True definition of ‘Transparency’ and ‘Accountability’

In almost every election season, the Belizean electorate gets an earful of promises of increased ‘transparency’ and increased ‘accountability’ from the defending incumbent and his opponent. It almost comes across as if the application of these twin concepts are dependent on the measure of their integrity and honesty.

However, we should cringe at that thought, because the true application of what these concepts really refer to should never be dependent on the discretion of any political institution or administration. We should have autonomous agencies that are able to objectively scrutinize the administration.

Agustín Cartens, the former deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), giving an address at a 2005 regional workshop, said, “Transparency ensures that information is available that can be used to measure the authorities’ performance and to guard against any possible misuse of powers.

“In that sense, transparency serves to achieve accountability, which means that authorities can be held responsible for their actions. Without transparency and accountability, trust will be lacking between a government and those whom it governs. The result would be social instability and an environment that is less than conducive to economic growth.”

Therefore, it is never for the political institution themselves to promise these things as if they should have the right to decide whether or not they owe the Belizean electorate these virtues. If we accept this form of governance, it is akin to a parent accepting his 4-year-old son or daughter’s promise to self-regulate and be his own disciplinarian. Would you be surprised that they would seldom get an accurate report on who is really responsible for the broken light on the back verandah?

The most glaring example of this absurdity on a administrative level could be seen in the Auditor General (AG)’s Reports, including the recently released 2010/2011 report.

Auditor General Ms. Dorothy Bradley, writing about the lack of independence afforded to her office, said, “The INTOSAI [International Organization for Supreme Audit Institutions] states that independence ‘is a pre-requisite for Supreme Audit Institutions doing their tasks’… the task of an audit institution can only be objective and effective if it is independent of the audited entity and protected against outside influence.”

AG Bradley explained that her office is tasked with providing “the National Assembly with the necessary information to hold the Executive Branch of government accountable to legislature and the people of Belize.”

The function is quite honorable; however, as Bradley explains, “it [her office] relies on the [same] Executive Branch of government for its human and financial resources: our budget is approved by the Executive Branch of the government, not the Legislature.”

Bradley reminded that in most Supreme Audit Institutions like the AG’s Office such operations — including the hiring of staff—are done “through the Public Accounts Committee and Audit Committee.”

This, Bradley says, is done in order to add credibility to the office’s work. “Without control over its budget and human resources, the Office of the Auditor General of Belize does not have the means to be truly independent.”

Adding insult to injury, the structural problems affect even the AG office’s primary link to the legislature, namely the Public Account Committee (PAC) — which should represent the interest of the legislature as it relates to the expenditure of public funds and should hold government accounting officers accountable, based on the Auditor General reports. These structural deficiencies have allowed the PAC to be inactive over the last few years.

“The important work that we conduct does not have an effective channel of accountability for departments and ministries to implement the recommendations arising from our audits. An effective Public Accounts Committee would actualize the expected outcomes of our reports,” Bradley said.

Speaking on the inactivity of PAC, Bradley said, “[These] issues [highlighted in the 2010/2011 report] have been discussed in previous annual Auditor General’s Reports but they still remain problematic in our regular audit activities. We discuss them again in this Report with the hope that the government will take action.”

Moreover, Bradley’s team found that many pertinent files were missing and important procedures weren’t adhered to.

“As a result of the significant material errors and omissions identified in the Financial Statements received from the Accountant General, I am withholding my opinion on the statements,” she said.

Be reminded. The AG’s reports are not intended to look at every error in the government’s accounting; it is there to grade and report to the Public Accounts Committee how well the accounts are kept. It is designed to determine if the accounting systems being utilized are effective, and if their usage translates into the relevant information being posted punctually and adequately. The Office is also to function as a rampart against irregularities and frauds in the Executive Branch of government.

But, because things were in such a mess, she could not even execute the ultimate duties of her office and offer a professional opinion.

Seriously, how can anyone be held accountable under these conditions?

Therefore, Bradley, like AGs before her, recommended several structural changes, which include changes in the job description of the over-burdened Accountant General’s Office and the need for the AG’s office to be involved in any technological upgrades by revenue collection offices.

But, going back to Agustin Cartens’ definition of the twin principles, and analyzing the recurring complaints of the AG’s office, it becomes clear that true transparency and accountability is not something that should be in the hands of any public officer or politician.

It should not hinge on the integrity of any one political institution, which everyone knows have their own priorities.

Transparency and Accountability don’t begin and end with how many press conferences a government can hold; that’s only a minor part of the equation. The true actualization of these bedrock concepts should be based on the integrity and autonomous functioning of agencies like the Auditor General’s Office or the Integrity Commission.

It hinges on the proper functioning of the various House Committees such as the Public Accounts Committee.

We can never truly expect to see transparency and accountability, when the regulated is able to influence the regulator or regulate themselves. Fortunately, the AG’s remarks have not fallen on deaf ears, as we have learnt that the Public Accounts Committee finally had its inaugural meeting last week.

According to PAC Chairman Julius Espat, the committee will open their meetings to the public and allow members of the public and the media to attend its sessions.

This is a good step in the right direction, because as long as the systematic deficits are allowed to exist, cases of malfeansance or inefficient use of public funds will never truly disappear from public office, and the cycle would simply continue, regardless of how eloquently politicians can promise to be more transparent and accountable. They’re still only human after all.

We encourage all Belizeans to be involved in PAC sessions, because every citizen is a “shareholder” in this great country.

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