Ignorance should never be bliss – not when it comes to our money
Let’s revisit the subject of the Office of the Auditor-General. Do any of you pay attention to their work? If you don’t, you should because this office is our own personal “private investigator” of the public purse.
What’s not to like about that? Whether you are Left, Right or Centre in your political persuasion, this Bud’s for you.
The role of the Office of the Auditor-General is to oversee the Government’s fiscal conduct, provide detailed scrutiny over government spending, and this independent position is protected under the Constitution, reporting directly to the Governor.
How many of us actually take the time to read the Auditor-General reports? I didn’t until 2007 when Larry Dennis, our longest serving Auditor-General, was forcibly removed from his office, arrested and jailed for 24 hours.
Some background: way back in 2002, corruption allegations surrounded the Bermuda Housing Corporation, a government quango. Dame Jennifer Smith, then the Premier, asked Mr Dennis to carry out a financial investigation, and his report was completed in May that year, leading to a police investigation.
Eventually, after a trial, there was a sole conviction in the case in 2006. A year later, in 2007, Mr Dennis was accused of handling stolen police documents pertaining to the BHC investigation, and he was arrested and held for 24 hours. His office was raided twice and some documents removed. He denied any wrongdoing, no charges were filed and the documents were eventually returned to his office.
This incident was a wake-up call for me and after realising the critical value of the Auditor-General’s role, I have followed their work ever since. A few years before he died in 2021, Mr Dennis reflected on his 31-year career and said: “I think I transformed the office from one of just checking vouchers to one of investigation.”
I believe he did just that.
Every year, the Office of the Auditor-General gives the taxpayer a report card on how the Government is managing our money. The office reports its findings to the relevant ministry, the Audit Committee, the Public Accounts Committee and the House of Assembly. The information in that report is a treasure trove of discovery, financial facts and figures, and — just as important — there are many recommendations for procedural improvement, reconciliation with requests for implementation, generally expected within one year. Items such as: identifying leadership failures within ministries, accounting procedural deficiencies, financial statements in arrears, failure to report summary financials for the whole of government, overpayments, duplicate payments, payments made without supporting documentation, lack of contracts for goods and services, weaknesses in the Government’s IT structure.
These are just some of many recurring issues which are outlined in these reports. There are also helpful suggestions from the Auditor-General for the taxpayer, to ask questions of their MPs regarding these financial issues and irregularities. There can be no doubt about the critical importance of the Office of the Auditor-General, and every taxpayer should make a conscious effort to be familiar with their work — because they carefully “watch” your money.
Thankfully, the Office of the Auditor-General is independent and free from government interference, which makes it apolitical — an essential factor in the provision of sound financial reviews and unbiased inspection of all government spending, without fear or favour. I do get the feeling, however, that few Bermudians actually read the Auditor-General reports, which sadly, has the unfortunate effect of being a snub of the important and tireless work of this office.
So I have a suggestion: whenever a General Election is called, there should be a requirement for all registered voters to be sent a copy of the latest Auditor-General annual and/or “special” report to keep them current on the work of this office. The “mail-out” should include a straightforward cover letter that encourages recipients to first read the section entitled “Matters of Special Importance”, which will highlight the most concerning findings of the report. Even if they read only this one section of the report, it would give them a good snapshot of the Government’s fiscal performance. They would be then better prepared to constructively engage their MP or a new candidate who comes knocking on their door asking for their vote, and they would be also more informed when stepping into the polling booth on election day.
Then, just maybe, we can retire the “ignorance is bliss” phrase when it comes to government performance and fiscal management. Ignorance should never be your “bliss” when other people are spending your money.
I would like to thank our present auditor-general, Heather Thomas, and all of her predecessors over the past 50 years for their work on our behalf to improve public accountability. You are truly the unsung heroes of government administration.