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COVER STORY: Meet South Africa’s CFO

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‘Nothing motivates me more than being asked to assist with a serious problem and having the ability to come up with a solution,’ says Accountant-General Michael Sass. Monique Verduyn spoke to him about the challenges he faces and the legacy he wishes to leave behind

The Office of the Accountant-General(OAG),  perched on the 19rd floor of the National Treasury building, has sweeping vistas of the City of Tshwane. It’s a fitting view for the person in charge of promoting and enforcing the effective management of South Africa’s revenue expenditure, and the assets and liabilities of government institutions.

Michael Sass, appointed to the position in 2014, says he wanted to contribute to improving services for all citizens, and craved the responsibility and pressure that comes with the job. ‘I was qualified to do the work, and I was at a point in my life where I wanted bigger challenges and deeper personal gratification. There may come a time when I look for a new opportunity, but I doubt anything could match the National Treasury in terms of the sheer adrenalin rush that comes from being custodian of the legislation regulating financial management in national, provincial and local government, consolidating the country’s books and managing its R2,4 trillion bank account.’

Sass’s career has seen him move easily between the private and public sectors. The son of an army officer, he chose to study accounting without really understanding the role of a CA(SA). It was only after he joined the Receiver of Revenue as part of his bursary and military obligations that he began to understand the importance of the qualification and the many doors it could open.

After concluding his time at the South African Revenue Service, he joined Grant Thornton to complete his articles, and then moved to mining group JCI as an internal audit manager. When the group was unbundled he was outsourced to Deloitte, but because he did not feel ready to return to the auditing world, he joined the Automobile Association where he took on various roles. That was followed by a brief spell at Verimark, after which Sass joined the nascent Gauteng Shared Service Centre, the first public sector shared services centre in Africa, and one of the largest in the world.

After several years there, he returned to Grant Thornton, and then moved to BEE audit and advisory firm Business Innovations Group, before ending up at National Treasury in 2013 as head of financial management and planning. He knew that incumbent Freeman Nomvalo was about to exit National Treasury to pursue other interests. Sass was appointed to the role the next year.

Among his most notable achievements in the short time Sass has held the position of Accountant-General is the revamp of the National Treasury’s legacy IT systems. A previous move to overhaul the technology infrastructure had ground to a halt after ten years, and Sass is understandably proud of the progress that has been made on his watch. His office is implementing a new integrated financial management system (IFMS) that will simplify processes for all users and make it easier to access and work with up-to-date financial data. It’s an essential component of what he sees as a move to dramatically improve service for all the officials in government dealing with administrative matters across the country’s various public bodies.

‘This is part of our overall drive to become more client-focused,’ says Sass. ‘For example, it’s now audit season for public entities and people working for the provinces, departments and municipalities have many queries and concerns. When using the system, they want answers and they want them quickly. Our goal is to ensure that happens.’

Naturally friendly and approachable, transparency and openness are important to Sass. He has played a key role in shifting the culture in previous work environments by encouraging people to greet others by their first names. It sounds simple, but it’s one way he is helping to create an atmosphere that is open, informal, people-friendly and more efficient as a result.

He has also focused on areas that are of great concern to the public, like cost containment. New measures are set to come into effect on 1 September. Among these is one related to reducing conference attendance by government members, an expenditure that was targeted for reduction by the President. However, he notes, the public perception of irregular expenditure is often unnecessarily critical. He and his team are committed to rooting out fraud and corruption, but often their task is instead to help government employees do their jobs correctly.

Sass and his team are working on implementing public finance management in all spheres of government, certain aspects of accrual accounting, the aim being to move more towards that model rather than the current modified cash standard that is being adhered to. Working with the Accounting Standards Board (ASB), his team is also working on modifying and implementing Generally Recognised Accounting Practice (GRAP) standards to help government entities and municipalities.

The office’s MFMA (Municipal Finance Management Act) unit has oversight over the finances of municipalities. ‘Our MFMA unit is working closely with colleagues and coordinates and supports activities with our intergovernmental relations branch (IGR) and the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, as well as provincial treasuries, to achieve better service delivery results,’ he says. ‘We recognise, along with Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Pravin Gordhan, that the performance of municipalities cannot be measured on audit outcomes alone. We have therefore introduced a range of performance management ratios as well as a financial management capability maturity model to assist in the evaluation and early warning of performance. An organisation’s ability to achieve its goals or outcomes is affected by both the maturity of its financial management and by its awareness of that maturity.’

Supporting efficient and sustainable public financial management is fundamental to the promotion of economic development, good governance, social progress and a rising standard of living for all South Africans. Sass’s office is tasked not only with establishing a regulatory framework for the municipalities, but also with aiding them to achieve sound financial management and efficiency in the wake of the Auditor-General’s report that only 40 of the 278 councils in South Africa received unqualified audits. A further 54 municipalities received an adverse or disclaimed opinion and the remainder a qualified audit. It’s clear that although much work has been done since 2003, still more needs to be done to build a capable state and institutions of government.

Ask him if he thinks the OAG is winning, and he says it is, albeit slowly. ‘The outcome of the last round of audits actually proves that, because better results were achieved than in previous years,’ says Sass. ‘The FMCMM and National Ratios will be used as a proactive and early warning system going forward. We are looking at further way to help, which is why we want to simplify GRAP reporting. We also need to find better ways to assist municipalities that do not have the required skills. One programme close to my heart is the Municipal Finance Improvement Programme, where we second people to municipalities to assist them with their financial functions and duties. We also have a capacity building unit that is setting minimum competency levels which should help to create better skills in the public sector.’  The transfer of the financial management grant funds is designed to augment municipal resources in implementing financial management reforms.

The issue of minimum competency levels is a difficult one, he says, with municipalities adhering to the requirements as much as possible. However, people who do meet the requirements cannot simply be fired. ‘That is why the Municipal Finance Improvement Programme is key, as it will help people to achieve the minimum requirements. We would like to see strong action being taken against those who do not comply, but that is a decision for politicians to make, not for an official like me.’

Sass admits that one of the biggest mistakes he made on arrival at National Treasury was believing that he knew all the answers. ‘A leader must trust his staff, especially the experts, and he must allow them the opportunity to speak their minds without fear. Consultation is important. However, he notes, the responsibility for the final decision always lies with the leader. ‘Our Director-General, Lungisa Fuzile, summed up co-operation best when he said: “We will debate rigorously, but once we take a decision, it becomes a collective decision that we all support.”’

When Sass arrived at the OAG, he set a number of key priorities including the turnaround of the IFMS, issuing Treasury instructions, enhancing  relationships with key stakeholders like the Auditor-General, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (SCOPA), the ASB, Independent Regulatory Board for Auditors (IRBA) and other institutes, and the improvement of audit outcomes. All of these have been achieved, although it took him longer than anticipated.

Having been the  Accountant-General for about two-and-a-half years  now, Sass says he realises more than ever the value of partnerships with colleagues and other institutions when it comes to getting things done. The wheels of government turn slowly anywhere in the world, he adds, and he takes that into account whenever he is trying to change something. ‘I worked on a transversal tender for accounting and audit work for government. The process has taken more than two years, but it will be finalised shortly.’

Sass says that although the public may not always agree, working for government is a calling. ‘I’m driven by the desire to help my fellow citizens and my country. People often have negative things to say about government, but I can tell you most officials take their jobs very seriously and they want to help as much as possible. In the corporate sector, you are driven by profit. In the public sector, what makes you feel good is when you can say – at the end of a long, hard day – that you achieved something worthwhile and for the benefit of others. Nothing motivates me more than being asked to assist with a serious problem and having the ability to come up with a solution.’

His advice to aspiring CAs(SA) is simply, ‘work hard’. He maintains that there is a reason why it is so difficult to earn the qualification. ‘It’s because you will have a difficult job, and you need to be equipped with all the skills necessary to deal with tough situations. But always know that having a piece of paper in your hands is not what makes you a good employee, partner or leader. The CA(SA) qualification is only the start. It’s essential to follow that up with continuous learning – not only in accounting, but in all aspects of life.’

What does he want to be remembered for? ‘If in the future people are able to look back on my tenure and say that we improved on customer service through the assistance we provide for departments, provinces, entities and municipalities, I would feel that I had accomplished something great. It is much better to be remembered for providing improved service that impacts the lives of all South Africans, than for a specific event or piece of legislation.’

Author: Monique Verduyn

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