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Opinion: Standardization Compliance Can Be An Effective Way To Tackle Corruption In SA

  • 5 min read

Last week, in an update before Parliament’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa), the Auditor-General of South Africa and the Special Investigating Unit found that over 6 000 government officials had claimed more than R41 million in UIF TERS covid-19 benefits despite the fund having been intended for unemployed people during the pandemic. Just two months earlier, the Auditor-General’s special report on the multibillion-rand covid-19 relief package highlighted a “weak control environment” in how the package was implemented, citing “clear signs of overpricing, unfair processes, potential fraud and supply chain management legislation being sidestepped.”

This came on the back of a warning by the Auditor-General that poor financial management controls, a disregard for supply chain management legislation, an inability to effectively manage projects, and a lack of accountability in many of the government sectors needed urgent addressing. When Introducing his September report, he singled out the importance of preventative controls for accounting officers and authorities, as by nature they are a deterrent to abuse.

“There is no reason why government cannot get this right,” says Muhammad Ali, managing director of WWISE, an International Organization for Standardization (ISO) training, consulting and implementation specialist. The 70-year-old ISO is an independent non-governmental international body that develops management standards, both for public and private organisations, to ensure the quality, safety and efficiency of products, services and systems. The standards are designed to ensure checks and balances in an increasingly globalised marketplace in which consistency, quality and integrity from one country or industry to another can slide.

“The South African Local Government Association (SALGA) has received seven consecutive clean audits because they follow ISO-principled governance frameworks like King IV.” SALGA is a constitutionally mandated organisation consisting of all 257 South African local governments. Its governance framework regulates structures and mandates processes, and is accountable for its revenue and expenditure to Parliament on an annual basis. King IV is a report that includes a code with additional separate sector supplements. It contains both principles and recommended practices aimed at achieving governance outcomes.

“Unfortunately, Government is hesitant to implement ISO standards despite being encouraged to do so by the Auditor-General and the South African Bureau of Standards,” says Ali.

A standard designed to fight corruption and bribery is the ISO 37001:2016 Anti-Bribery Management Systems Standard, which Ali points out has been used by many organisations in the public and private sectors to fight the scourge, better levels of governance and rebuild reputations.

An effective way to tackle corruption specifically in supply chains is the ISO 20400:2017 Sustainable Procurement Guidance Standard, which is upheld through governance frameworks such as King IV and the Public Finance Management Act. These provide tools, solutions and controls to reduce the risk of corruption. All standards, Ali says, focus on governance and controls in an organisation’s departmental processes and activities by stipulating procedures and systems needed to avoid any sort of deviation from legislation, and ensuring that they are implemented, upheld and easily audited. Accredited bodies then review the implementation of these standards before certifying an organisation, and if there’s any sort of misconduct apparent, are required to report it immediately to the relevant regulatory bodies.

In the private sector, ISO standardisation has become a necessity for businesses wanting to trade with each other internationally. For instance, in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) economic bloc, emerging economies like Brazil and India have had to deal with stigmatisation around poor quality in export products. To regain confidence a form of assurance is needed, and ISO standards have filled the gap here. Manufacturing businesses and exporters regularly use, among others, ISO 9001 Quality Management Systems which are certified by third parties. Only then are products exported with their stamp of assurance.

“A lot goes on behind the scenes after that,” comments Ali. “Once these businesses’ products are exported, their teams liaise with the high commissions of trade-partner countries to ensure that a level of confidence in their respective nations is restored, and it explains why they’ve become the powerhouses they are – both China and India are clear examples.”

To implement an ISO-proof system is not difficult, but it boils down to a personal principal and the political will for government or an organisation. “Whether it’s a government minister or a CEO, they have a decision to make and ultimately a reputation to uphold,” comments Ali.

Implementation starts with researching the risks of an organisation, as well as its reputation in the sector or market it serves. This then points to which ISO standard would be most appropriate for addressing any issues. For added clarity, the research could include looking at competitor organisations with similar risks, and reviewing case studies of how they implemented standards, and what their methodologies for implementation were. Often a consultant specialising in ISO standardisation is needed to guide the process.

The second major step is to undertake a gap assessment, facilitated by an independent organisation, to assess conformance and implementation to the recommended ISO standard and legal requirements. Then it’s a matter of zoning in on how effectively an organisation’s workload may be shared, and who can assist from an administrative, systems and processes point of view – it’s all about closing the gaps.