The Auditor General on Governance and Accountability

Over the nearly 7 years since Lyn Provost has been Auditor General, she has taken time to analyse what has been learned. This is based on responsibilities of publicly reporting on the audits of about 3,700 public entities and preparing 20-30 in-depth reports on specific matters.

Her annual publication, Reflections from our audits: Governance and accountability is an opportunity to publish her views. She also speaks about them, including a recent presentation of the Wellington Branch of the Institute of Directors.

A stunning observation from her report is:

“In my opinion, the quality of governance in the public sector can be improved. It is not working as well as it should in some entities and problems have occurred and will continue to do so, unless the standard is raised.”

Two areas she particularly mentioned are the role definitions of governance and management, and improvement in risk management.

Referring to the expectation of accountability and transparency in New Zealand’s well-established public management system with its strong accountability foundations, she goes on to say that this shouldn’t be taken for granted. “Our recent fall from second to fourth in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index 2015 gives us an opportunity to pause and ask what we could do better.”

Then in her Reflections, the Auditor General lists and elements of what needs to be done better.

  1. Set a clear purpose and stay focused on it
  2. Have clear roles and responsibilities that separate governance and management there she wondered if the recent increase in the liability of governors (Directors) had the unintended consequence of driving them deeper into management and operational matters. The Auditor General also raised the topic of better quality management of public sector procurement.
  3. Lead by setting a constructive tone from the top that shapes culture to ‘do the right thing’.
  4. Involve the right people where the level of trust between people affects the effectiveness of the governance arrangements. This comes down to the Board appointment process and ensuring that it is set up to appoint new directors with the particular skills required.
  5. Invest in relationships built on trust and respect, for example, Crown Controlled Organisations’ success depends on the effective relationship that they have with their local body ratepayers.
  6. Be clear about accountabilities and transparent about performance against them. An example is the finding from examining three Christchurch rebuild projects that all would benefit from producing clearer accountability frameworks. This includes using social and traditional media to keep people up to date with the project’s progress.
  7. Manage risks effectively. “As well as avoiding failure, good governance can ensure the opportunities are not missed…opportunities for better financial or operational performance or to achieve benefits faster.”
  8. Lastly, Element 8 is about greater transparency in government and governance – “Ensure that you have good information, systems and controls.”

An area that TINZ would like to see more formally developed in public sector risk management is the inclusion of specific corruption prevention risk management processes. Over the years, as government agencies have learned about fraud, cases have been identified and prosecuted. Similar oversight of corruption may find there are more instances than we would like to believe and building knowledge useful for corruption prevention.

As the Auditor General concludes: “Good information supports public entities’ effective engagement with the public.”

Based on recent overseas political events, it is engagement that is required not only to prevent corruption but also to prevent disruption. This highlights the potential good accountability systems provide, building strong government and a strong economy.

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