Dr Seuss tells the story of the Bee-Watcher, who is responsible for keeping an eye on the town’s local bee. But the town doesn’t feel he’s watching hard enough, so they appoint a Bee-Watcher-Watcher, who also isn’t working hard enough…

Accountability doesn’t have to take the form of a long queue of Watchers, monitoring one another. Governments are adopting tech tools to help improve transparency, in particular identifying irregularities in employee expenses.

Fok Wai Leng, Managing Director for Southeast Asia, SAP Concur, shares how public sector agencies can use tech tools to keep track of public finances while making the process more efficient and compliant.

Accountability in action

Technology and the move to paperless processes have nudged governments towards new ways of auditing. One key part of this is using technology to identify anomalies in spending.

Singapore’s Accountant-General’s Department developed a data analytics platform to help highlight the employees who are submitting the highest amount of claims, said Lau Tuck Hing, the Department’s Assistant Director of Business Analytics.

The platform can analyse employee’s spending reports to ensure there are no duplicate payments. The data analytics takes into account the role of individual employees, noting that a desk-bound employee will use less expenses than one on the move, for example.

Another example of this is the Australian Taxation Office, which uses AI to evaluate work-related expenses. AI compares an employee’s work expense claims against others with a similar income and job, to find unusually large submissions, GovInsider wrote.

Public spending is being held accountable through other innovative tools and technologies. The Philippines Commission on Audit encourages citizens to submit photos of roads, schools and clinics to ensure they are meeting the required standards, the commission told GovInsider.

Malaysia is exploring how blockchain technology can prevent irregular finances, cutting down on opportunities for corrupt practices. As all parties on the blockchain must verify a transaction, any irregularities are likely to be identified, explained Rushdi Abdul Rahim, Senior Vice President of MIGHT.

Assistance with AI

Providing government finance teams with the right tech tools can help them to keep track of expenses while making their auditing work more accurate and less tedious. AI can help simplify expense management, says Fok.

One example of this was the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, a research body in the Australian government. In the past, employees would need to hold onto paper receipts in order to be reimbursed, which was “an audit nightmare”, said Janina Babaic, SAP Concur Administrator at the organisation.

The agency’s finance teams had to manually match expense receipts to the relevant credit card transaction. But SAP Concur’s tools allowed employees to submit photos of their receipts, and used AI to match the data automatically. This raises employee satisfaction while letting them focus on more strategic work.

This feature is available on the SAP Concur mobile app, where employees can submit the photos of receipts. The app lets employees add additional notes and context to their expenses, so they are processed more easily and employees get reimbursed faster.

The app’s systems create and store the images of receipts, which act as “digital evidence” when audits are performed, explains Fok.

The next steps

“The public sector is an industry with budgets under constant regulatory scrutiny, and dealing with expenses manually causes frustration for both employees and managers,” says Fok.

“SAP Concur can help provide a platform for fast and effective expense approvals. Working with a US state’s accounting office, for instance, SAP Concur was able to significantly cut down the time taken for an expense claim to be resolved.”

The majority of users said it took at most three days to successfully complete a trip-based expense report. 86 per cent of those who submitted at least six reports said that the tool made approvals of reports convenient, the case study found.

Cutting edge technology can not only simplify expenses, but also encourage employees to be accountable for their spending. The platform notifies users when an expense claim doesn’t fit the organisation’s requirements, so they can address the issue, says Fok.

Accountability can move beyond a system of Bee-Watcher-Watchers. Technology can organise and analyse expenses, helping citizens and civil servants trust that public money is being managed in an accountable and compliant way.