Auditor General Alar Karis: we must not get bogged down with substitute activities and keep our common sense

Toomas Mattson | 11/26/2015 | 12:00 AM

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TALLINN, 26 November 2015 – Auditor General Alar Karis finds that the state system should take action to avoid getting bogged down with substitute activities, take a good look at the functions of the state and its servants based on their content, and use common sense.

The Auditor General is pleased to see that the Government has finally started asking itself whether we really need the big pile of legal acts, documents and reports that are generated every day. “If we carry on like this, we will end up losing the skill of just getting up and doing something, because we need all kinds of strategies, indicators and performance levels as crutches,” said the Auditor General in his speech to the Riigikogu yesterday evening.

The Auditor General spoke about the renovation of the Estonian Embassy’s building complex in Moscow as an example of the officials’ way of thinking. Although the Government had allocated money for the design and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was already requesting funds for construction works, the officials of the Ministry of Finance decided that the information presented by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the investment application was not adequate to analyse the necessity of the investment, i.e. the renovation of the embassy building in Moscow, or to form an opinion of whether the investment is important for achievement of the strategic goals in the sector. The officials wanted information which shows the connection between the investment property and the overall goal of the performance area, i.e. the overall goal of the area development plan approved by the Government and, if possible, the subgoal and the relevant indicators. They also asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to submit information about the long-term importance of the embassy building in Moscow being situated at the specific location for a period of 20-30 years according to the goal of the (performance) area, and the need of the organisation in the building to operate there for a long time.

They also needed information on how the renovation will improve the accessibility of public services regionally and in terms of target groups, and how this property affects the goals of another (performance) area.

In its response which consisted of seven pages, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs also mentions its applications for renovating the embassy buildings in Washington, Warsaw and The Hague, as well as renovation of the ministry’s own building, in addition to the embassy in Moscow, and the Ministry of Finance wanted the same information about all of them.

The Auditor General is of the opinion that this story illustrates the need to start reviewing the things we do in one case or another, and whether all of this is really necessary. “Of course, this does not mean that we should stop planning and justifying what we do, but we should be reasonable,” said Karis.

The Auditor General also gave a second example. As we know, the Government wants to keep the proportion of the working-age population and government sector employees at least on its present level. So, this September, the HR managers of state agencies received guidelines from the Ministry of Finance, which state that the number of employees in the government sector must be reduced by at least 0.7% per year from 2015-2019. This means ca 3500 employees in total, approximately 700-750 people per year. The letter came with a spreadsheet which showed who must reduce their staff and by how many people.

“The Government’s goal is right in itself,” said the Auditor General. “However, the problem is that these figures are not based on an analysis of duties – they are purely based on mathematical calculations which proceed from the changes that occurred in the number of employees from 2010-2015. I think that the issue is approached from the wrong end. The first thing that should be done is a review of the functions of the state and the duties of civil servants – what could be done differently, what shouldn’t be done at all, and it should be based on the content of these functions and duties. The next step should be the decision, how many people are needed to perform these duties. Only then can we see the areas where too many people have been employed. Naturally, we will also see the areas where we haven’t got enough people and where we should hire more staff to ensure that all functions and duties are performed.”

He also spoke about another curious occurrence. A couple of weeks after receiving the letter where they were asked to reduce their staff, i.e. in October, state agencies received another letter from the Ministry of Social Affairs, entitled ‘Number of necessary recruitments of persons with diminished capacity for work’. It had been prepared on the basis of the balance records of the Ministry of Finance, i.e. purely mathematically again, and no substantive analysis had been carried out. The letter also had a spreadsheet attached to it, which indicated the number of people ministries and other agencies would have to hire to meet the quota, i.e. 1000 new employees. “Two contradicting campaigns have been initiated, the actual outcomes of which may not meet the objectives of either of them, as they have not been analysed as a whole and their implementation has not been thought through,” said the Auditor General.

Alar Karis added that most problems cannot be resolved with the development of yet another strategy or document with a posh name, but by calling a meeting of everyone concerned and agreeing on the action that needs to be taken. “If it’s then decided that writing the agreement down and calling it a plan is necessary, so be it. However, it’s important to understand that real life is not changed by papers or plans, but by action and cooperation.”

The full text of the speech of the Auditor General is available on the website of the National Audit Office.

Toomas Mattson

Head of Communication Service, National Audit Office
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  • Posted: 11/26/2015 12:00 AM
  • Last Update: 12/7/2015 11:23 AM
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