Treading on toes and exposing corruption is all in a day’s work for Auditor General Mrs Mildred Chiri. In the circles of those that are caught with their hand in the cookie jar, she discharges her duties without any fear or favour. She has won several awards in recognition of her work and these include the Institute of Women Leadership’s Women’s Top Leaders Excellence Award for the Government sector in 2016 and the 2010 Secretary of the year by the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators. Recently she produced the public sector audit for 2019 and true to form, it has laid bare extensive loopholes in public finance management. The Sunday Mail’s Tanyaradzwa Rusike engaged Mrs Chiri who spoke about her work since joining the then Office of the Comptroller and Auditor-General in 1983 as a greenhorn accountant.
Q: Can you take us through your journey at the AG’s office focusing on the major highlights and some of the initiatives you introduced in order to improve the office?
A: Some of the highlights during my time here include bringing annual audit reports up to date.
This entails the production of an annual report that consists of three separate reports which focus on central Government, parastatals and state enterprises and local authorities.
This has enabled stakeholders to follow and appreciate the use and management of public funds more lucidly.
We have resuscitated value for money training after a set-back caused by staff turnover.
More value for money reports are now being produced and they focus on economy, efficiency and effectiveness on the use of public funds.
With the assistance of donors, my office has managed to augment its tools of trade, including procurement of laptops although now they need replacement.
The amended Constitution of 2013 mandated the AG to audit local authorities.
The office is now directly auditing some of the local authorities while contracting out the remainder.
The office staff is professionalising by embarking on professional qualifications programmes such Chartered Accountants, Association of Chartered Certified Accountants and Certified Public Accountants.
Q: Over the years, you have produced audit reports that have exposed incidents of corruption and abuse of public funds. What would you say have been your biggest challenges in conducting your audits?
A: I had adequate exposure in all the departments of the Office of the Auditor General and so I was able to acquit myself well.
Just like any other organisation, resources may never be adequate.
You may want to do more, but sometimes you are constrained.
My office has not been an exception.
The Government is not fully computerised, relying on manual systems.
The time to carry out my audits tended to be long and my coverage limited in some cases.
Retention of critical skills in the office has been a challenge as staff look for greener pastures.
There has been an expectation gap on my work and what the public expects me to report on.
Some entities have been slow in implementing my recommendations to mitigate weaknesses in the systems.
Q: Does the political environment affect the work of the Auditor General and how do you deal with this?
A: My audits are based on facts and evidence on the ground and before I finalise my report, management of the entities are given an opportunity to respond and validate my findings.
While there could be some aggrieved persons, I am duty-bound to report accurately on the utilisation and management of the public resources so that corrective measures can be taken.
The resources need to be safeguarded for the development of the economy.
It is OK when you talk with people during the audits or in meetings, but when it comes out in the press, that’s when you find out you are creating enemies; that is the challenge.
I have come to accept it, as this is the nature of the job.
When you go after some people’s weaknesses, you are bound to step on their toes and they will not like you, but there are some who appreciate that I am doing my job. There are strong indications that the New Dispensation has the will to ensure that there is transparency and accountability.
Q: Have there been instances where some corrupt public officials have tried to influence your work so that you produce reports that they may deem favourable? How do you deal with such characters?
A: I conduct my audits independently as enshrined in the Constitution, the reports, as you know, are tabled in Parliament.
As a result, I have not had such encounters.
There can be different interpretations when the report is released, but I am glad that at the end of the day all people appreciate my role and functions.
My audits are guided by standards and sticking to the professional dictates of my job has carried me through over the years.
Q: The Government has promulgated the Public Entities Corporate Governance Act. Do you think this law does enough to help strengthen the management of public entities in line with international best practice?
A: Yes, the law strengthens the management of public entities by putting in place measures that champion good corporate governance at state entities.
Enforcement of the Act would enhance its effectiveness.
If the dictates of this law such as limiting the tenure of chief executive officers is enforced as stated in the Act to two five-year terms (10 years), boards are properly constituted and regulated, excesses such as the payment of exorbitant perks to executives and tying the CEO’s contracts to good performance are implemented, etc., then this will go a long way in enhancing public financial management in line with international best practice.
Q: Do you think the Public Finance Management Act goes far enough in helping safeguard public resources from abuse? What more can the Government do in order to strengthen the law so that instances of abuse are limited?
A: The coming into being of the PFM Act [Chapter 22:19] strengthened the management and control of public resources.
Through implementation of its provisions some areas for improvement were identified, hence review of this law that is currently being done.
While the laws are there, for them to be effective they need to be implemented and constantly monitored.
Q: Do you feel that law enforcement agencies have done enough to follow up on findings from your reports so that those responsible for corruption and abuse of public funds are dealt with to the full extent of the law?
A: The law enforcement agencies make use of my reports in furthering their investigations of cases.
A number of cases have gone through the courts and in some cases, forensic audits have been carried out to investigate the cases further.
There is need for you (the media) to establish constraints faced by the law enforcement agencies in this regard.
Q: How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected your work and what measures have you put in place to ensure that your work is not adversely affected?
A: The measures taken by the Government to mitigate the coronavirus did not spare my office.
The office is currently automating processes, acquiring tools of trade and embracing the use of digital platforms for communication to enable staff to work remotely.
As an office, I take seriously all the necessary Covid-19 containment measures so that my staff is protected and there is continuity of work.
My office was affected by the Covid-19 pandemic which brought about lockdowns and I was not able to carry out my audits on time. Government systems are manual hence I could not afford to be on the ground.
Q: The 2020 AG’s report is supposed to be tabled in Parliament by end of this month. Given the delays caused by the pandemic, when should we expect the report to be ready?
A: Indeed, the pandemic has affected the production of my reports.
As mentioned earlier on, when public officials are not in office across the board, I am not able to conclude the audits.
It is difficult to give you a timeline until we see how the current wave advances but we are currently carrying out the 2020 audits.
Q: When you eventually decide to leave the office of the AG after serving for nearly 38 years, what do you think you will be doing in the next chapter of your life?
A: I am still weighing some of the options.