not to start rotting at the foundations – and with today’s technology, there is no excuse for a lack of transparency.
What does transparency look like? It means real-time access to information that’s easy to understand, even if you’re not a professional accountant. It means being able to dive below the top layer of aggregated numbers, all the way down to individual transactions if necessary. And most of all, it means the people who are responsible for spending money are also held accountable for it.
Imagine if your local municipality’s accounting systems were open to public scrutiny in real time. Ordinary citizens could see exactly what was being spent on travel, or entertainment, or mystery consultants—and just as important, what was not being spent on upgrading sewerage plants, fuel for refuse collection trucks or maintenance of public roads and housing. And they’d be able to see it within days, not months or years – which means there might be time to stop problems in their tracks, before the money has been siphoned away into offshore bank accounts and properties in Dubai. Best of all, people who know their actions are being watched are less likely to go wrong in the first place.
None of this is impossible to do right now – it’s not even particularly difficult or expensive, especially compared to the billions we’re continuing to lose to “irregularities”. The technology to achieve all of this already exists and is in use around the world, including in many places right here in South Africa. So is government not making its spending transparent because it can’t – or because it doesn’t want to?
Did you know that South Africa’s national Budget is rated as one of the most transparent in the world? In fact, in 2017 we tied first with New Zealand in the International Budget Partnership’s Open Budget Survey of 102 countries. So we’re getting one side of the equation right. Now it’s time to focus attention on the other side, and get our spending right as well.
As published in Accountancy SA – September 2019