Parliament

Officers at MCCY, PA taken to task over irregularities

Investigations ongoing at other agencies after AGO flagged lapses

Two Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) officers were issued official warnings and their performance assessments affected after they admitted to fabricating claims records.

In separate cases, People's Association (PA) staff who may have falsified quotations and doctored documents were suspended from duties.

Irregularities in contractors' records provided to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) led to one contractor being charged in court and the other given a 12-month conditional warning. Two officers are also undergoing internal investigations for a lack of due diligence, said Second Minister for Finance Indranee Rajah yesterday.

Investigations are ongoing at two other agencies - the Ministry of Education (MOE) and Housing Board, she added.

Ms Indranee was responding to questions by Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh and Mr Yip Hon Weng (Yio Chu Kang) on recurring lapses uncovered by the Auditor-General's Office (AGO).

The five agencies were flagged by AGO for irregularities and possible falsification of documents, in its July report on government accounts for the 2020/2021 financial year.

The AGO noted some supporting documents for claims in MCCY appeared to have been photocopies, with alterations made to the dates and duration of services rendered.

At MOE and MHA, there were supporting documents possibly created or backdated to satisfy queries. For HDB, quotations for some items could have been created or altered to give the impression that they were obtained from other suppliers. At the PA, possible irregularities suggested falsification of quotations, alteration of hard-copy payment supporting details and the creation and backdating of documents.

Ms Indranee said two MCCY officers have admitted to fabricating claims records for services rendered by external parties.

The officers could not locate the records when asked by the AGO. But the investigation showed that the claims were valid, and services were in fact rendered. "While the claims were real, the conduct of the officers in fabricating the claims records was wrong," she explained.

MHA had three cases of possible irregularities in records furnished by contractors. One contractor was charged in court and the other received a 12-month conditional warning. In the third case, action was taken against the contractor for not complying with contractual requirements.

"There was no fabrication of records by public officers in any of these three cases. However, two officers are undergoing internal investigations for the lack of due diligence," she said.

Human errors and process gaps will happen from time to time, she added, given that there are 150,000 officers in the public service handling hundreds of thousands of transactions each year, and more than 2,000 government information technology systems built over the years by different vendors and using different technologies.

Recurring lapses have typically been in the areas of procurement and contracts management, IT controls and grants management. These share common factors like the scale and complexity of operations, a constantly changing operating environment, high volume of transactions and multiple touch points. What is important is having the means to pick up such lapses and addressing them in an upfront and transparent manner, said Ms Indranee.

To improve processes and officers' capabilities, she said more central IT infrastructure and common services are being deployed.

Agencies regularly review and strengthen their own processes and systems to mitigate agency-level risks, she added.

The Ministry of Finance has established the Finance and Procurement Academy in partnership with the Civil Service College to better equip public officers with relevant competencies. Officers involved in finance, procurement and contract management also receive refreshers and updates on policies and practices.

She said that officers involved in IT roles are actively engaged in audit findings, as well as learning points and ways to prevent lapses.

Responding to Mr Singh's question on the "unusual" number of incidents of falsifying documents in this year's report, Ms Indranee said the key to resolving process problems is by automating processes to minimise human error.

But it is also important to build people's capabilities, she added.

"(It means) impressing upon public officers the importance of doing this well... so that in fact they internalise it.

"(We) will continue to emphasise to the officers that misconduct is viewed seriously and will not be condoned, and will also remind them that there are internal avenues to report wrongdoing and fraudulent acts - if these occur, and if the reporting is made in good faith."

The heads of agencies will also prioritise and intensify internal audits to look out for any such wrongdoing and deal with them decisively, she said.

She emphasised that integrity is a core value of the public service, and it will continue to uphold strict standards to ensure accountability in the use of public funds.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2021, with the headline 'Officers at MCCY, PA taken to task over irregularities'. Subscribe