Cover Story

International Journal of Government Auditing – Spring 2016

Photo: Arno Visser
(Photo credit: Marcel Bakker)

We, the people!


On March 12, 1848, King William II of the Netherlands woke up in the middle of the night, sweating, his heart pounding, and with an upset stomach, despite having eaten that evening. His troubled mind was on the revolutions sweeping across Europe and parts of Latin America. Uprisings in Paris against the King of France and his government, in several German states and in Denmark, had led to the sudden ousting and reform of ancient European regimes. People all over Europe joined ad hoc movements of the middles classes, workers, and reformers to express their discontent with the leadership in their countries. They demanded more participation in government and more democracy.

Similar calls had been growing louder in his Kingdom of the Netherlands over the last four years. So far, William had bluntly refused any reforms. In recent days, however, the demand for reforms in the kingdom was being made not only by members of parliament, but also by large mobs roaming the streets of Amsterdam and The Hague. Revolution was sitting at the King’s bedside and was ready to strike. Fearful of losing his position altogether, William eventually decided to give in to the demands. He later explained that he had “changed from a conservative to a liberal overnight.” That very morning, he appointed a commission to review the Dutch constitution. This new constitution paved the way for a parliamentary democracy. It enshrined freedom of education, freedom of association and a free press. It ensured direct elections at all levels of government, an annual budget set by parliament, and governmental accountability.

It also resulted in the loss of personal executive power for William. The pragmatic approach taken by the King thus led to a peaceful transition in the system of government in the Netherlands.

The revolutions of 1848 and 1849 were fuelled by demands for better representation in the parliamentary system coming from a rapidly growing base of educated citizens. Their demands of access to, and influence, in the decision-making process were founded on the classic values of participation, fair representation, transparency, and accountability.

The modern era

Our supreme audit institutions find their raison d’ętre in those nineteenth-century democratic principles. We ensure accountability, increase transparency and contribute continuously to the improvement of public administration in our countries. From time to time, however, we are confronted with our own limitations. Until about the last decade of the twentieth century, governments and SAIs used to have a near monopoly of information concerning the public domain. A paradigm shift took place with the introduction of digital mass storage and its large-scale use at the end of the twentieth century. Information analysis and information sharing is no longer a singular process. Through digitization and datafication there is now much more information available than ever before. Furthermore, information or data is accessible 24/7, as it is no longer confined to a physical archive. Moreover, information is continuously reusable for different interpretations and purposes.

In the twenty-first century, we witness a global movement that is, once again, demanding more participation, more transparency and more accountability. One example of this movement is the Open Government Partnership. This multi-stakeholder network organization strives for governments to become sustainably more transparent, more accountable, and more responsive to their own citizens, the ultimate goal is to improve the quality of governance, and the quality of services that citizens receive. This is not dissimilar to the arguments put forward by the revolutionary movements of the nineteenth century.

Techniques and mind set

As SAIs, we are facing twenty-first-century challenges, using twentieth-century techniques, in nineteenth- century institutions. We, therefore, have an important task to remain relevant to the general public. In my opinion, this can be achieved by embracing newly developed techniques and adopting an inclusive mind set. Recently, I have seen two examples of what we can do to tackle these challenges. The first was presented by Ms. Tytti Yli-Viikari, the newly elected Auditor General of Finland, during a joint visit to the SAI of Turkey. She argued that SAIs need to invest in new technology and in how we use that technology. Data-mining tools, intelligent data analysis systems, and text analytics are available already. Now that these have been developed for broad use, we need to invest in acquiring new hardware, software, and human resources. This will give us the opportunity to use both structured and unstructured data from both internal and external sources. Data can now help identify otherwise unseen issues and improve the general performance of public administration.

SAIs are in a position to use these techniques and we can combine the necessary open and closed data from different sources to provide new insights into potential efficiency improvements and more effective public policies. Combined with hindsight, these new insights might even lead to foresight. Instead of simply asking what happened, SAIs that employ data analytics can look ahead and gain insight and foresight into what might happen in the future. SAIs can move towards different forms of foresight auditing by using their audit data, coupled with analytic tools, to build models and perform scenarios, aimed at further improving accountability. Many of those tools are available already, for example in direct marketing. In the near future, self-learning computer systems might even be able to assist us in our auditing work as they are becoming ever smarter and are able to independently combine information from various sources.

The second example concerns our position in society and comes from the SAI of Brazil. The use of mass stored data and technological tools such as data analytics shows that we no longer have to work alone; indeed, we should not work alone anymore. Citizens, civil society organizations and others should also have the opportunity to use data from public administration, so they can provide us with insights of their own, thereby contributing to the story that we tell as SAIs. Thus, together with society, we are able to present a much clearer picture of what is happening. This does mean that governments and as many other parties as possible should be willing to share their data in a format that is open, i.e. complete, from a primary source, accessible, machine-readable, non-discriminatory and with an open standard and licence. The SAI of Brazil encourages its public administration to provide the general public with access to such data. They do so by convincing them that society requires more transparency in public administration and that, in return, society can contribute directly with innovative services to improve public administration. Not least, opening up data by public administration gives people the opportunity to create new businesses and progress economic development. In this way, the SAI of Brazil has adopted the mind set of open government.

Call to arms!

In November 2015, The Netherlands Court of Audit organized a EUROSAI Open Data conference. Twenty- eight SAIs participated and were resolute in their ambitions: 92 percent want to open up SAIs own data; 43 percent want to audit the state of open data in their country this year; and 81 percent of them expect to use open data in audits in the future. The movement has started, now we need momentum. As SAIs, we are information brokers and the nature of the information we are dealing with is changing. We need to be on top of that change, both by embracing new techniques and adapting our mindset. Unlike the nineteenth century, the twenty-first century public now demands, thanks to technological developments, direct participation and involvement. But these demands are still founded on the same classic values of participation, fair representation, transparency and accountability. We are in the middle of the data revolution and we need to wake up quickly and address the demands for access to information and cooperation with society. Because, ultimately, it is not only the people that want to achieve more transparency and accountability. SAIs and the people want the same. Let us work towards that!