Apart from the millions of lives lost, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has had a devastating impact on the global economy, with serious consequences on national economies, businesses, communities and individuals. The global pandemic has forced numerous governments to activate emergency response mechanisms, testing the resilience of governance systems.
Pacific Island populations have remained relatively unscathed by the virus itself but have felt deep economic and social impacts. Credit should be given to governance systems of Pacific Islands States which responded swiftly to the crisis, a number of them activating emergency powers and enforcing prompt closure of borders. With increased powers however comes increased responsibility and scrutiny, at least theoretically.
As part of the UNDP Strengthening Public Finance Management and Governance Project funded by the European Union, the project team undertook a survey in October 2020, to assess the impact of the crisis on Parliaments and Auditors General’s work, practices and performance linked with public finance oversight.
With COVID-19 becoming a national priority, much of the executive branch’s attention was focused on the pandemic. This had a flow-on effect on the oversight role of Parliaments and Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs). Mirroring governments’ response, parliaments acted under Emergency Powers where frameworks were in place. The UN Development Programme (UNDP), thanks to the flexibility and support of Australia, New Zealand and Japan, adapted its technical assistance to respond appropriately to the fast-changing scenario. It worked with parliaments in 10 Pacific countries, especially with parliamentary committees, to accompany the implementation of Constitutional, legal and regulatory measures, step-up scrutiny of the crisis and convened a series of ad-hoc regional webinars.
In some jurisdictions, the late finalization and submission of the 2019 Government Financial Statement by the Ministry of Finance, delayed the preparation of the 2019 Audited Financial Statements by the SAI, and consequently its tabling in Parliament. Five countries in the region were already cumulating more than 15 years of backlog in the presentation of financial statements. The pandemic has further exacerbated the situation, with SAIs having to audit more outstanding reports, further compromising budget transparency in the process.
Reports and audits were not the only processes experiencing delays. In line with the constitution, the tabling of the Solomon Islands 2021 Annual Budget was deferred from 2020 to 2021, due to the delays in the submission of budget papers to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). On the other side of the spectrum, in Tonga, the restrictions on international and domestic travels resulted in the scheduling of parliamentary budget sitting a month earlier, giving members more time to deliberate on the budget.
As national governments imposed life-saving measures and restricted movements, many parliamentary committees had to change their “modus operandi” from face-to-face public consultations to virtual consultations. While some parliaments seamlessly moved onto this platform, this posed a challenge for others that did not have the necessary technological means to facilitate virtual meetings, or experienced frequent network/connectivity issues. With staff having to work from home, many legislatures and SAIs found this challenging as they did not have online or teleworking facilities to enable remote work, access to internal files and facilitate virtual staff meetings etc. You can read more about how UNDP supported this transition providing hardware and software solutions across the region through an example in the FSM Congress here (https://bit.ly/2N0RLpT).
With inadequate resources and limited fiscal flexibility, many regional governments undertook budget reallocation exercises to fund stimulus packages, designed to cushion the health and economic impact of the pandemic. As a result, budget entities including Parliaments and SAIs experienced budget reductions, by as much as half in one jurisdiction, which negatively impacted their ability to fulfill their mandated work program.
While the pandemic forced authorities to confront new realities, at the same time it opened up new opportunities, such as the use of virtual technologies for capacity development and training. While technical advisors and development partners could not travel, partner agencies leveraged the power of technology to implement cost-effective virtual interactive and flexible training and capacity building programs. With remote connection often a challenge, a partnership with the University of the South Pacific provided an innovative solution. In October 2020, UNDP and the IMF’s Pacific Financial Technical Assistance Center (PFTAC) jointly invited Ministries of Finance and Parliaments to “head back to school” as campuses’ facilities around the region hosted projections of the regional workshop on Budget Documentation.
Finally, the pandemic presented a window of opportunity for the two Institutions to develop or review existing Business Continuity Plans or Risk Management Plans to take into consideration the effects of pandemics. Twelve Parliaments benefitted from technical assistance on Standard Operating Procedures and Business Continuity Procedures, while UNDP’s partner, Pacific Association of Supreme Audit Institutions (PASAI) conducted technical calls with more than 15 Supreme Audit Institutions.
The UN Development Programme will continue to work with Parliaments, Supreme Audit Institutions and civil society partners throughout 2021.