Friday, May 20

What does the state really learn from criticism?

  • Per-Kristian Foss

    Former Auditor General, Minister of Finance and Member of the Storting (H)

The then Auditor General Per-Kristian Foss when he presented a report in December 2021.

Unfortunately, in my experience, the answer is often somewhat vague.

This is a chronicle. Opinions in the text are at the writer’s expense.

For eight years, until the turn of the year, I was Auditor General. For eight years before that time, I was a member of the Storting committee that deals with the Office of the Auditor General’s reports. So I have had to deal with quite a few National Audit Office reports in the last 16 years.

Some traits are often repeated in them. They give cause for reflection.

The Office of the Auditor General controls for the Storting how the government and state administration do their job, to put it simply. The audit has been doing this for over 200 years.

To control also means to criticize. The fact that governments, ministries and other government agencies can occasionally control their enthusiasm for criticism is not startling.

The question is also not whether the state likes criticism. The question is: What does the state learn from criticism? Unfortunately, in my experience, the answer is often unclear.

Important issues for all of us

Let me first point out the many reforms, especially in the area of ​​welfare.

These are important issues for all of us. Reforms that will provide rights, that will be well prepared, that will be adopted by the Storting with the best intentions – and that the municipalities will then fulfill.

But only in part are the municipalities enabled to meet the ideal demands placed on them through financial transfers. The extent to which adopted rights become a reality depends to a large extent on the individual municipality’s own discretion.

Great inequality

Surveys document great differences from municipality to municipality in the reform cases, without any geographical explanation. Even the right of appeal to the state administrator, the former county governor, does not contribute to a greater degree to greater equal treatment.

In other words: the Storting’s statutory welfare schemes do not necessarily give the same rights to Norwegian citizens throughout Norway.

When the Office of the Auditor General has mapped the results of such welfare reforms, it is often revealed that even the responsible ministry does not have documentation of whether rights have been fulfilled, and whether there is equal treatment of equal cases.

New is most important

One is often left with the impression that the ministry is more concerned with funding for new reforms in new areas than mapping the results of the previous ones.

Maybe there could be something to learn from practical results in the face of ideal ambitions?

Perhaps the Storting could also be more concerned with the benefits of annual allocations than primarily concentrating on allocating new billions?

Asking questions about existing working methods and established systems seems at least less interesting than solving challenges with the help of new initiatives.

Breach of promise every year

I have often wondered how easy it is to make political promises, and how difficult they can be to fulfill – even in areas where the state is in full control.

The health trusts are 100 percent state-owned and controlled. At the change of government in 2013, the then new governing parties promised a strong prioritization of mental health, not least of the psychiatric services for young people.

The Minister of Health formulated a “golden rule”, a message that the health trusts should use their allocations so that psychiatry would increase more than somatics each year.

This should be thought to be possible within a state-controlled and owned sector. Men nei. The Office of the Auditor General’s reporting has documented that this election promise was not complied with for a single year in the time that followed – not even last year.

Expensive, delayed and failure to control

A recurring theme in the audit reports is major delays in the delivery of defense equipment and IT investments. The budget overruns are also large here.

Those responsible have many and detailed explanations. But assessed in retrospect, the level of ambition has probably been too high: Instead of “off-the-shelf goods” delivered on time, experts get approvals of procurements that are purely development projects. Then it is no wonder it can be both expensive and significantly delayed.

In some ministries, failures have also been found in the follow-up of grants given to various private or semi-public organizations.

The relevant ministry is required to report to the Storting on the purpose of the grant and proper follow-up. But if such follow-up is to be meaningful, it requires more substantial reporting.

The Office of the Auditor General has repeatedly criticized the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for inadequate reporting on the results of assistance to development projects in developing countries.

It can be billions.

One may also ask why the Storting has not requested more concrete reporting on these transfers.

Rules without meaning?

Another knowledge from several audit reports is government agencies’ breaches of regulations.

This may, for example, apply to the requirement to use tenders when purchasing goods or services. The rule is there to ensure efficient use of tax money and to avoid camaraderie when purchasing services. It is not unimportant.

Other rules concerning trust in the public sector apply to the protection of personal data. There are clear provisions that state data registers must have access security, so that unauthorized persons can not snoop on information that is to be protected.

The OAG has documented and criticized such shortcomings countless times. The efforts of the line ministries are not impressive. In its consequence, it threatens the legal security of the individual citizen, no less.

Success stories too, but …

It should be said: Within the state, there are also success stories about IT projects that have been completed on time and on budget, and that work for the benefit of the community.

The question, however, is why so many large and small public computer projects are started up without significant learning being obtained from the successful ones. This applies to planning as well as close follow-up from ministries or directorates – some of the most important success factors for such projects.

My impression is that there is often a reluctance to transfer experience from one ministry and subject area to another.

The reluctance seems to be strongest at the peaks. Among employees in most subject areas, it seems easier to get learning and experience exchange. It is probably also a good alternative for extensive consulting use.

Trust must be actively maintained

Norwegian society is largely characterized by trust in the state.

However, trust must be actively maintained in a society with ever-increasing demands for openness and efficient service to citizens.

Of course, mistakes can happen. But it is important to have systematic control and learning so as not to form bad public habits.

I have more than one suspicion that the Office of the Auditor General will still have something to work with in the years to come.

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