Ethics and internal financial controls adding value to the public sector

The public sector in South Africa is faced with a huge challenge: a limited pool of financially qualified people. The other concern is ensuring that employees are ethically inclined. To resolve these challenges, National Treasury is rolling out Accounting Technician training programmes to upskill those who work in its finance units in public sector accounting principles to help the public sector achieve better financial governance.

Xolisa Dlanga, Deputy Director: Financial Management Capacity Building in the Office of the Accountant-General covers a lot of ground. As part of his job, he designs financial management training programmes and qualifications for civil servants from clerical to senior management level – all of which is no small task.

But why is there a need for a separate qualification for public sector accounting from the private sector?

“The main problem is that we [the public sector] have people who have no accounting background employed in the finance units; as a result we need to provide operational guidance in the language that they can easily apply at the transaction level,” explains Dlanga.

Teaching private sector accounting to non-accounting staff in government would require re-teaching government processes. “Therefore to kill two birds with one stone, we teach them public sector accounting principles in line with what we expect from them in the workplace,” he says.

In order to achieve this, National Treasury has partnered with the Accounting Technicians South Africa to develop a public sector qualification that will service the public sector. Thanks to AT(SA)’s public sector-specific qualifications, government officials can progress to higher positions as they complete each qualification and develop the skill sets required . This is likely to decrease staff turnover as there is now the opportunity to up skill.

The public sector qualification includes modules on ethics. “A necessary discipline that is lacking in the public service,” reflects Dlanga. “We also teach internal controls in line with government processes.”

In his view, the main challenge facing government is procurement irregularities resulting from under-qualified people being employed. “South Africa desperately needs qualified people who are ethically inclined, to ensure that we stop the procurement haemorrhage that government is experiencing.”  The financial management training programmes could have a significant impact on communities through the public service rendering more effective service. “Qualification implies the ability to think and to adapt to situations, so having qualified people is very important,” says Dlanga.

One of the standout stories emerging from the AT(SA)/National Treasury project is how much the standard of work being delivered by employees in debtors and payroll at the Eastern Cape Department of Agriculture has improved since their training. “In the two consecutive years of enrolling learners on the programme they have experienced an improvement in audit outcomes from qualified to unqualified results,” says Dlanga.

The unqualified results, or clean reports, which the department is now achieving indicates compliance with generally accepted accounting principles and statutory requirements. The improvement in audit outcomes at the Eastern Cape Department of Agriculture is due to a combination of sound leadership and an improvement in employee technical knowledge through the qualification.

The training has improved staff morale too. “Most of the learners had never had the opportunity to engage in formal learning,” says Dlanga. “Others have a degree in agriculture but were thrown into accounting. There is now a good understanding between the employer and the student.”

With success like this, it’s no wonder National Treasury is rolling out financial management training at various levels of provincial administration in four provinces including the Western Cape, Northern Cape, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. The training is being funded through their skills budgets. National Treasury also offers a Chartered Accounting [CA(SA)] programme for graduates with a Bachelor’s degree in Financial Accounting. “They can do a three year traineeship within National Treasury,” explains Dlanga.

As more Accounting Technicians (ATs) and CAs(SA) complete the training, working in the civil service will become a sought after profession, which is Dlanga’s ultimate goal. “Currently we have no career pathways for a model civil servant. So we are unable to attract and retain people in key occupations.”

His thinking is shared by others in the CA(SA) profession. Victor Sekese CA(SA), managing partner of SizweNtsalubaGobodo (SNG), recently said: “There is a need to speed up the professionalisation of the civil service. In other countries it is ‘the go to’ place, but not here.”

The good news is that the training being offered through the partnership between National Treasury and AT(SA) has reduced the number of negative audit outcomes. “We are trying to ensure that employees are competent and ethical,” says Dlanga. National Treasury will be embarking on an impact study next year.