Regular, effective auditing of public programs by an independent body is widely recognized as a crucial anticorruption tool. Yet in Sri Lanka, the legal framework that would enable such effective auditing is still not in place. Although Sri Lanka’s Auditor General’s Department (AG) has been in operation for more than 200 years, it derives most of its functions from executive practice and regulations, rather than legislation. For this reason, the office is largely toothless: It cannot take any action to enforce its findings beyond submitting reports to two parliamentary committees, but these have little to no impact, as any follow-up actions are largely dependent on executive discretion. For years, experts and citizens alike have recognized the urgent need for a National Audit Law to govern and empower the Auditor General’s Department.
Yet despite repeated efforts and a constitutional mandate, the government has still not succeeded in enacting such a robust statutory framework to govern public audits. A National Audit Bill has been in the process of “being drafted” since the early 2000s, but an actual draft bill didn’t appear until 2013. No further action was taken on that bill. When President Sirisena took office in January 2015, he declared that the government would pass a National Audit Act by March 2015 as part of his 100-day programme. But although a new Audit Bill was proposed to Cabinet in April 2015, the proposal was deferred by the Cabinet a shocking 24 times, up until October 2017. Eventually, there were encouraging reports that the “impasse” had ended and that the Audit Bill had been approved by the Cabinet. But it was not to be: it turned out that what had been approved were amendments to the proposed bill, and not the bill itself. Subsequently, the government stated that it will not be submitting the Bill to Parliament – back to square one.
Why the seemingly interminable delay? It appears that the main reason for the impasse, at least since 2015, is a contentious section which vests the AG with the power to impose a surcharge—that is, to disallow public expenditure and require monies found to have been used improperly to be refunded by the guilty parties. This has met with resistance, mainly because it would take decisions concerning enforcement out of the hands of politicians. (Opponents of the bill also claim that it would hinder the carrying out of public duties by politicians, such as when urgent funds are required to respond to natural calamities.) Yet many reformers insist that giving the AG the surcharge power is necessary and non-negotiable.
If progress on the Audit Bill is to move forward, something has got to give. In my view, despite all the policy arguments for granting the AG the surcharge power, it’s better to move ahead and enact an Audit Act that lacks this provision, rather than allowing this sticking point to further hold up its passage. This is one of those situations where we can’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Continue reading