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Parliamentary committee report flags public governance risks in fight against Covid-19

SINGAPORE — A parliamentary committee has flagged several public governance risks that came about due to Covid-19, such as the viability of Changi Airport Terminal 5 as well as security vulnerabilities due to accelerated digital transformation.

Parliamentary committee report flags public governance risks in fight against Covid-19

A report by the Public Accounts Committee raised a number of governance concerns related to the necessarily rapid response to the Covid-19 pandemic by government agencies.

  • A parliamentary committee has identified some risks that arose as government agencies responded to the pandemic
  • There were concerns that substantial spending incurred in the fight against Covid-19 could give rise to governance risks
  • The Government had experienced major constraints in its budget and workforce, the report said
  • Another concern was over long-term projects such as Changi Airport Terminal 5
     

SINGAPORE — A parliamentary committee has flagged several public governance risks that came about due to Covid-19, such as the viability of Changi Airport Terminal 5 as well as security vulnerabilities due to accelerated digital transformation.

The report by the Public Accounts Committee, which was released Monday (Feb 8), also highlighted new risks caused by “major constraints” in the Government’s fiscal and manpower resources due to a weakened economy and reduced tax revenue.

The committee is chaired by Ms Foo Mee Har, Member of Parliament for West Coast Group Representation Constituency (GRC), and includes six other People’s Action Party members. It also includes the Mr Louis Chua, who is Workers’ Party MP for Sengkang GRC.

The committee said in its 30-page report that substantial expenses and new grant schemes were needed in the fight against Covid-19. This also included new areas of spending, such as the need for community isolation and quarantine facilities.

“(We are) of the view that while it is important to respond quickly to the evolving pandemic situation, there is a need to ensure proper governance, control and accountability over Covid-19 expenditure, while balancing policy and operational considerations.” 

RESOURCES FOR LONG-TERM PROJECTS DIVERTED

The report, which was the result of four committee meetings from Oct 27 last year to Jan 26 this year that included testimonies from senior government officials, identified several risks caused by the pandemic.

In particular, the committee was concerned about Covid-19’s impact on long-term and large-scale projects such as Changi Airport Terminal 5, since “original projections may have changed significantly” due to the pandemic.

In response to the committee’s queries, the Ministry of Finance (MOF) acknowledged that the Government will face major budgetary and workforce constraints during the pandemic.

“Amid the tight fiscal and manpower positions, there will be smaller buffers available for any unforeseen needs,” the report said of the risks faced by MOF.

The ministry added that it will continue to monitor the long-term impact of Covid-19 on projects such as Terminal 5 and make adjustments where appropropriate. This involves working with other government agencies to reallocate resources more aggressively to “create space for new priorities”.

The report stated: “For example, MOF had been identifying areas of under-utilisation and reviewing expenditures for which assumptions may have fundamentally changed, especially for large-scale projects.”

The pandemic meant that MOF also had to impose “emergency procedures” across the whole of government beginning in late January last year, when the coronavirus was first detected here.

These procedures were deactivated in August last year as the time pressure for procuring Covid-19-related supplies and services had eased off for most agencies, the committee heard.

Despite the urgent nature of such procurement, MOF reassured the committee that all agencies are still subject to auditing and compliance reviews, and must document all decisions made under such emergency procedures.

The committee also noted that MOF and the Commercial Affairs Department had reminded agencies that disburse grants of potential fraud, abuse and conflicts of interest.

RISK OF QUICKENED DIGITALISATION PLANS

The committee also asked the Smart Nation and Digital Government Group (SNDGG), a department under the Prime Minister’s Office, about the risks that could result from speeding up Singapore’s digital transformation plans.

Ten different types of risks were mentioned in SNDGG’s response, including the risk to human capital, technology development risk as well as the likelihood of cyber-security threats.

Most of these domains of risk have been or are being addressed by SNDGG’s ongoing efforts, such as the strengthening of how government agencies manage data security and cyber-security risks, the department said in its reply.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) had identified several emerging risk areas as well, including the greater likelihood of structural unemployment in the future.

“The MOM shared that it is already preparing to re-think existing strategies to strengthen its support for vulnerable segments such as low-wage workers, and to cope with the higher risk of structural unemployment,” the report said.

No details of these plans were offered in the report, though MOM is expected to give more details of its future moves in the upcoming debate on Budget 2021, which will be delivered on Feb 16.

LAPSES FLAGGED BY AUDITOR-GENERAL

Referring to last year’s report by the Auditor-General’s Office (AGO), the committee quizzed the various government ministries on the measures taken to address the lapses that were flagged. The earlier report had highlighted significant lapses in three out of 16 ministries and eight out of 13 statutory boards.

“The committee is of the view that it is important to understand and examine the root causes for the lapses observed by the AGO so that appropriate remedial actions can be taken at the whole-of-government level and by the respective public sector agencies,” the report said.

Among the various failings, the AGO had found many issues that stem from the Workforce Singapore’s grant administration, which resulted in possible fraudulent claims by companies and individuals under the Professional Conversion Programme (PCP), among other problems.

Asked about this, MOM informed the committee that proper controls and guidelines had been put in place to prevent fraud, acknowledging that there were still areas for improvement. Workforce Singapore is an agency under MOM.

“Beyond the cases checked by the AGO, Workforce Singapore initiated additional checks of all PCP placements since 2016 to ensure that the lapses were not systemic,” the report stated. A total of 15,000 checks were done in December last year and 80 cases have been flagged for further investigation.

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Covid-19 public governance Parliament Foo Mee Har

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