Good Governance demands Accountability, but there is little understanding of the various dimensions of this concept. The first and most obvious one is Financial Accountability, and one vital commitment of this government is to strengthen audit mechanisms.
But formal requirements alone are not sufficient. We must strengthen the powers of those agencies that can hold functionaries accountable on the strength of audit reports.
The first of these is Parliament, and that is why I have striven over the last couple of years to make sure that the Public Accounts Committee and the Committee on Public Enterprises are effective. A couple of weeks ago the Standing Orders Committee agreed to recommend to the House the suggestion I had put forward, that the reports of these committees shall be
‘laid before Parliament and sent to the Minister in charge of the subject of Finance who shall within one month respond to the Report and indicate which recommendations may be accepted with a time frame for implementation. Explanations will be provided with regard to recommendations which cannot be implemented with a description of what remedial action will be taken instead to deal with issues raised.
Following such a response, the Report shall be discussed by Parliament, and after amendments if appropriate shall be approved, whereupon the recommendations in such report shall be deemed to be recommendations to the Government which shall be responsible for implementing the same and reporting back to Parliament within a period of six months. The Speaker will ensure that such reports are furnished on time, and will raise any delays with the Head of the Executive.’
All this seems well and good. The Executive which spends money must listen to the Legislative power which authorizes expenditure and monitors it. As the Secretary General of Parliament noted, the Legislature should not tell the Executive what to do, and that is why we left it open for the Executive to explain why it cannot implement our recommendations. But, while we must be sympathetic to any difficulties it points out, we have the power to insist, and our recommendations are then mandatory – though again, if they find these impossible to implement, they can report accordingly.
The problem now, though, is that I do not know whether we will have the capacity in Parliament to ensure that these guidelines are followed. No one from the UNP was present at the meeting and it is doubtful that John Amaratunga, who has been the chief UNP representative at such meetings, can even understand what is needed. He was always genial when I pointed out the need for Standing Order Amendments, and agreed to my suggestions, but his incapacity to take anything further is not something for which one can hold him responsible, given the gifts with which God has endowed him.
Wijedasa Rapakasa is also it seems a member of the Committee, and he certainly can understand, but he had not attended any previous meetings. This time I was told he was abroad, and I hope he comes to the next meeting, but he may well be too busy, having one of the more important portfolios in government.
The SLFP leadership did not turn up either, though the party was represented by the Deputy Speaker who does at least understand the issues involved. Fortunately we also had Dinesh Gunawardena and Mr Sumanthiran, who are both very sharp, plus the highly principled Ajith Kumara, and the Deputy Chairman of Committees, who is also keen to learn. Sadly I do not think the Speaker is in a position to teach him.
I hope with a change in the electoral system that we will get better material into Parliament. But in the long run, the only dependable monitor of expenditure is the people. That is why it is vital to ensure that accountability is not only to institutions, but also to the general public.
In this regard I am very worried that we have not gone far enough with regard to the Freedom of Information Act, that was so important a feature of the President’s manifesto as was the Audit Act. We should not only make sure that people have access to information, we should make it freely available as possible. This is not difficult with modern methods of communication.
One of my first acts as Minister of Higher Education was to suggest to the UGC that they ask universities to publish every month an account of expenditure incurred during that month. I am told this has been done.Tragically, given the failure of the Prime Minister, who has taken the task upon himself, to resolve the crisis caused by his meddlesomeness, I am not in a position to monitor the impact of this measure.
I suggested this measure because, in the last resort, the best assessors of whether money has been spent well are those on whose behalf it is meant to be spent. Students therefore must know what the universities they are going to are doing with the public funds intended for their benefit. This does not mean that students can dictate what should be done with these funds, for they are at universities for brief periods and policy making and implementing policy is not their prerogative. But their ideas should be heard, and they must be fully aware of what is going on.
That is the true meaning of accountability, and unless we introduce mechanisms to promote this, we would have failed to fulfil the ideals on which this government was elected. I believe therefore that we should introduce into the Freedom of Information Act a requirement that the accounts of all public bodies are made available to the public; that their expenditure each month is make available on websites and that systems are put in place for all stakeholders to obtain clarification about such expenditure; that the reports of the Auditor General are seen as public property, with confidentiality imposed only by a decision by the Auditor General himself, with regard to matters on which further clarification is required; and that the proceedings of Parliamentary Committees are made public, with minutes available on the Parliament website, with a mechanism for the public to seek clarification as to matters they are concerned about.
That is what Accountability should entail. I can only hope that those now making decisions with regard to the commitments in our manifesto will understand the basic principle that the people own government and the funds it expends, and therefore Accountability should be to them.