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The gnats of public revenue flow unstrained

MBONGENI MGUNI
Run down: Since 2013, 12 patients have committed suicide at Sbrana, using rafters exposed by a collapsed ceiling
Between 2010 and 2019, a technical officer at Central District Council earned a salary overpayment of P643,000, thanks to double payments from his former department and his current one. Thus far only P94,960 has been recovered. The latest Auditor General’s report shows that loopholes in public finance management persist. Staffer, MBONGENI MGUNI writes

According to the Bible, Jesus chided the Pharisees for “straining gnats and swallowing camels”, a criticism of how they improperly placed focus on minor issues, while allowing major ones to pass through.

The Auditor General’s frustration with public finance management appears to be the opposite. Generally, the accounting officers are able to account for the camels, the big ticket items that run into millions of pula and have the potential to rock the fiscus if mismanaged.

It is the gnats where the problem lies, the unreconcilled travel imprests, unpaid telephone debts, uncollected arrears, all of them involving comparatively small amounts. Viewed individually, the amounts appear minor when set against the billions of pula managed by ministries. But when put together and because many of the incidents have been running unresolved for years, their cumulative impact is distasteful to the Auditor General.

It is particularly wearisome as it flies against government’s pledge to tighten its revenue collection and public finance management in recent years, a commitment former Finance Minister, Kenneth Matambo summarised as “doing more with less”.

The officer who benefited from the P643,000 salary overpayment was employed under the Department of Public Health in 2009, before being transferred to the Central District Council in 2010. According to the Auditor General, after transfer, the officer continued to draw a salary from the Department of Public Health up to 2019 while he was also on Council payroll.

“I have drawn the attention of the Accounting Officer to these erroneous payments, and requested to be advised of the circumstances of the overpayments over such a long period, the exact amount involved and whether a loss report had been submitted in accordance with the requirements of Financial Instructions and Procedures,” Auditor General, Pulane Letebele wrote in her report.

“At the time of writing this report I had not received his comments.

“I am therefore not aware what action has been taken on this case.”

The technical officer is not unique.

The latest report also shows that in Brussels, an employee recruited by the Embassy of Botswana was paid P171,463 in terminal benefits in July 2016 instead of P13,213. The employee stood her ground when the overpayment was demanded.

“When the fact of the overpayment was drawn to her attention, in December 2017, with the advice from her lawyer, she disclaimed liability on the basis that the mission had taken too long to bring up the matter,” Letebele noted.

“So far the matter is still unresolved, and a loss report has not been submitted in accordance with the terms of Financial Instructions and Procedures.”

According to the Auditor General’s report, as at March 2019, about P19 million was classified under overpayment of salaries, with these amounts dating back to 2004 and earlier, all of them unrecovered. According to the rules, these amounts should be recovered from officers’ salaries or their benefits, in cases where they have left the civil service.

“A review of the balances under these accounts had indicated weaknesses in their management and monitoring, as evidenced by a number of non-moving items involving large amounts without evidence of vigorous follow-up and other features across all ministries and departments of government,” Letebele noted.

Other leakages vexing the Auditor General are non-collection of government arrears owed by civil servants, members of the public and companies. On April 1, 2018, about P440 million was classified as arrears on government books and during the financial year to March 2019, only P20.9 million or five percent was collected.

“A total of P372.5 million was abandoned across the ministries,” Letebele said.

Other leakages appear to simply be the result of careless handling of public funds. An audit of food

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relief services in the Northern Region, found that food worth P772,436 had to be written off after they were damaged by rodents. The items included 13,538 (340ml) cartons of milk valued at P75,745. The food bought by government was due to be supplied under various social services including orphan and destitute feeding.

While the gnats go unstrained, other critical government services suffer, particularly the health sector, where the Auditor General notes rampant dilapidation and decay of facilities. At Sbrana Psychiatric Hospital in Lobatse, the country’s main referral for mental health issues, 12 suicides were said to have taken place since 2013 “reportedly facilitated by the fallen ceiling, which had exposed the rafters from which patients had hanged themselves”.

At Athlone Hospital across town, Letebele found only four working toilets out of 30 at the 170-bed facility. At Peleng Clinic, also in the border town, the staff toilet was leaking, as was the patient’s toilet sink, while the main locks were broken.

The Public Accounts Committee, which takes ministries to task on the findings of the Auditor General, has regularly expressed its exasperation with the leakages in public finance management. Writing in 2015, the committee’s current chair, Dithapelo Keorapetse expressed his irritation.

“There is a serious problem of capacity and will to collect government revenue including lots of money owed to government,” he said in a commentary published by Mmegi.

“The government loses a lot of money through overpayments including to dead and retired people.

“In some cases negligence, corruption and incompetence were suspected.

“It is clear that through the eGovernment project, ministries and departments have to improve their systems for effectiveness and efficiency, especially in financial and human resource management.”

Nehemiah Modubule, the PAC chair between 2012 and 2015, recalls that the committee at one point suggested that punitive measures be taken against accounting officers for the leakages in public revenues.

“These are government monies and developments are not taking place, while these monies are lying elsewhere,” he told Mmegi this week.

“People are not being penalised, but if they were and made to account for those lapses, you would see effective management.

“The most severe punishment at the moment is that someone resigns. They lose their job, but we have lost our money.

“Without punishment, a culture develops and it becomes entrenched, making it difficult to get rid of.”

The entrenchment of a ‘culture’ can be seen in perennial issue of ‘unretired imprests’ travel allowances civil servants have a tendency of not accounting for.

By government’s accounting rules, these imprests should be reconciled once officers return from trips, but very often accounting officers are forced to deduct these from salaries or benefits and in many cases, the Auditor General has noted that recoveries tend to be done with the same languid pace as other collections.

In the year to March 2019, outstanding travel imprests stood at P25 million, with about 10% of these classified as ‘non-moving’ suggesting the date back years.

“During my days in the PAC, we noted that civil servants viewed imprests as loans that would be deducted from their pay, while those tasked with collecting them, were not doing their jobs,” Modubule says.

“I don’t know why government continues with giving imprests.

“It would be better to give them vouchers rather than money, because money tempts people to use it for other purposes.”

For her part, Letebele has frequently made suggestions around imprests and other leakages, but appears to note a resistance to her ideas.

In a year in which the coronavirus has blighted the budget’s traditional revenue lines leaving a P13 billion deficit for this year, straining the gnats will be as important as straining the camels.



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