Forum: Public agencies need to learn from past mistakes

Year after year, the Auditor-General's Office (AGO), in its annual audit of government finances, has flagged several government ministries and agencies for lapses over issues like contract management processes and weaknesses in information technology and financial controls.

Based on the published reports of the Auditor-General, it appears that certain lapses occur each year, although the lapses may involve different entities.

The question is whether the flagged agencies took notice and learnt from other agencies that made the same or similar mistakes in previous years.

In the AGO report for financial year 2019/2020, it was highlighted that the lapses discovered were related to the poor handling of business grants and weaknesses in IT controls, among other things (Auditor-General flags gaps in IT controls at several govt agencies, Sept 8, 2020).

Most recently, it was reported that an excess of $370 million in government payouts under the Jobs Support Scheme was erroneously paid out to 5,400 companies, and the mistakes were attributed to errors in the compiling and processing of information ($370m in wage support wrongly paid out to firms, April 9).

This latest development is of real concern as there seems to be a lack of knowledge management and organisational learning within the public service, and this in turn could affect whether current efforts in public service transformation will be successful.

As part of this transformation, digitalisation and robotic process automation are supposed to revolutionise public administration. However, the outcome will depend on how the government ministries and agencies leverage the technologies.

The outcome rests on humans, not robots or the technologies that are being deployed.

The question is whether the right people (both leaders and front-line personnel) with the right skill sets and competencies have been deployed to make the right decisions and get the job done.

The results are expected to be an increase in productivity and improved service delivery. But it seems this is not the case right now.

Sattar Bawany