Audit the auditors

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 November, 2010, 12:00am

Readers of this column may already know that I am not a big fan of our Audit Commission, and this is not because I am blind to its stated purpose: to ensure public funds are used appropriately and to their best effect. But there is something intrinsically wrong about the 'hit and run' mode of its operation: it sends its people to an organisation, opens the books, draws its conclusions, publishes damning reports, and then it is off to the next target.

Last year, I raised the question of how the commission could justify its praise for the Equal Opportunities Commission for using a free but 'marginally acceptable' wheelchair access ramp for a disability discrimination seminar, instead of using a better ramp it would have to pay for. Clearly, it did not take into account the work and role of the organisation it audited.

Measuring with the wrong yardstick not only makes its reports unfair, it causes more problems. In the case of the access ramp, the message it sent seems to be that universal and optimal accessibility for people with disabilities is wrong, only the 'free' and the 'minimal' is right. Unfortunately, if you have disabilities, the commission has labelled you 'not worth the dough'.

The commission did not see fit to respond to my question.

Audits are supposed to identify areas for improvement. While the commission has done some good in pointing out blind spots in others, it has failed to address its own blind spots by ignoring the public's criticism of itself.

This year, the auditors stormed the gates of direct subsidy schools. They appear to have assessed these schools by the standards of aided schools, which is outrageous, because their operations and sources of income are different.

It seems now that the accounting malpractices uncovered in our direct subsidy schools stemmed from unclear Education Bureau guidelines. Shouldn't this be clear to the auditors? Instead, this was made known - by the schools themselves - after the report was published.

Granted, not all school practices are squeaky clean, but when the commission criticised one school for not having any alumni on its board - without taking into account that the school is so new it does not yet have the alumni to meet the requirement - we know the schools are not the only ones that are problematic.

A failure to consider when the school was established before making the accusation speaks volumes about the quality of the auditing process. It is so unacceptably absurd that it begs the question: what is the cost to the public purse of these atrocious mistakes (and goodness knows how many others)?

What I would really like the commission to tell us about our schools is how many hours our teachers spend pushing paper to satisfy the bureaucracy. Teachers have long complained about their hours and heavy workload - it would do us a lot of good if the commission could find out how much of their attention is spent on filing papers, and not directly on our children.

As a watchdog, the commission's job is not to throw everyone into the dog house. It may need to lash out, sirens blaring and lights flashing, on wasteful and dishonest organisations funded by public money, but it is just as important that the commission does an adequate job of assessing an organisation so that it can draw fair conclusions. While holding other organisations accountable, it must show that it, too, is accountable to the public. When valid concerns are raised about its work, it needs to put things right. A good place to start is by answering its critics' questions.

Really, I am sympathetic to the commission - given that its British counterpart is facing the axe, I can see why it needs to prove the value of its existence.

Auditing public accounts is very necessary, but it must be done professionally and responsibly. Auditing just to 'name and shame' does society a disservice. Our legislators, while putting our schools on the stand today, will need to hold the commission accountable, too, for not doing its job right.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA