The way independent reports of the Cayman Islands Auditor General’s Office are released to the public and considered by government is under review, the Cayman Compass has learned.
Private discussions among members of the Public Accounts Committee and the auditor’s office have been held in recent months, and last week committee chairman Ezzard Miller publicly expressed some displeasure about the current process. Mr. Miller’s comments in the committee did not specifically address the public release of the auditor general’s reports, but rather centered on what the civil service does with those reports after it receives them.
The issue of how, when and to whom government audits are released has been a thorny one among elected officials, who are currently involved in a wholesale review of parliamentary standing orders. Those orders, among many other things, set out how the Auditor General’s Office’s reports are to be made public.
Currently, the auditor delivers his reports to the Legislative Assembly Speaker, and then they are made public by the audit office, usually within two weeks and well before any Public Accounts Committee review.
Former Auditor General Alastair Swarbrick commented on the current process in a 2015 “position paper” distributed by his office:
“This period between delivery and being made public enables the report to be circulated to all members of the Legislative Assembly, something that is not necessarily done in other jurisdictions, and provides them with the opportunity to receive a briefing from the auditor general if they so desire. When they are delivered to the Legislative Assembly they are also formally provided to the PAC for further consideration.”
It has not always been done this way in Cayman.
Prior to 2006, reports from the Auditor General’s Office were withheld from public release until they were reviewed by the Public Accounts Committee – a process that often did not happen for months or even years following the completion of an audit report. In the interim, audit office reports were often leaked to the press or the public by legislators who had received them.
That process was changed due to concerns about the relevance of information in audit reports being lost and potential interference with the duties of the Auditor General’s Office, which is supposed to be independent of central government.
“The ability to make reports public shortly after they are delivered to the Legislative Assembly is a fundamental element of an effective independent legislative auditor,” Mr. Swarbrick said in his 2015 paper. “It is a key element for effective governance and accountability and delays in the public release of reports undermines their usefulness in holding government to account for their use of public resources.”
Once they reach the Public Accounts Committee, the audit reports typically have attached a “management response” from the civil service or relevant agency that was audited. That response usually states whether the government service agrees or disagrees with the audit findings and how and when they will implement changes based on the report.
Mr. Miller’s statements made in the Public Accounts Committee last week indicated his belief that the way these reports are being handled now essentially serves to sidestep the duties of the Public Accounts Committee.
“It is my view that we are circumventing many of the responsibilities of the Public Accounts Committee,” Mr. Miller said last week.
“The ideal process would be that the auditor does his audit, has his findings, gives management … the opportunity to respond to those findings. That report is then given to the PAC which does its own investigation and determines the appropriateness, the correctness of the recommendations and the findings, and that – based on what the PAC finds in agreeing or disagreeing on the odd case it may happen with the auditor general – that the recommendations become real.”
The Legislative Assembly is then expected to respond to the committee’s recommendation in a “government minute,” in which it commits to implementing the audit recommendations that have been agreed, Mr. Miller said. There was no commentary last week regarding at what point in this process audit reports should be released to the public.
The difficulty Mr. Miller sees in the current process is that the civil service ends up accepting audit recommendations it has no way to pay for, if there is a cost associated with them.
“There [must be] a commitment by the elected arm of government, not only to the implementation of the [audit] recommendations but also to provide the resources to do so,” Mr. Miller said. “I would hope that, in the future, we could get to where the process is complete. Where are you going to get the resources from if you don’t have any commitment from the political arm?”
Deputy Governor Franz Manderson asked Mr. Miller whether he believed it was premature for civil servants to accept recommendations directly in audit reports.
“In a sense, yes,” Mr. Miller said. “When you do it this way and you’ve accepted the recommendations … then you are accepting the responsibility to provide the resources which [the civil service] is unable to do.” In the Cayman Islands, the Legislative Assembly is responsible for appropriating all public funds to the relevant government entities that then carry out the plans of elected members.
“It’s a very important point and we need clarity on it,” Mr. Manderson said.
Public Accounts Committee members have told the Cayman Compass, as part of the recent discussions, that the timing of the release of Auditor General’s Office reports has come up. Committee members have said they generally do not support long delays between the completion of an audit and its review by the PAC. However, in some cases committee members have complained that these audits “appear in the press” before members have had a chance to review them.
In the normal course of business across the Commonwealth, Mr. Swarbrick noted, independent audit offices “are free to publish and disseminate their reports, once they have been formally tabled or delivered to the appropriate authority.”
In the Westminster (U.K.) system, comptroller and auditor general reports are considered public when they are submitted to the journal office of the House of Commons. They are made public without the involvement of politicians or the relevant public accounts committee. However, the reports can only be submitted while the House of Commons is in session.
In Scotland, the delivery of auditors’ reports to the clerk of the House can be done at any time and, thereafter the report is considered to be a public document.
Practices vary across the Caribbean, but generally an audit report is submitted to the Speaker of the House who then makes it public. Afterward, the relevant Public Accounts Committee will consider the report and issue its own report, if it desires.