Government agencies urged to fix recurring lapses, basic mistakes

Parliamentary watchdog calls for fundamental review to tackle issues flagged in Auditor-General's report last year

The parliamentary watchdog of public sector accounts has urged government agencies to address "recurring lapses and basic mistakes" flagged in the Auditor-General's report last year.

"Given the scale, speed and complexity of the work in the public sector, the committee is concerned that these lapses, if not addressed, may compound over time and weaken the governance and accountability over public funds and resources," the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said in its own report released yesterday.

The lapses were in information technology (IT) controls, procurement and contract management, and management of social grant programmes.

The committee urged government agencies to fundamentally review their systems and processes, share lessons learnt across the entire sector, and strengthen the competency of supervisors and officers on the ground.

It stressed the need for accountability and ownership, as well as clarity in roles and responsibilities - especially where projects require efforts across multiple agencies or departments.

Officers new to finance, procurement and contract management should also be given enough training, it added.

The committee comprises eight MPs and is chaired by East Coast GRC MP Jessica Tan. It is tasked with scrutinising how public funds are spent, and what government agencies have done to correct irregularities in the use of funds.

The committee had asked the Ministry of Finance (MOF) and the Smart Nation and Digital Government Group (SNDGG) what could be done to address the lapses at the whole-of-government level.

The SNDGG said that to drive ownership and accountability, it will appoint a senior deputy secretary-level officer in each ministry to oversee information and communications technology (ICT) governance and security issues, among other measures.

MOF told the committee that it is adopting a multi-pronged approach of policy reviews, enlisting the help of specialist agencies and certifying and training officers.

In addition to conducting training programmes, it has implemented procurement sandboxes, where agencies can try different approaches that better suit their needs.

 

The ministry has also appointed specialist agencies to provide advice and help - GovTech for ICT purchases, and the JTC Corporation for construction and facilities management.

MOF noted the "dynamic nature" of construction contracts, including unexpected site constraints and tight timelines. To address this, it said it has worked with the Building and Construction Authority to simplify rules, and issued a good practice guide last month.

To strengthen grants management and governance, it also aims to roll out a more comprehensive set of rules by the first half of this year.

In addition, a new grants governance council will group public sector agencies with similar types of grants into sectoral clusters. This will allow agencies with similar grants to work together to develop appropriate rules and good practices, said MOF.

Professor Daniel Wong of the National University of Singapore's Department of Building said long-term efforts are critical.

"The Government will have to look into allocating time and budget to implement and repeat this process every two to three years," he said.

He cited the turnover of officers, lack of upskilling, insufficient use of technology and limited technical and contractual knowledge as key causes of the lapses.

He added: "It is imperative that officers are regularly upskilled in lifelong learning. Technology plays an important role."


Some of the incidents

Lapses in procurement and contract management

The Auditor-General's Office (AGO) found that in the National Gallery Singapore (NGS) development project, approval was sought to vary contracts only after work had begun or was done. Delays ranged from 30 days to almost four years.

There were approval lapses for 142 contract variations amounting to $12.4 million. In 17 of the cases, no approval was sought, even though the cost of these projects had risen from $1.27 million to $2.67 million. Approvals were obtained from the incorrect approving authority.

 

NGS' supervising ministry, the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY), said there was no fraud. The overall deliverables - to complete the project on time and within budget - were met by NGS.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said the issue was not just about spending within the budget but also whether the project could have cost less, given the significant amount of public funds involved.

"Good governance should not be compromised for the sake of administrative expediency. Contract variations should not be allowed simply on the basis that the works had been carried out," it said.

To strengthen its processes, NGS has implemented an e-procurement system so that variations are approved by the correct authority before a purchase order is issued. It also no longer allows verbal approvals.

Weaknesses in IT controls

The AGO said weaknesses included inadequate monitoring and review of the users of IT systems, especially external vendors with access to sensitive or personal information.

For example, Customs, which is under the Ministry of Finance (MOF), let seven administrators, who were IT vendor staff, use the most privileged user account without password authentication. The Ministry of Defence (Mindef) gave several IT vendors unrestricted access to 73 types of human resource data, including salaries.

 

Customs has, since last April, activated password authentication for the use of the most privileged account. It has put in place a process for the OS (operating system) administrator, an IT vendor, to seek approval from Customs before using the account.

Logging of all activities performed using the most privileged account has been fully enabled since last July, said MOF.

Since last July, Mindef has assigned access rights to IT vendor staff based on the individual's job scope. It conducts weekly log reviews of access made by these staff.

Gaps in the management of social grant programmes

The AGO found many instances where funding approval for social grant programmes was obtained only after the funding period began. These were among multiple lapses by the Ministry of Health (MOH) and the Ministry for Social and Family Development (MSF) in managing these grant programmes.

 

Other lapses included inadequate oversight and checks on the grants.

MOH has put in place measures such as a standard funding agreement template, simplified processes for grants renewal and improved IT systems to automate grants processing. It will use fee schedules to perform checks on fee increases by voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs).

Since March last year, MSF has introduced guidelines on the selection and re-appointment of VWOs. All aspects of programmes must be reviewed at least once every five years.

The ministry will implement a contract management system by this year, replacing the manual tracking of start and expiry dates of programmes. This will give staff enough time to seek funding approval. It is also planning a social service grant management platform that will allow VWOs to access, apply for, renew and track social service grants.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2020, with the headline 'Govt agencies urged to fix recurring lapses, basic mistakes'. Print Edition | Subscribe