Monday, May 2, 2011

Government Lax to Act against Irregularities

April 30 2011 

Civil servants steal, lose and abuse hundreds of millions of rand in public funds each year. 

The Special Investigating Unit (SIU) – the agency of last resort for the investigation of corruption in the public sphere – earlier this year told Parliament it had launched major corruption probes in 16 government departments and entities. It had also extended the life of two long-running investigations into corruption at the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) and the Department of Human Settlements. In the latter investigation, the scale of the problem has forced the SIU to focus on only the 20 worst cases, which alone amount to R2 billion in potential fraud. 

Preliminary investigations have also uncovered massive tender fraud in the SAPS and the Department of Public Works, which are estimated to have cost taxpayers about R330 million and R450m respectively.  

Other probes include the Tshwane Metro, where 65 officials are believed to have fraudulently approved procurements valued at more than R480m and the Ekurhuleni Metro, where ten waste management contracts worth more than R500m are under the spotlight. 

At the SABC, the unit is scrutinising business deals between the public broadcaster and its own staff which are believed to involve fraud and corruption amounting to a staggering R2.4bn. 

Despite more than a decade of repeated assurances from political leaders that no stone would be left unturned in the fight against graft, the latest corruption report by the Public Service Commission (PSC) paints a bleak picture of the government’s apparent inability to stop the rot within its ranks. 

Established as an independent entity by the constitution, the PSC is mandated to investigate, monitor and report on the state of public administration in South Africa. In March this year, the PSC published an analysis of corruption in a randomly selected group of nine national departments, three provincial governments and two public entities. 

The study identified fraud and bribery (19 percent), the abuse of government resources (13 percent), the mismanagement of public funds (11 percent), and procurement irregularities (9 percent) as the most commonly reported forms of corruption in the public service. This was based on data collected from the PSC’s toll-free National Anti-Corruption Hotline (0800 701 701), which has received 7 766 whistleblower complaints since it was launched in September 2004. 

The report suggests that government departments have either failed to act, been too slow to act, or applied lenient sanctions when they did take steps. 

The authors note that the problem begins with the fact that, despite recent efforts at strengthening anti-corruption tools, poor co-ordination leaves many departments battling it out on their own – often with poorly trained staff and with a lack of dedicated funds. 

For instance, the PSC found that only half of the organisations reviewed had “clearly written objectives of fighting corruption”. And it found that departments “tend to place little emphasis on investigating allegations of corruption”. 

Given the lack of clear anti-corruption mandates and powers at many state departments and institutions, the PSC said, it should come as “no surprise” that cases referred to these authorities “do not always yield the desired results”. 

Fraud awareness training also appears to be having little effect. While about 95 percent of respondents indicated that civil servants had attended anti-corruption awareness campaigns, the report also noted that training was not influencing “actual practice” to “improve the combating of corruption”. 

Part of the problem is a lack of data collection, management and analysis. Departments simply don’t gather adequate information about corrupt activities – and don’t follow up on complaints. 

Of the 7 766 cases that have been referred to the relevant departments and entities since 2004, feedback has been received for only 2 811 (36 percent) cases. For the remainder (64 percent), some dating back six years, whistleblowers have been left clueless about what progress, if any, has been made. 

“The PSC continues to be concerned that such a trend runs the risk of compromising the integrity of the (anti-corruption hotline) and diminishing public confidence in the government’s commitment towards fighting fraud and corruption,” the report warns. 

Reported cases of fraud and bribery include instances of officials claiming overtime without rendering any duties, fraudulent subsistence and travel claims, traffic officers soliciting or accepting bribes, tender rigging, and prison wardens taking bribes to facilitate escapes, among others. 

Abuse of government resources, which accounted for 985 complaints, related to officials driving state vehicles recklessly or at high speed, state vehicles serving as private taxis, and the fraudulent use of state-issued petrol cards. 

The mismanagement of state funds accounted for 870 complaints and included teachers and school principals misusing school funds, senior managers instructing juniors to unlawfully authorise expenditure and other forms of irregular and wasteful spending. 

Procurement irregularities (720 cases) included officials awarding government tenders without following policies and procedures, tenders being awarded to friends and family and tender rigging and bribery, according the PSC report. 

Other complaints received included RDP housing fraud (450 cases), appointment irregularities (627 cases), social grant fraud (420 cases), identity document fraud (781 cases), unethical behaviour – such as being absent from work without leave – (580 cases), and criminal conduct (512 cases), which included teachers stealing school property, nurses stealing medicines and officials stealing government computers. 

The report concludes that the government’s “poor record regarding feedback and the conclusion of cases” and the fact that “corruption is increasing” all combine to frustrate whistleblowers and will ultimately have a “negative impact on the credibility of the (anti-corruption hotline)”. 

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