Parliamentary watchdog urges Government to fix root causes of lapses in public agencies

Parliament's public accounts watchdog consists of eight MPs. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Parliament's public accounts watchdog has urged the Government to examine the root causes of lapses and weaknesses identified in various public agencies, so that the problems can be fixed across the public sector.

In a report released on Monday (Feb 8), the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said: "It is important for agencies to examine and investigate the root causes for the lapses so that appropriate remedial actions can be taken at the whole-of-government level and by the respective public sector agencies."

The committee, consisting of eight MPs, reviewed the report by the Auditor-General's Office on the public sector audit for the financial year 2019/2020.

The AGO had highlighted lapses in procurement and contract management at the National Library Board (NLB) and gaps in the management of business grant programmes at Workforce Singapore (WSG) and Enterprise Singapore (ESG), among others.

The PAC wanted to know if there was a framework in place at the whole-of-government level, and within the respective agencies, to examine the problems and ensure that remedial measures are effective.

To this, the Ministry of Finance (MOF) said the departments which oversee the policies, whether on procurement or information technology, for instance, regularly work with government agencies to get to the bottom of lapses identified by systemic audit, and to ensure compliance.

It added that a grants management review was completed in 2019 to thoroughly examine lapses relating to the management of grants, and an inter-agency committee was set up to put in place measures to prevent such mistakes.

MOF had also issued a new grants governance framework to all agencies in July last year - which sets out rules on the management of business grants from start to end - and aims to ensure that all agencies acquire a baseline level of capabilities in this area by the end of the 2021 financial year.

Meanwhile, the Smart Nation and Digital Government Group has also worked to strengthen IT governance and enhance IT security at the government-wide level.

On the specific lapses identified by the AGO, the PAC said the NLB's internal review had found that "weakness in duty of care on the part of NLB officers" had contributed to the lapses.

NLB was found to have poorly managed its revamp of the National Archives of Singapore building, resulting in the project exceeding its approved cost by $1.72 million. Approvals were given for variations without compelling reasons or cost estimates provided, among other things.

The Ministry of Communications and Information, which NLB comes under, told the PAC that disciplinary actions have been taken against the officers found to be negligent in discharging their duties.

The NLB has also stepped up briefings and enhanced guidance on the roles and responsibilities of officers involved in each stage of the procurement cycle.

The WSG and ESG, meanwhile, had been found to have mismanaged six business grant programmes which disbursed a total of $333.40 million between April 1, 2018, and June 30, 2019.

In some cases, there were double claims and double funding across different WSG grants. The WSG also did not recover unused grant money in a timely manner.

In ESG's case, the funds disbursed for certain grants were not in line with guidelines, resulting in either an excess or a shortfall. Its officers also had inconsistent practices when assessing companies' eligibility.

The PAC called for the review and monitoring of the grants to be strengthened, especially when the administration of such grants is outsourced to external programme partners.

It also stressed that the need to process and disburse grants timeously must be balanced with proper controls and governance.

The Ministry of Manpower, which is the parent ministry of WSG, said the WSG has developed a new guide for its professional conversion programme partners to ensure consistency of practices, and these partners will also have to comply with new guidelines from this year.

The MTI, which ESG comes under, said the ESG has strengthened its checks to ensure programme partners like trade associations and chambers comply with grant conditions.

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