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COVID-19 audits add to Auditor General’s headaches

MBONGENI MGUNI
For the people: Weak implementation and poor supervision ultimately affects projects meant to uplift citizens' lives
The need to audit COVID-19 emergency procurement as it happens is placing an extra load on the Office of the Auditor General, a key institution already struggling with understaffing, lower budgets and non-compliance by government ministries and departments. Despite this, the Auditor General says her office has finalised audits on COVID-19 spending and is ready to dish the results. Staffer MBONGENI MGUNI writes

A few years ago, the then premises of the Office of the Auditor-General in Kgale Mews were found to be in such a state of defect, trusses broken, parts of the ceiling collapsed, cracks in the walls and floors that staff there complained about, feeling unsafe.

Analysts saw a cynical metaphor into then Auditor-General, Robby Sebopeng’s suspicions of poor workmanship and his appeal for the crucial institution to be moved to safer premises. After all, the same way rain waters threatened to leak onto sensitive audit documents at Kgale Mews due to incompetence, was mirrored in the way revenues were leaking from public coffers due to mismanagement.

One of Sebopeng’s successors and the current Auditor General, Pulane Letebele does not have to worry about the structural integrity of her headquarters at the upmarket Central Business District (CBD) in Gaborone.

However, she shares Sebopeng and many other previous Auditor General’s recurring headaches about the state of public finance management in the country.

In fact, every single Auditor General’s report has the same serious concerns raised and the same observation that public officers and their superiors seem unwilling or apathetic to the problem.

“In the conduct of audits, we have seen recurring observations like (poor) project implementation,” she told a parliamentary committee this week. “Even if you look back at previous reports, this has been a subject of those reports.

“There’s inadequate supervision of projects leading to time and cost overruns. There are also project disputes that take long to resolve. There are delays in taking action whether it is at the courts or through the contractors themselves.

“There is also a general lack of ownership by project owners or those supervising the projects. “We have also noted inadequate budget control, with ministries and departments continuing to run over or under budgets, leading to negative service delivery.

“Underspending means that services are not being delivered.” Another major headache for Letebele and her predecessors is the poor maintenance of records within the public finance system.

“Records are very poorly maintained in government and this also delays our audits. “Revenue collection, meanwhile, is quite low throughout which negatively affects the budget.” While her predecessors have shared the pains Letebele described to legislators this week, the Auditor General has an additional headache none of her predecessors ever had, nor possibly dreamt they would ever encounter.

The outbreak of COVID-19 in March last year triggered clauses in the Public Procurement and Asset Disposal Act allowing government ministries to conduct emergency procurement, which includes direct appointment. The urgency of the crisis, authorities say, meant the traditional procurement processes of going out to tender, assessing, reviewing and awarding, could not be followed.

Ministries, in particular the Office of President (OP) where the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 is housed, used direct procurement to buy essential items such as protective gear, masks, testing kits and others.

It is estimated that billions of pula have been spent via emergency procurement, which includes the food baskets programme that raised a storm in Parliament last year over how tenders were awarded, the programme’s duration and beneficiaries.

The Public Procurement and Asset Disposal Board’s (PPADB) manuals define direct procurement as a single source procurement method used due to exceptional circumstances in that it prevents the use of competition.

In direct procurement, competition is restricted to one entity, meaning procuring entities are limited in gauging whether they have received the best price. In addition, issues of conflict of interest amongst those in charge of awarding the tender and cross-shareholding in the winning bidder may be swept under the rug due to the speed of awarding. Critics have piled onto the government, alleging that unscrupulous bidders have made millions of pula in inflated COVID-19 tenders and it has also been alleged that this has happened with the collusion of those

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charged with awarding the tenders. The term ‘Covidpreneur’ has emerged to describe shrewd businesspeople who form briefcase companies for the sole purpose of scooping a corruptly pre-arranged COVID-19 tender.

Letebele and her short-staffed office say they have been keeping a close eye on all pandemic procurement and are ready to present their findings in the next sitting of Parliament. It has not been easy, however.

“We looked at emergency procurement under COVID-19 and we have had to direct resources for that, setting up a dedicated team to focus on this procurement,” she told legislators. “There is a need for more capacity to carry out these auditors and in real-time.

“Audits come in after the event but with COVID-19, we should be following procurement as it occurs and there’s a need for additional capacity to carry this out in real-time.”

Pandemic audits due to be tabled before Parliament include a performance audit on preparedness for COVID-19, another on procurement of personal protective equipment, and one on the distribution of food baskets.

Letebele and her team conducted and produced the audits despite a huge staffing challenge and the reduction of their budget from P95 million in 2020-2021 to P89 million in 2021-2022. The budget for internal travel was particularly slashed meaning assessments that needed to be carried out in regions, for district councils and others were curtailed. At her appearance before the Parliamentary committee, signs emerged that the forthcoming COVID-19 audits will likely cause chaos when legislators return for the Winter Parliament. The committee was thrown into disorder after members disagreed over whether Letebele should seek, in the forthcoming constitutional review and review of the Public Audit Act that the Office of the Auditor General be allowed to recommend the striking off of certain policies such as direct procurement.

Palapye legislator, Onneetse Ramogapi insisted that having the direct procurement policy in place meant that as Letebele and her team audit COVID-19 or other emergency procurement, they could state that purchases were under the law, even though the policy itself opened up the door for corruption.

“As you say the constitution and the Act will be reviewed, why don’t you also look at whether you can question policies like a direct appointment,” Ramogapi said, adding that COVID-19 procurement was being led from the OP. The remarks sparked a face-off with deputy speaker, Mabuse Pule who said remarks about direct procurement and the OP were ‘sensationalising’ the issue. “The ministerial tender committees do not go outside the PPADB Act when awarding, they go within it.

“Direct procurement is a baby of the PPADB Act and the ministries still prepare invitations to tender, specifications and others. “From what I know, nothing was done outside the law.

“It’s also satisfactory that Letebele says they have audited what was procured at that time. “I don’t like the idea that we are sensationalising this issue and misleading the public that the President awards tenders.” He added: “I’m saying let’s not create the impression that things that were done at Office of the President were outside the law or were not within the confines of the PPADB Act.”

The two legislators continued locking horns over their virtual meeting for a few minutes, before agreeing to disagree and allowing Letebele’s session to end.

The Auditor-General and her team exited the virtual meeting with few answers or commitments on the recurring headaches she and her predecessors have laid before authorities each year. Poor project implementation, inefficient spending, weak record management and revenue collection look set to persist in the public finance management system, despite the billions of pula in deficits that the budget is suffering.

Unlike the Auditor General whose structural problems at Kgale Mews were solved by moving to the CBD, Batswana have no such convenient solution to the recurring wastage.



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