Auditor general: Responsibility needs to become tangible again

Janar Holm.
Janar Holm. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

We have reason to talk about responsibility this year. It has increasingly become a hot mess. Responsibility needs to solidify again, with everyone aware of their tasks and answerability. The latter condition not being met is quickly evident in crises, Auditor General Janar Holm said in a speech to the Riigikogu on problems of public administration in the coronavirus crisis.

The National Audit Office presents the Riigikogu with two reports annually. The first is the fiscal year audit and the second the audit office's annual report treating with more important problems in public administration. The annual report for this year concentrates on the coronavirus crisis.

State budget problems

I would start with the fiscal year audit. I can confirm what the finance minister said in terms of the National Audit Office finding that last year's annual accounts are largely correct and accurately and fairly reflect the state's fiscal position, economic results and cash flow.

The National Audit Office also finds that the state's financial transactions have largely been in line with the State Budget Act and the 2020 state budget that has been passed in the form of legislation. However, none of this comes as a surprise to either the audit office or the Riigikogu.

I have said before that the annual state budget process has reached such a level of generalization that it makes the budget nearly impossible to understand and the corresponding law virtually impossible to violate.

It comes as good news that the finance minister plans to amend the State Budget Act. The goal is to render the annual state budget a document of substance. Yes, the ministry's goal is noble and the budget will be much more detailed once the amendment is passed. However, problems with the state budget run much deeper.

Unfortunately, I am convinced that even after amendments are passed, information in the budget document will not provide leaders or the public with clear knowledge of how state budget sums are spent and the effect of relevant activities.

It also means that financial administration on the level of ministries will not be based on programs and the structure of the state budget. Rather, it will result in even more written work that no one needs. One budget will be kept for practical needs and another so that reality would be translated into the form required by the State Budget Act.

I dare say I know what I am talking about as I have had the honor of serving as secretary general of the Ministry of Education and Research for nine years. The education ministry was the first to test the activities-based budget model back in the day.

While images painted by enthusiasts of an activities-based budget are tempting, merely describing theoretical advantages cannot replace reality and practical needs. We cannot see the perks we were promised with an activities-based budget manifesting in real life, legibility and comparability have disappeared. What is more, the recent budget is activities-based only in name as opposed to reality.

Of course, we can describe as activities-based anything that requires a lot of activity, such as putting together the state budget.

By the way, the government does not use the same version of the budget that is presented to MPs during budget deliberations. The government is talking about concrete sums and expenses, not programs. The Riigikogu receiving the kind of budget it does follows its own decision. The parliament has approved the current State Budget Act.

However, simply amending the underlying act cannot render the state budget more substantial. Even if the budget is drawn up in greater detail in the future. The law provides a framework that needs to be populated with meaningful content, while maintaining fiscal flexibility. This requires strong and express effort by the Ministry of Finance, Government Office and the Riigikogu.

The National Audit Office stands ready to offer its know-how and experience should the parliament undertake a thorough reform of the budget process.

The pandemic of analysis and discarded responsibility

The second annual audit traditionally treats with current problems in public administration. Understandably, it looks at the functioning of the state in the coronavirus crisis this time. The National Audit Office has put together and published various audits, overviews and memorandums on aspects of solving the coronavirus crisis. They have been discussed in the Riigikogu State Budget Control Select Committee and other committees.

The third wave has demonstrated that lessons from the first and second have lost none of their relevance. The audit lists five more important coronavirus pandemic lessons, while I would talk about two more pandemics – the pandemic of analysis that works to exhaust without yielding results and the pandemic of discarded responsibility.

Several problems we are currently grappling with did not start with recent decisions, their roots going back in time. Things that were decided or not decided in the past. The results are only manifesting now.

Estonia headed into the coronavirus crisis with government agencies aware of the fact that the Health Board will not be able to man a crisis management structure or solve the crisis. The board had indicated as much, recently in 2018, two years before the crisis broke out. It had said that the state all but lacks crisis stockpiles, including of personal protective devices. That the capacity of emergency care and hospitals in handling a major crisis caused by an infectious disease was unknown etc.

But this cry for help was like the alarm of the Health Board cold storage facility (where millions of euros worth of vaccines and other medicines perished as a result of a temperature malfunction – ed.) in that it went exactly nowhere.

The board was left to its own devices regarding its tasks and problems. The result was that the agency tasked with solving the crisis became one that needed support. At the same time, the state had various existing risk analyses describing in sufficient detail what would happen during a pandemic.

Allow me to give an example. Gaps in preparedness for mass vaccination were highlighted a decade ago. A description of vaccination problems from a Health Board risk analysis from 2011 is virtually indistinguishable from some current news articles.

The analysis reads that operatively organizing mass vaccination could prove problematic in the conditions of rapid spread of dangerous infectious diseases because it takes a long time to determine, notify and summon persons belonging to risk groups for vaccination, due to the limited capacity of vaccinators, that is to say family doctors, and negative attitudes toward vaccination in society. The analysis also pointed to the problem of determining close contacts of infected persons due to the rigid position of data protection laws etc.

What happened next? Instead of the state addressing the highlighted problems, more risk analyses followed. These described already established and unsolved problems in even greater detail.

Why did we not see decisions aimed at solutions or resources allocated? Allow me to propose a few potential reasons.

Firstly, it is clear that decision-makers find it difficult to channel resources into solving theoretical problems of the future, especially when problems that require immediate solutions keep pouring in.

Secondly – there was no strong political pressure for decisions as crisis preparedness has traditionally not been a fiscal priority for governments. It is much more popular to offer the public something new, various new measures. This, unfortunately, in a situation where vital core functions have been overlooked. The topic is seemingly a technical one and too far removed from the everyday problems of ordinary people during so-called peacetime.

Not to mention the fact that a lot of emergency situation preparedness problems are classified as state secrets that has caused the actual situation to remain hidden from the public and indeed the Riigikogu.

Unfortunately, the malady of constant analysis in place of solving known problems also exists outside crisis management. It has spread as a separate pandemic to various fields where the public and interest groups are waiting for decisions that are never made.

Decisions require difficult choices that can culminate in conflict or require a great deal of money in a situation where there is no shortage of applicants. People who have worked in the state apparatus know that if you need to slow down a process on the political or administrative level, analysis is in order.

This makes it impossible to say that problems are not being addressed. They are being analyzed. Constant analysis has become a kind of cover for outstanding decisions.

One area of constant analysis used to be whether Estonia needs a state reform, while its urgency had actually been determined long ago. Recently, we have heard a great deal about boosting the financial autonomy of local governments, while hardly any progress has been made.

Despite the finance ministry having mountains of existing data, they are dispatched to analyze and calculate new things every six months.

Once again, decision-making is only really stuck behind political will. Examples of avenues of analysis that exist to hide indecisiveness go on.

Plans to develop draft legislation can also be filed under this tactic. Their goal is to make it look like a problem is being addressed, while this kind of intent to develop is really only meant to gradually mortify the topic. Things happen with very little delay when there is political will to see them done and are channeled into perpetual analysis if that will is lacking.

It pays to keep in mind that the finance ministry has said it wants to initiate a plan to develop a thorough amendment of the State Budget Act next year.

I looked at the two recent government activity plans and can tell you that analysis is by no means underrepresented in either. The word "analysis" makes an appearance on 173 occasions in the recent activity plan and on no fewer than 300 occasions in the previous one.

There can be no doubt that certain things need to be analyzed. A good analysis is useful. However, we desperately need an agreement according to which every analysis or problem highlighted by a study needs to be followed by a decision on the appropriate level. A decision of whether to tackle the problem or not tackle it despite its seriousness.

Another option is to decide that the problem is not serious and will therefore not be addressed. That would make it clear what will be pursued and what will not, as well as who made the decision. This also means it is clear who is responsible for making the decision.

Resources spent on rediscovering the same problem over and over again using analyses can instead be used to solve said problems.

The miracle of collective responsibility

We also have reason to talk about responsibility this year. It has increasingly become a hot mess. For example, it turned out this year that state agencies can have tasks for which they are not responsible, with responsibility lying instead with contractual partners, builders, architects and others.

In other words, the miraculous phenomenon of collective responsibility has appeared. This kind of mentality seeping into public administration is a dangerous development as a situation where everyone is seemingly responsible means that no one actually is.

Responsibility needs to solidify again, with everyone aware of their tasks and answerability. It is immediately evident in crises when the latter condition has not been met.

In addition to collective responsibility, the crisis has also highlighted examples of discarded responsibility. One small but telling example comes from this very annual report. The National Audit Office points out that the Ministry of Social Affairs largely left the Health Board to its own devices before the crisis.

However, when we sent the text to be looked over by the ministry, we received a reply where the ministry described our claim of the ministry's central role in crisis regulation in its administrative area as inaccurate.

Ministry officials had gone to some trouble in their feedback to shift responsibility from the ministry to the Health Board, citing a plethora of provisions on the board's responsibility. The National Audit Office in its report quoted and quotes the Emergency Act verbatim: Crisis regulation in a given administrative area is organized by the ministry in charge.

We have all learned a lot of lessons in this crisis. We should take them with us to the future. The aim of the National Audit Office was not to go rifling through the past looking for culprits but to understand what needs to be done differently in the future.

To err is human and it is possible to learn from mistakes. The National Audit Office's report concludes that the greatest mistake would be to refuse to learn from past mistakes as new crises are already in the pipeline.

We do not know their nature or when they will arrive. But they will come.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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