“The slip-ups have raised concerns over whether public funds were used properly and prudently” (Improve How Grants Are Given Out: AGO, Miss Charissa Yong).
The slip-ups flagged by the Auditor-General’s Office (AGO), over the use of public funds and the management of land or assets for instance, are not in themselves necessarily problematic (ST, July 18). Yet after the AGO and agency auditors have uncovered these suspected irregularities, how do the government agencies follow up after their investigations?
Take the Media Development Authority (MDA) for instance. For this financial year the AGO found lapses in the administration of grants: applications which were rejected and the reasons for rejection were not recorded, there was no requirement for independent checks on rejected cases, and the documentation and tracking of projects were poor. Auditor-General Mr. Willie Tan rightly explained that the MDA officers could “unilaterally reject an application without valid reasons, and there would be no documentation trail to detect such cases”. In the last financial year the AGO’s checks likewise revealed “an overall laxity in controls over evaluation and approval of projects” for the $40 million “GAMBIT Game Lab” initiative.
Further checks in 2014 were not flattering. Seven of 28 projects checked did not submit deliverables on time. Three out of six were disbursed full amounts before milestones were completed. 23 out of 159 did not return the excess grants which were disbursed by the MDA. It is worth recalling that the AGO only audits a selective sample of accounts.
In 2013 the MDA informed the AGO that it had since “taken measures to ensure compliance with policies and standard operating procedures for project evaluation, funding approval and contract signing, including … additional checks and balances”. In 2014 the MDA now says “it has since implemented a number of changes to tighten controls over the management and approval of grants … [and] improved its processes for project evaluation and documentation”.
Of course the specific grant schemes might differ, but the general lapses appear consistent. What is, or was, the recourse?
Procurement inadequacies notwithstanding, across the board the government agencies also responded to the AGO with dissimilar levels of precision. One therefore wonders whether replies to the AGO are standardised, and if the agencies are penalised for similar, unresolved slip-ups. Who ensures that the errors are rectified, and systems improved? Will the MDA provide further clarifications before the launch of a grant management system by December 2014? Will the amounts disbursed incorrectly be recovered, for example?
It is not just an issue of accountability, but a commitment to improve. The laissez-faire responses at the moment and the repeated slip-ups signal otherwise. Perhaps when parliament sits on August 4 its members should take a harder look at these lapses.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.