Sorting out financial deficits

Balancing act: A lack of financially qualified candidates has led to the employment of candidates without financial backgrounds. The Treasury’s training programme aims to equip these people with the skills they need to manage funds transparently and sensibly.

National Treasury embarks on an aggressive programme to upskill accountants not only in financial management but in ethics as well

The public sector in South Africa is faced with a huge challenge of a limited pool of financially qualified people while the other concern is to ensure that employees are “ethically inclined”.

To resolve these challenges, the national Treasury is rolling out accounting technician training programmes to upskill employees who work in its finance units in public sector accounting principles to help the public sector achieve better financial governance.

Xolisa Dlanga, deputy director of financial management capacity building in the office of the accountant-general, covers a lot of ground in this area.

As part of his job, he designs financial management training programmes and qualifications for civil servants from clerical to senior management level – all of which is no small task.

But why is there a need for a separate qualification for the public sector in accounting?

“The main problem is that in the public sector we have people who have no accounting background employed in the finance units. As a result we need to provide operational guidance in the language that they can easily apply at the transaction level,” Dlanga says.

This also follows the reasoning of auditor-general Kimi Makwethu that his office needs to be given powers to deal with those involved in the mismanagement of taxpayers money within government departments. His office is concerned at the number of departments that cannot obtain clean audits resulting in millions of rands not being accounted for.

Teaching private sector accounting to non-accounting staff in government would require reteaching government processes. “Therefore to kill two birds with one stone, we teach them public sector accounting principles in line with what we expect from them in the workplace,” Dlanga says.

In order to achieve this, national Treasury has partnered with the Association of Accounting Technicians of South Africa AAT(SA) to develop a public sector qualification that will service the public sector. Thanks to AAT(SA)’s public sector-specific qualifications, government officials can progress to higher positions as they complete each qualification and develop the skill sets required. This is likely to decrease staff turnover as there is now the opportunity to upskill employees. The public sector qualification includes modules on ethics.

“Ethics is a necessary discipline that is lacking in the public service,” says Dlanga. “We also teach internal controls in line with government processes.”

In his view, the main challenge facing the government is procurement irregularities resulting from under-qualified people being employed. “South Africa desperately needs qualified people who are ethically inclined, to ensure that we stop the procurement haemorrhage that the government is experiencing.”

The financial management training programmes could have a significant impact on communities through the public service rendering more effective service. “Qualification implies the ability to think and to adapt to situations, so having qualified people is very important,” Dlanga says.

One of the standout stories emerging from the AAT(SA)/national Treasury project is how much the standard of work being delivered by employees in debtors and payroll at the Eastern Cape department of agriculture has improved since their training.

“In the two consecutive years of enrolling students in the programme they have experienced an improvement in audit outcomes from qualified to unqualified results,” Dlanga says.

The unqualified results, or clean reports, which the department is now achieving, indicates compliance with generally accepted accounting principles and statutory requirements. The improvement in audit outcomes at the Eastern Cape department of agriculture is due to a combination of sound leadership and an improvement in employee technical knowledge through the qualification.

The training has improved staff morale too. “Most of the students had never had the opportunity to engage in formal learning,” says Dlanga. “Others have a degree in agriculture but were thrown into accounting. There is now a good understanding between the employer and the student.”

The good news is that the training being offered through the partnership between the national Treasury and AAT(SA) has reduced the number of negative audit outcomes. “We are trying to ensure that employees are competent and ethical,” says Dlanga.

-Sello Rabothata