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Ministries address lapses highlighted in AGO report in response to parliamentary questions

Ministries address lapses highlighted in AGO report in response to parliamentary questions

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

SINGAPORE: Ministers gave updates on lapses flagged by the Auditor-General’s Office (AGO) in its 2020 report following questions in Parliament on Monday (Oct 5) on some of the findings.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) Indranee Rajah said that all the agencies take the audit observations seriously and are committed to making improvements. 

“Actions have been taken at the Whole-of-Government level to address the gaps identified,” she said.

In response to Member of Parliament for Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC Alex Yam's question on the lapses in IT access controls in the report, she said that manual processes for access control to more than 2,000 government IT systems are due to be automated.

As there have been many systems developed, then upgraded or replaced since the 1980s, the access controls are not linked across systems and have to be manually adjusted - leading to opportunities for human error. 

"When an officer moves to another portfolio, it requires a chain of manual adjustments to different systems, to remove obsolete access rights and create new access rights for the officer. The reliance on manual adjustments is prone to human error," she said.

The Smart Nation and Digital Government Group is developing systems that will automate the processes involved and minimise errors, she said. 

"It will take some time to fully implement the solutions across the Whole of Government because we need to implement the automated process in the more than 2,000 IT systems."

READ: Lapses in procurement, grants disbursements and IT systems in public agencies: Auditor-General's report

Three other MPs raised questions on the AGO report, including Sengkang GRC Member of Parliament Louis Chua, who wanted to know if Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) had completed investigations into AGO’s finding that JTC premises may have been sublet to about 26,000 business entities without JTC's approval.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Tan See Leng said that JTC has confirmed around 400 cases of unauthorised subletting to date, but most of the 26,000 cases are not in fact JTC’s lessees or tenants. JTC said it will complete its investigations by the first half of 2021.

So far, JTC has found that 1,900 are deregistered entities, 700 are on divested properties where JTC’s subletting policies do not apply, and another 12,400 are related entities of JTC lessees and tenants to which subletting fees do not apply. 

He added that JTC has prioritised investigations for the remaining 40 per cent of the entities, which number about 11,000. 

“We will take all active steps, all active measures to recover these fees (that are owed) and in cases where clear-cut illicit subletting has been proven we will not hesitate to take legal action,” he said.

NO FURTHER LAPSES FOR PCP: JOSEPHINE TEO

Leader of the Opposition and Aljunied GRC MP Pritam Singh asked questions on the AGO findings regarding disbursements from the Enterprise Development Grant (EDG) and the Professional Conversion Programme (PCP).

AGO had conducted a thematic audit of key grant programmes under Workforce Singapore (WSG) and the Enterprise Singapore Board and found that improvements could be made in some areas.

Mr Singh’s question centred on one finding that three of WSG’s programme partners did not carry out adequate verification of career conversion for 11 disbursement cases involving 15 PCP participants.

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said that the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has found that the training had been properly carried out but AGO noted that programme partners had not documented how the participants’ previous and current job scopes were different, which is the requirement for the training to be supported under PCP. 

WSG has reviewed each of these cases and verified that all 15 participants changed their job scopes and successfully converted to new job roles through their respective PCPs, she said.

"It wasn't that the job scope didn't change substantially, it was simply the fact that the programme partners did not document it properly and they did not have a very consistent way of assessing the degree of career conversion," she added.

She said that about nine in 10 PCP participants remained in employment 24 months after being placed, and about seven in 10 earned higher wages after starting their new jobs. 

“The Auditor-General Office’s audit findings do not call into question the impact of these programmes on participants, but have highlighted issues with the practices of WSG’s programme partners,” she said.

WSG will be developing a new PCP guide for all its programme partners by the end of the year with guidelines on how career conversion should be consistently assessed, as well as the critical information that programme partners should report to ensure better and consistent monitoring of PCP outcomes, she said.

Beyond the cases studied by AGO, WSG initiated a check of more than 15,000 PCP placements for similar lapses. Although the review will only be fully completed later this year, WSG has not uncovered further lapses thus far, said Mrs Teo.

ESG GRANT

Mr Singh also raised a question on AGO’s finding that one project given an ESG grant had likely circumvented a criterion - to have a minimum 30 per cent local shareholding - by transferring shares between its local and foreign shareholders.

Minister of State for Trade & Industry and Culture, Community and Youth Low Yen Ling said that the grant conditions require all grant recipients to inform ESG of any changes in the application information during the course of the project. 

For the case raised in the AGO report, no disbursement had been made to the company and it has also been placed on ESG’s watchlist for stricter scrutiny for future grant applications, she said.

Mr Liang Eng Hwa, MP for Bukit Panjang SMC, wanted to know how the civil service ensures that officers are adequately trained and supervised to meet the Government's procurement processes.

Ms Indranee, who is also Second Minister for Finance & Second Minister for National Development, said that the recurrent lapses tend to be for more complex types of procurement – such as IT and construction, and in less straightforward cases, such as assessing price reasonableness for single bids and managing urgent contract variations.

The Ministry of Finance (MOF) is stepping up the training of officers in key areas such as evaluation and approval of tenders and will be providing additional guidance to approving authorities, which will be available from early next year.

It is also strengthening construction and IT procurement and contract management capabilities. MOF and the Civil Service College jointly established the Finance and Procurement Academy this year to better equip public officers with finance, procurement and contract management skills, she added.

Source: CNA/hm(ac)

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