Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Where's the smoking gun?

Unfortunately, due diligence and good government just aren't sexy enough for today's politicians

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Carol Bellringer tables her last annual report to the legislature this week. An auditor general's report can be important, but is unlikely to capture the public's rapt attention.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

Carol Bellringer tables her last annual report to the legislature this week. An auditor general's report can be important, but is unlikely to capture the public's rapt attention. Photo Store

In her last annual report, outgoing auditor general Carol Bellringer demonstrated how important this office is to good government. And how bothersome a good AG can be to the politicians who oversee that government.

The report was a fascinating mix of the sensational and the mundane. However, an important common thread courses through her report that, we should all hope, resonates for this and any future government.

This was a report about the importance of thoughtful, responsible, accountable public administration. In several areas -- from the awarding of contracts for air ambulance services without proper consideration, to a lack of a code of conduct for civil servants and overcrowding in Manitoba prisons and under-monitoring of convicts on release -- Bellringer found a government struggling with due diligence.

This is not the kind of stuff on which scandals are built. There is no corruption, no breach of trust, no smoking guns. Bellringer's final report is, however, valuable insight into the challenges of a long-serving government.

It has never been as important as it is now for governments of all stripes and levels to show financial accountability. However, accountability comes with its own cost. The best governments are the ones that ensure value for money, fairness in the tendering of contracts and consistent enforcement of ethical and moral standards without creating additional layers of bureaucracy.

Due diligence and internal controls are also directly affected by attrition and austerity, two words that are music to the ear of many voters concerned with deficit financing and taxation. However, in many instances, government cannot be less and still provide more in terms of diligence.

Is that a factor in the problems uncovered by Bellringer? The auditor general said she did not see clear evidence the government has lost its capacity for oversight. Although in some areas, Bellringer acknowledged there are fewer people acting in a self-monitoring capacity. This has created a government that issues directives aimed at improving due diligence, but rarely checks up to see if the edicts were put into place.

Is this NDP government worse at due diligence than previous governments in Manitoba, or other provincial governments? Bellringer does not know but is hoping this report creates a baseline to which all governments from this point forward can be held accountable.

The report also does not explain why only some departments struggled with tendering and reporting procedures and other issues related to due diligence. That is a common complaint many politicians make about the AG process; it describes the existence of shortcomings but not necessarily their cause. That makes AG reports politically dangerous.

The auditor may report the government is awarding too many untendered contracts. The opposition and media may hear that and find it is evidence of corruption. Corruption or incompetence may be connected to some of the contracts awarded without proper competition, but the AG did not find the evidence to prove it.

The role of the opposition from this point on will be very important, both in holding Premier Greg Selinger and his government to account for its shortcomings, but also in digging deeper to see if there is something more sinister.

It is not clear, however, that the opposition has the capacity or the attention span to follow the prompts Bellringer has left for them.

Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister has been consumed with mostly inconsequential and collateral details surrounding Selinger's decision to raise the PST to fund infrastructure. This is still an important issue, but it is not the only issue. It would be valuable to hear Pallister, in questions to Selinger, outline his own ideas about due diligence in public administration.

Unfortunately, the premier obviously feels there are more important challenges facing his government than the problems outlined in Bellringer's report. The leader of the Opposition clearly believes there are issues that resonate more directly with voters than problems with contract tendering or civil service codes of conduct.

Between the NDP's lack of concern and the Tories' lack of interest, it's unlikely taxpayers are going to get a government that is better at awarding contracts, reporting instances of internal corruption or establishing value for the money it spends.

Carol Bellringer's final report as auditor general was a tour de force, a compelling argument for a more diligent, thoughtful, administratively responsible government.

Unfortunately, the concerns she raised neither topple governments nor win elections. They only make for better government.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 24, 2014 A4

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