When weak governance is the order of the day in a country, payment rule violations or even entrenched wasteful practices might be swept under the carpet. This action might be justified in various ways - for example, disclosure might be deemed politically inconvenient or officials might insist it's better to sort out matters away from the public eye. Such cover-ups then become part of the operating culture of the public service and contribute to more fiscal laxity or possible corruption. Recognising such risks, Singapore has entrusted an independent organ of state, the Auditor-General's Office (AGO), with the task of auditing all public authorities "without fear or favour".
The credibility of the AGO is reviewed every year by its report on any uncovered cases of "system weaknesses, non-compliance with control procedures or legislation, and instances of excess, extravagance, or gross inefficiency leading to waste in the use of public funds and resources".
When highlighted cases are criticised publicly and make for unpleasant reading within the agencies concerned, it means the system is working as it should. Such a process can spur all ministries, departments and statutory boards to run a tight ship. But despite their best efforts, the AGO will always have a job to do as billions of dollars are administered by public bodies and countless transactions are conducted every year. It would be unrealistic to expect everything to be done perfectly all the time, especially when circumstances and staff change over time.
This year's report by the AGO continues that tradition of checking meticulously the spending practices of official agencies and promoting accountability through transparency. It is gratifying that the organisations identified for censure generally do not enter denial mode or become overly defensive. One reason is the impartial thoroughness with which the AGO goes about its job of asking why the public dollar is spent in the way it is.
Among those taken to task this year was the Education Ministry which was responsible for a long delay in completing a review to make certain that student loans are repaid promptly. In another example of the cautionary need for careful spending habits, the National Arts Council had to explain the high fee paid to consultants for a centralised refuse-collection project in the Civic District. The council agreed later that it would be always prudent to look at the quoted fee as a proportion of the project's construction cost. Yet again, acceptance of censure is the first step to remedial action, by which an organisation must be judged. Official agencies singled out by the national auditor should not stop at assurances to the public but ought to also disclose information on the final outcome of self-investigation and on consequent changes. The openness of the audit should be matched by transparency of the follow-up action.