Government will re-audit travel costs

The Cayman Islands government’s Internal Audit Unit will reexamine official travel expenses over the past year to ensure questionable spending problems recently detailed by the auditor general’s office aren’t still occurring.

Deputy Governor Franz Manderson introduced a new travel reporting policy for all civil servants in July 2013 and indicated last week that the Internal Audit Unit would look at travel expenses between then and now to “assess compliance.”

“To help sustain real change in the institutional culture, there needs to be timely and regular monitoring of travel expenditures,” Mr. Manderson said.

Mr. Manderson’s travel policy was announced nearly a year before the release of Auditor General Alastair Swarbrick’s report that uncovered some $458,000 in government travel and hospitality expenses that were never specifically identified. However, auditors said last week that their work had already commenced prior to the release of the new travel policy.

The policy’s general principle is to reduce the demand for official travel by Cayman Islands government employees through use of teleconferencing and Skype. Where official travel is required for government employees to obtain training, the government will determine whether trainers could be brought here or if certain training could be provided through the civil service college on the campus of the University College of the Cayman Islands.

When official travel is required, each government department must justify that need via an application for official travel form submitted to the “accountable officer” for each department, ministry or portfolio.

Travel for higher-ranking officers must be approved through the deputy governor or the governor.

The policy does not set out specific penalties for failure to follow its directives, only that breaches of the policy will result in “disciplinary action.”

The policy seeks official travel expenses to be pre-paid as much as possible. In most cases, airfare, hotels, transportation and any conference fees are to be paid in advance.

Mr. Swarbrick pointed out in his report that the civil service policy cannot legally apply to elected ministers or MLAs, but Premier Alden McLaughlin has said his Progressive-led government would abide by the its tenets. Some official travel costs incurred by government ministers under Mr. McLaughlin’s administration has been voluntarily reported, some has not.

In any case, the auditor general’s report found that government had never instituted a policy on hospitality expenditures.

It was in the area of “hospitality” expenses that the auditor general’s review revealed some of the more surprising expenditures by government, including tens of thousands of dollars spent on hotel rooms for unexplained travel and thousands more on parties for government staff. In one case, $22,000 was spent by the former Portfolio of Internal and External Affairs on Christmas turkeys and hams for staff members.

Mr. Manderson said the civil service human resources management was “finalizing” a hospitality policy now.

The deputy governor said the hospitality policy would mirror the travel policy in that it would apply to all civil servants equally, regardless of position or circumstances.

“The recent travel audit demonstrates the extent to which accountability systems failed us in years past,” Mr. Manderson said. “[However], it is important to note that the travel audit … represents a historical snapshot, prior to the adoption of the new policy.

“I’m keen to determine whether, since the implementation of the policy, there have in fact been positive changes to both the financial management processes and institutional culture.”