Ministers provide too little information on results of policy
On the 18th anniversary of Accountability Day, the third Wednesday in May, the Netherlands Court of Audit concluded that it was far from certain whether the public were getting value for their taxes. The government, however, is working in accordance with the regulations and its operational management is improving, although there are still some serious shortcomings.
Image: Hollandse Hoogte
The Court of Audit’s President, Arno Visser, said on the presentation of the audit of the central government accounts for 2017 to the House of Representatives on 16 May 2018 that the results of policy are often unknown. Ministers provide only limited information in their annual reports on the outcomes of the policies agreed with parliament. Members of parliament accordingly do not receive the information they need to determine whether tax money is being spent correctly and in the interests of the public and business.
It therefore cannot be said whether the government is giving the public value for money. Mr Visser argued that it was unacceptable in this day and age for the central government annual reports not to explain whether or not taxes were being spent efficiently. ‘Our audit consistently found that the information needed to take forward-looking decisions was not provided. Yet we are living in the information and communication age,’ he said
Examples of limited information on the results of policy
One of the examples highlighted by the audit of the central government accounts was that the Minister of Social Affairs and Employment (SZW) did not tell the House of Representatives what the Employee Insurance Agency (UWV) had achieved with the public money provided to help benefit recipients find or remain in work. The ministry’s annual report states only that the UWV had spent nearly 25% of the €206 million provided to it. Only the UWV’s own annual report explained that this was because it had acquired fewer job seeker courses than budgeted.
The way in which the Central Government Real Estate Agency had carried out its task of selling government buildings is another example. Parliament was informed that it had sold 83 buildings in four years at a profit of €102 million. It was not told that the book value of the buildings had first been written down by €100 million. The Court of Audit concluded from an analysis of the figures that the true profit was actually €2 million.
A third example concerns the outcome of eight measures in the National Air Quality Cooperation Programme (NSL). The Court of Audit had looked at this programme last year and this year it established a relationship between the costs of the eight measures and their results in terms of clean air and public health for the first time. It found that the measures had reduced the emission of harmful exhaust fumes by 2% and improved public health by 0.01%. The Court concluded that the minister could probably have achieved the same results for less money. These three examples show that the information in the annual reports does not paint the full picture.
Shortcomings in operational management
The Court of Audit found 35 weaknesses in the operational management of various ministries in 2017 that could be classified as ‘shortcomings’. Shortcomings are of great financial importance and have consequences for people or organisations outside the ministries and/or represent structural weaknesses in the ministries’ operational management. Two of these 35 shortcomings moreover are serious. One relates to ICT security at the National Office for the Caribbean Netherlands, part of the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations, and the other to grant management at the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport.
The Court of Audit considered ICT security in central government and found many shortcomings. Out of the 11 ministries, ICT security was in order only at the Ministry of General Affairs and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment. It was also inadequate at the House of Representatives and DUO, the organisation that implements education regulations.
The Court of Audit found serious shortcomings at the National Office for the Caribbean Netherlands (RCN). The ICT systems and network connections with other government agencies were so vulnerable that there was a real risk that they could be hacked and data could be stolen or manipulated. The Minister of the Interior and Kingdom Relations has already acted on the Court’s findings by drawing up a plan and talking immediate measures to control the risks as quickly as possible. Several urgent measures had already been completed by the beginning of May.
Grant management at VWS
The Court of Audit also found a serious shortcoming in the operational management of the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport (VWS). Shortcomings were found in grants awarded to a total of €1.36 billion in 2017. Grants constitute a relatively large proportion of the Ministry of VWS’s annual accounts, more so than at many other ministries. In the Court’s opinion, not enough progress has been made to prevent the misuse and improper use of grants. Furthermore, the ministry must check that grant schemes and grants awarded to projects or institutions do not break state aid rules. The ministry worked on this in 2017 but checked only half of the schemes and only one in ten of the project grants – and did not always do so correctly.
Central government improving its operational management
Viewed across the board and over the longer term, the Court of Audit has found fewer shortcomings in central government’s operational management. Between 2000 and 2014 it identified 65 shortcomings on average per annum. In the past three years the number has remained below 40. The regularity of central government expenditure remained high in 2017: 99.5%. The Court of Audit has accordingly issued an unqualified audit report on the central government accounts for 2017.
Information security still a matter of concern
1. The qualification ‘serious shortcoming’ is provisional. We will reconsider our opinion on receipt of the Minister of BZK’s response to the announced objection.
The press can put questions to Milja de Zwart on +31 (0)70 342 43 52 / +31 (0)6-52 84 35 27