Auditor-General should invest in better communication strategy

Thursday July 11 2019

Auditor-General Edward Ouko

Auditor-General Edward Ouko. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

MICHAEL KURIA
By MICHAEL KURIA
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One of the most critical public offices created by the new Constitution was the Office of the Auditor-General (OAG). The supreme law recognised the importance of an independent OAG, clarified its duties and conferred upon its occupant security of tenure and significant powers and responsibilities.

TRANSPARENCY

Article 229 gave the OAG the responsibility to determine whether public funds are used lawfully and effectively. The office was to be occupied by a high-calibre professional with a demonstrable high level of integrity, training, experience and professional achievement. The occupant would form the vanguard of protecting public funds. And so it was when the distinguished Edward Ouko was appointed Auditor-General on August 27, 2011.

With just a month left in his non-renewable eight-year term, let’s examine Mr Ouko’s legacy. That the man is an astute professional of the highest possible quality is not in doubt. I could be biased though, as we both cut our professional teeth in the same white-shoe audit firm, albeit at different times.

Mr Ouko has boldly gone where others before him feared to tread. His reports attempt, in painstaking detail, to map out theft and wastage of public funds. Despite serious opposition (at one time from the President) and having to fight an uphill battle, AG Ouko has not wavered nor lost focus in the performance of his mandate.

That takes grit, a substance in rather short supply these days.

His office has performed its duties with unprecedented openness and transparency, publishing its reports online where anybody can access them. There is, probably, no other public officer whose work has produced as many front-page headlines as AG Ouko’s.

'STOLEN FUNDS'

The OAG’s openness and transparency has, however, come at a cost. Most Kenyans are not trained accountants and so are likely to misunderstand the audit reports if they are not properly guided. But the OAG has not done enough to prepare its work products for public consumption. In fact, the reports are often reported to contain findings they do not.

One of the most widely reported findings in the media is that of “unsupported expenditure”. This always enters public discourse as “stolen funds”, eliciting demands for arrests and prosecutions.

This either results in public despondency if no arrests are forthcoming or clogs the judicial system with cases that are never successfully prosecuted. Overall, it contributes to the build-up of an extremely toxic environment in a country with a highly strung public perpetually expecting doom.

“Unsupported expenditure” merely means that an expense has been recorded in the books but the documents required to prove it was incurred — such as receipts — were not provided to the auditor within his deadline. There are many reasons for that, other than fraud, among them a failed filing system.

COLLABORATION

Don’t immediately attribute to fraud what can be attributed to incompetence. The documents could be in the possession of an officer on vacation or out of station. In any case, from experience, the most egregious frauds are usually supported with impeccable but forged documents! Whether or not missing documents point to fraud can only be determined through further investigations.

“Goods paid for and not delivered” is another persistent finding. Neither lack of delivery notes nor lack of physical evidence of goods bought means that the money was stolen. It could be that the filing or inventory tracking systems had failed. Investigations are needed over and above the audit to make a conclusion.

Mr Ouko’s successor will find some big shoes to fill. But he/she could do him/herself a favour: Adopt a communication strategy that protects audit reports from easy sensationalism, which leads to time wasted in deflecting political pressure. Closer collaboration with the media could help to avoid this.

Mr Kuria specialises in prevention, detection and disruption of complex transnational financial crime. [email protected]

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