Some senior government officials are failing to consistently disclose details of publicly funded travel expenses, despite a policy requiring them to do so.
An auditor general’s report, published this week, found that compliance with a policy requiring civil service leaders to publish their official travel expenses was inconsistent.
The issue was highlighted among a number of ongoing concerns around financial transparency and accountability in government.
Failure to publish annual reports and financial statements in a timely manner and failure to proactively disclose the salaries and benefits of senior managers, board members and ministers were also highlighted among the auditor general’s concerns.
The report, Improving Financial Accountability and Transparency: Financial Management and Reporting was largely positive in its assessment of the strides government has made in improving its financial reporting over the past decade.
“We have moved from a situation when many public entities received qualified audit opinions to this being a rare occurrence,” said Auditor General Sue Winspear in the report.
She praised the leadership of the Ministry of Finance in turning around the previously poor financial reporting.
But she highlighted a number of continuing concerns and areas for improvement.
Data on travel and credit card expenses for chief officers and department heads is supposed to be uploaded monthly to each ministry’s website in line with a mandatory policy for core government.
The policy was part of a raft of measures introduced in 2013, and updated in 2016, to help control travel expenditures and ensure government credit cards were used for official business only.
The auditor general reviewed disclosures of travel expenses over a three-year period from 2017-2020 and found that many ministries and departments were not in compliance.
“Our review found that some entities had disclosed travel expenses information but others had not,” the report noted.
“It is not clear whether some entities had no disclosures of travel expenses because there had been no travel or because they had simply omitted to make the disclosures.
“We also found that no entities had proactively disclosed information on hospitality or gifts received in line with the [separate hospitality] policy.”
Some ministries had included travel expenses as part of credit card expenditure reporting, the auditor noted.
The travel expenses policy was not mandatory for statutory authorities and government companies though the report notes that many of these entities said they had adopted it.
“Our review of the websites of ten SAGCs found that they were not disclosing information on senior managers’ travel expenses and hospitality and gifts received,” the report notes.
Government salaries hard to find
Information on the salaries of ministers and top civil servants is also not being publicly disclosed, the report notes.
“From our review of entity websites we found that no core government entities or SAGCs proactively disclosed information on the remuneration of senior managers, board members or ministers,” the report indicates.
The auditor general has previously recommended transparency on salary and benefits for individuals in these high profile publicly funded positions. It is not clear, however, if there is any official policy that compels this type of disclosure.
The auditors highlighted similar concerns around the timing of publication of strategic plans, annual reports and financial statements for many government ministries and departments.
The Education Strategy on government’s website, for example, expired in 2017, the report indicates.
In a variety of areas, also including publications of declarations of interest for board members and other senior officials, the auditors said improvements had been made but noted “disclosure is patchy and not always up to date”.
There were also concerns about the timely tabling of financial statements to Parliament.
The auditors found that over a four year period up to 2019 only 118 of 160 audited financial statements were submitted to Parliament and only 66 of those were tabled within the required time frame.
At the end of February this year, 17 annual reports and financial statements from 2019 were still outstanding.
“This is a major gap in transparency and accountability, as essential information on public finances is not being made publicly available when it should be, and this inhibits scrutiny by the public and decision makers, such as Members of Parliament,” the report notes.
Despite those concerns, the Auditor General’s Office indicates “significant improvements” over the past decade.
The report concluded, “It is pleasing that financial management and reporting has improved. However, there is inevitably still more to be done and I have made 16 recommendations in this report that are aimed at further improving financial management and reporting across the public sector.
“Some of these recommendations are aimed at improving transparency and they will need buy-in from politicians to change the way the Parliament operates.
“I strongly encourage officials and elected members to seize the opportunity to do this as the Parliament establishes itself as a new, independent entity.”