New auditor wants value for money

Cayman’s new auditor general is
somewhat taken aback at what one might describe as his newfound celebrity.

While Alastair Swarbrick, 42, is
well used to public interest audits in the government sector; he fully admits
he’s not used to auditors gaining notoriety outside certain political and
journalistic circles in his native Scotland.

“You have to explain who you are as
the AG,” Mr. Swarbrick said during an interview this week in his new office.
“Ask a person in the general population (of Scotland) who is the auditor
general and what he does? They wouldn’t know.”

“A lot of people in Cayman find out
who you are and then they seem to be very interested,” the soon-to-be dad said.
“It’s obvious to me that, to a lot of people, it’s a very important role in the
Islands. That’s really struck me since I’ve been here.” 

Mr. Swarbrick, during his first
public interview since taking over the office, which seemingly could not stay
away from controversy under former audit chief Dan Duguay, said he’s spent his
first month in the Islands trying to assess the country’s financial status and
speaking with government representatives about their concerns.

He is well aware of the on-going
problem of unaudited government accounts. It was first revealed in 2008 that
some $1.5 billion in Cayman Islands government spending had gone unaudited over
a period of several years – and said he’s making clearing up the backlog from
those unfinished audits a major office priority.

“I think I’d be disingenuous if I
didn’t say there was an area of concern around it,” Mr. Swarbrick said. “It’s
something that we’re actively working with the government on.”

The new auditor said his office
fully intends to comply with statutory deadlines that require a report on
government accounts to be filed by 15 December. He said that report will be
filed “at whatever stage we’ve got to” on that date.

Clearing up the backlog of public
accounts and annual reports from government entities, as well as statutory
authorities and government-owned companies is important for another reason;
what Mr. Swarbrick calls “the wider scope” of audit work.

“It’s not just looking at the
financial statements,” he said. “You have to look at whether the transactions
are being incurred in line with legislation and also looking at whether there’s
been value for money achieved in terms of the expenditure.”

“I think that’s a fundamental key
component of being a public auditor. Even through there’s no direct taxation on
this island, it’s still public money. We pay for it through consumption taxes
or indirectly. As you have no choice in that, it’s important that your
government is getting value for money.”

However, the audit office has
limited staff, and much of its time now is being spent on clearing up backlogs
from three and four years ago.

“If we get back on an even keel,
how much does that free up and how much of that resource we can devote to doing
performance or value for money audits?”

Value-for-money is one of the three
important elements of being a public auditor, Mr. Swarbrick said.

The first, and most important, is
independence from government; and the other is the auditor’s ability to
publicly report his or her findings.

On that last point, Mr. Swarbrick
isn’t having much to say at the moment. He said talks are continuing with government
officials about precisely how and when auditor general’s reports can be
released.

One area that his office will not
get into is attempting to influence government policy, Mr. Swarbrick said.

“Our role is to look at the
implementation and how that’s been done efficiently and effectively,” he said.
“The policy is for government. It’s not our role to say whether it’s good or
bad.”

For now, Mr. Swarbrick is working
on a three-year audit plan with members of his office and said he still needs
to meet with many government chief officers to determine what areas will be
checked into first, second and third, so to speak.

As for how long he’s like to stay
in Cayman, Mr. Swarbrick said his contract is for three years, but indicated
that is not necessarily indicative of when he plans to leave.

“I’ve got no set time frame,” he
said.

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