The Straits Times says

Upholding confidence in public service

The annual report of the Auditor-General's Office (AGO) is usually accompanied by promises from public bodies to tighten controls. Collectively, such measures might enlarge the rule book, especially when social programmes multiply and public developments grow in scale. Tenders might get complex, for example, as the attributes of a smart nation become pervasive. Apart from meeting new technical requirements and communicating interconnected criteria effectively to suppliers, public officers will have to continue to ensure there is open and fair competition.

Many guidelines will remain relevant over time but some will have to be adapted. Thus, the audit exercise is "a journey of continuous improvement", as the Finance Ministry has noted. Overall, the system of managing public funds remains sound, buttressed by the AGO's scrutiny; and large-scale fraud and cases of gross negligence are relatively rare. But human error is bound to keep surfacing, given the large corps of public officers handling tens of thousands of procurement annually, the lack of experience of some staff, and their uncertainty when facing novel situations.

Simply adding more rules is not the answer to effective financial governance, nor are efforts to make them absolutely watertight. These would demand so much time and expense that government machinery and external supply chains would be bogged down with compliance, and the public would get frustrated by service delays.

Rules matter, of course, but it's necessary to go beyond them and strengthen the public service ethos as well. Officers aiming to protect their own backs might view rules as impediments to be navigated with dread. Instead, these could well be the means of achieving better results for the agency. Getting durable equipment and reliable services at the lowest cost, for example, is a way public officers can generate value for an organisation. Conversely, time-consuming bureaucratic rules would erode value by forcing civil servants to be rubber-stampers and making private service providers act inefficiently in some cases.

The focus should instead be on asking the right questions. Are there checks, for example, to ascertain if projects are going overboard with state-of-the-art technology, if contract variations ought to be anticipated, and if there are adequate capabilities and staff strength to manage a large project? The AGO highlighted this week how the handling of multimillion-dollar contracts by the Health Ministry saw 40 changes being made to contracts without approval, including 32 changes made after the projects were completed or had started. As this is not the first time public hospital development has been flagged, procedures should have been questioned much earlier. If lapses recur in agencies, it will create a sense of deja vu and undermine public confidence.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 22, 2017, with the headline 'Upholding confidence in public service'. Print Edition | Subscribe