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Efficient Government Means Accountability: We’re Getting It

Published on: January 2009​
Author:
Genre: Governance/Public Sector Management​ Category: Op eds​

The establishment of the Abu Dhabi Accountability Authority (ADAA) is an important step towards strengthening public sector accountability and transparency. At the federal level, the UAE already has the State Audit Institution (SAI), which is an independent body that reports directly to the Federal National Council (FNC) and is responsible for the auditing and oversight of state funds and those of other specified public entities. But the establishment of the ADAA will complement and enhance that role at the local level in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. This is a measure worth emulating by the other Emirates.

The new Accountability Authority replaces the erstwhile Audit Authority. With an independent juridical personality, the new entity has a broader mandate—not only to ensure financial propriety and compliance with rules and regulations, but also to promote the principles of accountability and transparency at the “subject entities.” This is a clear shift from traditional financial control to what is called “value for money auditing” and a departure from simple accounting to real accountability. External oversight bodies are now moving more towards accountability, performance, and outcomes in line with government objectives and directives, rather than just compliance with routine processes and provisions. The establishment of the ADAA is in line with this trend within modernizing governments around the world towards greater public sector accountability.

Reportedly, the State Audit Institution will soon be broadening its audit and oversight role as well. At present, the SAI is a financial control authority with the power to inspect and audit the accounts of specified public bodies, but will soon play a more expansive role by utilizing performance auditing to examine the management of federal government organizations and programs to determine both whether they are being carried out in an efficient, effective and economic manner, and whether management practices promote improvement.

These are some very positive developments. The UAE can and should be an example in the region by setting high standards in public sector accountability and transparency. The country’s score in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) improved to 5.9 in 2008, from 5.7 in 2007. This improvement was largely attributed to the strengthening of its accountability and auditing mechanisms. The country ranks very well in terms of e-government readiness, and has the highest Web Measure Index in the region, enabling the effective deployment of information and communications technologies that should promote even greater transparency and accountability.

Improving accountability and ensuring the alignment of public sector resources and outcomes with the overall government objectives is a cornerstone of the UAE’s current government strategy of public sector development. To this end, strategic planning units have been proposed within each ministry to ensure consistency of ministry plans with the UAE federal strategy. Moreover, local governments are also emphasizing public sector accountability and transparency, as evidenced by both the Abu Dhabi Strategic Plan as well as the Dubai Strategic Plan.

The UAE’s audit and accountability institutions draw their strength from the country’s Constitution. Article 136 of the Constitution provides for “an independent body, headed by an Auditor-General, to audit the accounts of the Union and its organs and agencies, and to audit any other accounts assigned to the said department for that purpose in accordance with the law.” The audit body is guaranteed functional and financial independence from the executive through a Federal Law that attaches it to the Federal National Council and provides for its separate budget under a special section of the State's General Budget.

Accountability and financial propriety at the federal level is ensured through constitutionally-sanctioned budget controls given to the FNC. The annual draft budget, as well as the final accounts of the Union, is presented to the legislative body within a stipulated period for discussion and comment, before their presentation to the Supreme Council of the Federation, accompanied by such comments, for ratification and then issuance through a special law. The FNC’s capacity to ensure budgetary control and financial accountability is located within its “Financial, Economic and Industrial Affairs Committee,” which specializes in discussing the final accounts of ministries and federal departments, as well as reviewing the UAE State Audit Institution's reports.

The existing audit and accountability arrangements have served the UAE well over the years. But the growth in the size of the government, as well as the increasing complexity of its tasks, presents new challenges. The growing focus on performance rather than simple legal compliance, as well as greater managerial flexibility and discretion for better outcomes, new service delivery arrangements and management techniques, and outsourcing to agencies outside direct government control, will all challenge the existing audit and accountability mechanisms. In order to be relevant and effective over time, these institutions must be fine tuned in light of current needs and developments. The establishment of the Abu Dhabi Accountability Authority is definitely a step toward a system of accountability that is fully in alignment with emerging trends and developments within advanced public sectors throughout the world.

Ashraf Meraj is a Research Associate at the Dubai School of Government.

This article was originally printed in The National. It can be accessed here.


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