Watchdog calls for fixing root causes of recurrent lapses in public sector

The Public Accounts Committee noted the lapses in many instances took place not because of a lack of rules, procedures or systems, but due to agencies failing to comply with the controls put in place.
The Public Accounts Committee noted the lapses in many instances took place not because of a lack of rules, procedures or systems, but due to agencies failing to comply with the controls put in place.PHOTO: ST FILE

The parliamentary watchdog of public sector accounts has flagged recurrent lapses by government agencies in the areas of IT controls and financial governance, and urged them to understand and fix the root causes.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which reviews the Auditor-General's annual report, noted that the lapses in many instances took place not because of a lack of rules, procedures or systems, but due to agencies failing to comply with the controls put in place.

This could be due to various reasons, such as the lack of understanding or clarity of the rules, it said in the report it submitted to Parliament on Thursday.

To address the problem, the PAC said it is important that staff understand the purpose, underlying principle and rationale of rules.

To tackle the recurring lapses, it is "crucial for public sector leaders to set the right tone at the top and be involved in designing and implementing effective controls and processes".

The committee, which comprises eight MPs and is chaired by Ms Jessica Tan, made the call following its review of the Auditor-General's report for financial year 2017/18.

The repeated blunders made, the PAC noted, were "in the management of contracts, management of user accounts and access rights in IT systems, and in the area of procurement and payments".

  • Some of the incidents

  • SINGAPORE CIVIL DEFENCE FORCE

    The Singapore Civil Defence Force managed two vehicle maintenance contracts poorly. The Auditor-General's Office report said the SCDF did not have adequate procedures to ensure contractors gave the required services, which cost $1.8 million a year.

    The AGO's test-checks found that the SCDF paid $120,000 for maintenance jobs purportedly done on 21 vehicles but which the contractors did not actually perform. Some servicing records given to the auditors were also created and backdated.

    To address the lapses, the SCDF introduced a system for its units to monitor and track the servicing records of vehicles, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) told the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). The SCDF headquarters would tally the monthly invoice against servicing records before paying contractors. It would also do surprise checks on the contractors.

    From the middle of this year, the SCDF would also use the MHA-wide integrated logistics management system. The system's vehicle maintenance module gives vehicle maintenance plans and servicing details, among other features.

    PEOPLE'S ASSOCIATION

    The People's Association (PA) and one of its grassroots organisations (GROs) had lapses in procurement and contract management for major events. Serious weaknesses were also found in overseas purchases and payments for Chingay Parade 2017, including "telltale signs indicating that some cash sale receipts submitted for reimbursement claims might not be authentic", the PAC said.

    The Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth said the PA has put in place several measures, such as "centralising the management of high-value contracts to specialised procurement staff at PA headquarters and deploying specialised staff to assist GROs in their procurement, by mid-2019".

    Since last April, grassroots volunteers have been into e-learning, and it includes training in financial and procurement matters.

    NATIONAL RESEARCH FOUNDATION

    The AGO said the National Research Foundation (NRF) did not have procedures for monitoring and recovering unused grants from recipients. An AGO test-check found unused grants were not promptly recovered in 10 out of 13 completed projects. The Prime Minister's Office told the PAC the NRF will set up clear procedures to monitor and follow up with recipients to ensure unused funds are recovered promptly.

On weaknesses in IT controls, it said the "review of user access rights, removal of obsolete user accounts and not sharing accounts are fundamental controls which agencies are required to comply with".

Calling for more to be done to ensure effective compliance, the PAC said "weaknesses in these controls could become the weakest link in IT systems".

One case it highlighted related to the Ministry of Defence (Mindef), where authorised users were found to have shared their user accounts with unauthorised persons to carry out procurement activities in its Electronic Procurement System.

Mindef told the PAC that it has undertaken a three-pronged solution that includes strengthening its disciplinary framework for users who flout the rules and improving its IT system, like automatically locking account access for users on overseas leave.

In contract management, the PAC flagged instances of failing to obtain proper approvals for the award of contracts in the People's Association (PA). This was a recurrent lapse, with a similar observation made in the Auditor-General's report for financial year 2014/15.

The Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth said the PA formed the Grassroots Finance Review Committee in July 2015 to review the grassroots organisations' (GROs) financial procedures, implemented measures to improve compliance and conducted training for grassroots leaders. The ministry said it has seen progress since the measures were implemented, the PAC wrote.

To further strengthen the system, one measure the PA has taken is to review the GRO procurement policy to further refine it to facilitate decision-making, by the end of last year.

The PAC also noted the Ministry of Finance's (MOF) measures to fix lapses at the whole-of-government level. These include stepping up engagement with public sector leaders to ensure they understand their critical role in upholding a sound and robust system.

To tackle non-compliance with rules, the MOF has asked agencies to review their internal policies and processes to "strike a sensible balance between strengthening controls and sustaining operational efficiency", the PAC's report said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 02, 2019, with the headline 'Watchdog calls for fixing root causes of recurrent lapses in public sector'. Print Edition | Subscribe