Although Nombembe was upbeat about the future of the management of government this week, the key message repeated over the more than 500 pages – not counting the subsidiary reports on each province – of the Consolidated General Report on National and Provincial Audit Outcomes released by his office on Tuesday was that the rot starts at the top.
Department heads did not set the right tone for clean management, the report held in some instances, showed their lack of seriousness by failing to fill key positions, or failed to take action against civil servants who broke the rules, and sometimes the law.
In fact, said Nombembe in his foreword, he decided to publish an entire booklet on the many laws and regulations that could be used to prosecute those guilty of poor performance, misappropriation of state resources and fraud. "These must be used where necessary to reverse the culture of 'business-as-usual'."
The tools to do so existed, said Nombembe elsewhere in documents that accompanied the biggest annual overview of the trustworthiness of numbers out of most government institutions at provincial or national level. He further mentioned that he has faith that the government could clean up its act "although the set of audit outcomes for the period under review showed slow progress towards total clean administration." Nombembe's office described his overall reaction – "he was encouraged and convinced that the tangible remedial measures recently announced by the government would go a long way in addressing the public sector's current administrative and governance deficiencies."
A good place to start might be at the top. In its review of various ministerial portfolios, the report disclosed that the presidency never met with the auditor general in the last financial year, nor made any promises to clean up its own act.
"We could not secure any meetings with the minister and therefore did not obtain any commitments regarding his portfolio," the report said about the Presidency. "The minister had also not provided any commitments in the prior year."
The real problems
But the presidency, though important symbolically, wielded a relatively small budget and came off relatively lightly for its non-compliance with various structures on spending state funds. The report highlighted that the real problems were elsewhere.
- In the Eastern Cape, not one of the 26 government institutions examined received a clean audit. Likewise, in the Northern Cape none of the 22 government institutions received a clean bill of health. North West has just one: its provincial gambling board
- More than a third of national government departments, the report found, "would have started 2012/13 with more than 10% of their budget effectively spent", hampering their ability to do their work during the current financial year through a lack of budget controls
- Nearly R600-million in tenders were awarded to suppliers linked to employees of the relevent department – sometimes senior managers were responsible for the awards – or their families. In three quarters of cases, the conflict was never disclosed
- Tenders found to be unfair increased across the board
- Both irregular and fruitless expenditure increased greatly compared to the previous year, which continued a solid trend
Reports on various specific projects and focus areas of government held similarly grim news, from school workbooks not delivered to inappropriate disposal of medical waste in seven of South Africa's nine provinces.
Nor were such problems a new phenomenon, even though slippage has been particularly evident during the Zuma administration.
"Some provinces are still experiencing challenges although this programme has been implemented for more than 10 years," read a section of the report dealing with grants to teach HIV and Aids life skills.
Though the report dealt with the trustworthiness of financial reports and the keeping of promises, the auditor general increasingly sought to identify the root causes of poor audit performance, with sometimes blunt findings.
"There appears to be no appreciable consequences for officials who fail to comply with laws and regulations to which departments and public entities are subject or for officials who fail to discharge their legislated duties," another part of the report read.
The auditor general was also clear on what drove progress in spending in the precious few state organs that saw improvement in their audit results.
"It is evident from this year's results that audit outcomes only improved in areas where the leadership adopted a hands-on approach to addressing shortcomings in their respective portfolios," said Nombembe in a statement. "Leadership in these portfolios personally took on the oversight role of their control environments and this led to a remarkable improvement in outcomes."
Only 22% of the 536 entities examined received clean audits. Audit opinions remained the same for most departments and institutions, with the auditor general saying 62 improved, while 80 did worse than in the previous financial years.