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All Office Staff out to the field!

Posted on 24 April, 2019 at 08:12

By Kudzai Midzi

A recent visit to the district where we operate emphasised for me the need to ensure that all office based staff regularly visit the field. I undertook the visit to personally see and talk to each and every one of our sponsor children and their guardians. You can imagine my shock when I arrived at one school and found my cousin and her daughter waiting to talk to me as some of the beneficiaries of the programme. This is strictly forbidden under our regulations but because they use a different surname and the school did not know we were related, this would never have been known had I not visited personally!  

Other reasons why Executive Directors, Accountants, Human Resources managers and other non-field staff should visit the field include:

Does it exist?

When one is in the office it is easy to conclude that beneficiaries and work done on the ground exist based on documentation submitted to support payments. However there have been incidences where ghost beneficiaries have been created but all with complete documents right up to ID numbers and signatures confirming receipt of goods or services.  One incident I came across related to a non-existent school that was supplied with food for the children for a whole year before it was discovered that the school only existed due to the collusion of field and local authority officials that embezzled the funding provided for the feeding! 

What are the issues that the beneficiaries face?

While programme staff can give you a good idea of what issues your beneficiaries are facing there is nothing that beats first-hand information from the affected people themselves. We had a student who did not perform well at all and according to the reports this was due to a lack of books. On talking to her I discovered that there was far more to her circumstances and only then were we able to take additional corrective action that the field staff had not thought of.  

What are the problem that the programme staff face?  

It is only when you experience a flat tyre in the rural areas and you have to use your own money to repair it or when you have to deal with someone that has no receipt book that you realise just why field staff constantly ask for emergency floats or come back with incomplete records. Sitting up in the air-conditioned office, it is sometimes difficult to know why each expected expenditure cannot be detailed before the trip or why each cent spent cannot be supported by receipts. Understanding the circumstances under which your fellow staff members operate in the field can only make you a better Accountant!

Empathy

Accountants are often accused of lacking in empathy and maybe there is some truth to the saying that the further away you are from the problem the more perfect and unrealistic your solutions are likely to be.  Cutting down of this distance from the work on the ground might help to increase the levels of empathy shown by office staff. One task that I have found particularly difficult is the preparation of expense reports and it was only after having to prepare one of these that I was able to relate more with what the programme staff went through and then after that to make more practical suggestions on how they can make the task of preparing these easier  

All those documents start to make more sense

In compiling accounting records or in approving vouchers, office based staff will come across many documents that are used in the field that they might not always fully understand. Visiting the field to make use of office generated forms and documents will also help in identifying how efficient these are and also how they can be improved. Accounts staff should thus get involved in completing forms such as workshop attendance registers, good received vouchers, confirmation of service provision etc so as to see how these work in the field.  In addition, going out to the field might help to understand programme documents such as concept notes, programme outlines, GANTT charts and many others.

Good to be seen too by your constituents

Particularly for the head of institutions it is good to also become familiar with field based stakeholders and to be seen by them. Even internally it is motivating for field staff to have their bosses come out and spend some time with them. There was one case I remember coming across where the only person known in the field was the field officer and it reached a stage where the funders refused to communicate with office based staff and directed all communication to the field officer. This of course caused internal divisions and a lot of friction and only when the office staff were able to discuss field affairs effectively did the funder direct communication through the office.

As a means of preventing or detecting fraud

In one instance where an NGO was making numerous cash payments to field based suppliers, the Director made a surprise decision to go and make the payments himself. You can imagine his surprise when all the suppliers dutifully gave him “his 10% commission’’ of the payment in line with “standing arrangements” with the field staff. This would also never have been realised had he not visited the field and all the documents presented would have told a different story from what was really going on in the field. 

Just like Programme Staff benefit immensely from knowing about financial and office based practices, having office based staff visit the field is priceless for organisations and is something that should be encouraged. 

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