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Government to improve processes, officers’ capabilities to address lapses flagged by AGO: Indranee

Government to improve processes, officers’ capabilities to address lapses flagged by AGO: Indranee

The Treasury, where the Public Service Division is headquartered. (Photo: Wikipedia)

SINGAPORE: To better address lapses and irregularities flagged by the Auditor-General’s Office (AGO), the Government will improve its processes by rolling out more central IT infrastructure and common services, said Second Minister for Finance Indranee Rajah on Monday (Sep 13).

This aims to mitigate the risks associated with IT and digitalisation, by facilitating regular reviews at the “whole-of-government” level, she said in Parliament.

The Smart Nation and Digital Government Group (SNDGG), for one, is implementing central tools to automate the review of privileged users’ activities by public agencies. This will be implemented for about 800 high-priority systems by the end of next year, and all applicable systems by December 2023.

Central tools to automate the management of user accounts will also be rolled out by SNDGG for all applicable systems by December 2023.

Ms Indranee noted that agencies regularly review and strengthen their own processes and systems. For instance, the Accountant-General’s Department has taken steps to enhance IT security and will be adopting central tools to automate the review of activities among privileged users.

The Government will also strengthen the capabilities of its officers, she told the House.

These efforts include having the Finance and Procurement Academy, set up by the Ministry of Finance (MOF) and the Civil Service College, to train public officers. Those involved in finance, procurement and contract management will receive refreshers and updates on policies and practices.

“We will step up our efforts as the recent audit findings pertain to more complex types of procurement and contract management, particularly in the areas of IT and development projects,” Ms Indranee said.

Agencies have also stepped up the training of officers involved in IT roles to strengthen IT governance and security processes, on top of active engagements on audit findings, as well as learning points and ways to prevent lapses.

Member of Parliament Yip Hon Weng (PAP-Yio Chu Kang) asked about the types of recurring lapses, as well as the ministries and agencies that are repeatedly flagged by the AGO over the past five years.

On the former, Ms Indranee replied that the lapses are typically in the areas of procurement and contracts management, IT controls and grants management.

They share common factors like the scale and complexity of operations, a constantly changing operating environment, high volume of transactions and multiple touchpoints.

Six agencies have been mentioned in the AGO’s reports for recurring lapses over the past five years, mainly in the areas of procurement and contract management, as well as IT controls. 

They are the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA), the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Education (MOE), the MOF, the Ministry of Health and the People’s Association (PA). 

The lapses arose from gaps in agency processes and human factors, Ms Indranee said.

ON THE LATEST AGO REPORT

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh asked what actions the Government will take with regards to the irregularities flagged by the AGO in its latest report.

The AGO, in its audit of public agencies in Singapore for the year 2020/2021, had flagged “possible irregularities” in the records of several ministries and statutory boards, including documents that were altered, backdated, artificially created and falsified by officers.

These ministries and statutory boards are: The Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY), MOE, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), the Housing and Development Board (HDB) and PA.

Ms Indranee said the Government “takes a serious view of such irregularities”.

Every case is “thoroughly investigated” and public officers found guilty of misconduct face disciplinary actions depending on the nature, extent and circumstances of the breaches, she added.

Providing an update, Ms Indranee noted that public officers from MCCY and PA have been investigated for the fabrication of records.

For MCCY, internal investigation has concluded. Two officers admitted to fabricating claims records for services rendered by external parties, as they could not locate the records when requested by AGO.

However, investigations have “verified that the claims were valid and that the services were in fact rendered”, Ms Indranee said.

“So while the claims were real, the conduct of the officers in fabricating the claims records was wrong. The officers were issued official warnings and their performance assessments were affected.”

Investigations are ongoing in the case of PA, where signs of possible falsification of quotations, alteration of hardcopy payment supporting documents, as well as the creation and backdating of documents have been detected when AGO audited two development projects, including Our Tampines Hub.

Officers involved have been suspended from duties pending the outcome of these investigations.

MHA had three cases of possible irregularities in records furnished by contractors.

In two of these cases, police reports were made. One contractor was charged in court, while the other was given a 12-month conditional warning. Action has been taken against the contractor involved in the third case for non-compliance with contractual requirements.

Ms Indranee said there was no fabrication of records by public officers in any of these three cases, but two officers are undergoing internal investigations for lack of due diligence.

Meanwhile, investigations are ongoing at MOE and HDB. Appropriate action will be taken depending on the outcome, she added.

“UNREALISTIC TO EXPECT ZERO LAPSES”

Ms Indranee, who is also Second Minister for National Development, said given the scale and complexity of government operations, it “will be unrealistic to expect zero lapses”.

“With 150,000 officers in the public service handling hundreds of thousands of transactions each year, and more than 2,000 government IT systems built over the years by different vendors and using different technologies, human errors and process gaps will occur from time to time.

“Given this, what is important therefore is that we must have the means to pick up such lapses and address them in an upfront and transparent manner,” she added.

She stressed that the Government’s approach to governance is “one of responsibility, transparency and accountability”, and governance structures have been put in place at both the whole-of-government and agency levels to ensure proper accountability for the use of public funds.

These include rules and guidelines on financial controls for public agencies carrying out finance functions, while central agencies such as the SNDGG and the MOF’s Grants Governance Office oversee common functional areas and work with agencies to ensure robust internal controls.

At the agency level, enterprise risk management and system controls are in place, while regular internal audits are conducted.

Lastly, the AGO serves as an important part of the system of checks to uncover weaknesses and shortcomings, Ms Indranee noted.

“The annual AGO report and other elements of our governance system outlined earlier, function as regular health checks for the public service, and allows it to take corrective and preventive actions as may be necessary,” she said.

Source: CNA/sk(gs)

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