Highlights

International Journal of Government Auditing – April 2014


Engaging Civil Service Organizations in SAI Audit

Background

Public sector auditing, as championed by the Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs), enhances people's lives. The preamble of ISSAI 12:The Value and Benefits of Supreme Audit Institutions – making a difference to the lives of citizens states that once an SAIs' audit results have been made public, citizens are able to hold the custodians of public resources accountable.

The 21st UN/INTOSAI Symposium (2011) on "Effective Practices of Cooperation between Supreme Audit Institutions and Citizens to Enhance Public Accountability" emphasizes the importance of effective cooperation between SAIs and citizens to safeguard and enhance transparency, accountability, and good governance within government. The Symposium further confirmed that effective cooperation is only possible through effective communication. In terms of enhancing transparency in the public accountability process, citizens have been recognized as natural partners of SAIs.

As end users of government activities and services, citizens are a rich source of knowledge and information about government performance and operations. Therefore, a continuous dialogue with citizens raises citizens' awareness of the work of SAIs and strengthens public confidence in public administration. Greater citizen participation— which can be encouraged by developing mechanisms to receive and monitor complaints for noncompliance and maladministration, and suggestions for improved public administration and services—provides information for future audit focus areas and for scope and risks to be considered.

The 22nd UN/INTOSAI Symposium (2013) on "Audit and Advisory by SAIs: Risks and Opportunities, as well as Possibilities for Engaging Citizens" recalls UN Resolution A/66/209 "Promoting the efficiency, accountability, effectiveness and transparency of public administration by strengthening Supreme Audit Institutions." This resolution states that citizens and civil society are equally important as addressees of audit reports and recommendations and competent political bodies, and they contribute to effective control through a public debate. The Symposium emphasizes the importance for SAIs to communicate, and thereby promote awareness by the citizens and the media about SAIs' findings and recommendations.

As representatives of citizens as service users and consumers, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) can build citizen literacy on public accountability. CSOs have the networks and expertise to detect potential cases of corruption and to report these to SAIs. CSOs, together with legislatures and parliaments, can monitor and build pressure on the executive to implement audit recommendations.

To take advantage of CSO's networks and expertise, SAIs should create communication channels with CSOs. CSOs can then use these channels to give SAIs information that can help in planning an audit. SAIs should also provide CSOs with access to audit reports to create pressure for executives to implement audit recommendations. To facilitate the creation of a cadre of activist citizens, SAIs should develop accessible and understandable reports that are freely available and widely distributed to the public in a timely manner.

Modalities to engage citizen participation in public audits: Examples of best practices

  1. Social audits and public hearing forums – This model is used in India by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), an organization for peasants and workers. MKSS carries out social audit and organizes public hearings of local government expenditures in village communities. Civil groups have rolled out this model throughout India. Under this method, local communities check accounting records and other records on public works programs executed in their areas and identify instances of fraudulent documentation, including accounts purporting to record the construction of works that have not been created ("ghost works"), fraudulent billing for project activities, and falsified labor rolls.
  2. Working closely with the legislature – In South Africa this model is used by the Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM), a research and advocacy organization, to track government agency responses to instances of financial misconduct and corruption identified in the Auditor General's reports.
  3. Conducting participatory audits as a joint undertaking – In the Philippines, the government's SAI, the National Commission on Audit (COA), cooperates with a non-governmental organization called the Concerned Citizens of Abra for Good Government (CCAGG) to conduct participatory audits as a joint undertaking. CCAGG monitors infrastructure projects within its province and uses the assistance of local monitors and volunteers drawn from the area to verify whether government projects are executed as per contract norms. This exercise is focused on performance audits, which assess the impact of the audited government program or project to determine whether it has achieved its anticipated results. Audit teams include members from COA and nongovernmental organizations. The teams receive joint training on conducting participatory audits before conducting audits.
  4. Providing CSOs access to agency documents and seeking their assistance – Officials of COA, SAI Philippines, are cooperating with a CSO called Procurement Watch Inc. In order to test a tool that measures corruption and inefficiency in public procurement, the COA is providing the CSO access to procurement documents of agencies that it is auditing. Procurement Watch Inc. specializes in building systems of transparency and accountability into government contracting and procurement practices. This tool seeks to determine the real (fair-market) cost of a publicly procured good or service, and then compares that to the cost that was paid for the good or service; when actual payments are higher than the items' fair-market value, the difference can be attributed to corruption or inefficiency.
  5. Making use of COS's work in independent examinations – In Mexico, the Ministry of Public Administration has developed a tool, SEPAT: this Spanish acronym translates to "Transparency and Citizen Participation Evaluation System." SEPAT monitors whether municipal agencies in the country adopt good disclosure policies, provide citizens with access to information, and facilitate social audits. Through this process program beneficiaries evaluate the performance of the agency and conduct oversight of agency expenditures. Social audits of development programs are mandated in the 2004 General Law of Social Development.

    Similarly, Fundar, a research and advocacy organization, is a CSO that obtained hundreds of pages of accounting records from the Ministry of Health using the national freedom of information law. Fundar subsequently identified largescale corruption in a contract awarded to a private agency under an HIV/AIDS prevention program in Mexico. The CSO's findings were later corroborated by an official investigation conducted by the national supreme audit institution.
  6. System of citizen audit requests and complaints – In the Republic of Korea, a system of Citizens' Audit Request was introduced under the Anti-Corruption Act of 2001. This system allows citizens to request special audits from the Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI), the SAI of the Republic of Korea, on public agencies suspected of corruption or legal transgressions. Applications are made to a Citizens' Audit Request Screening Committee comprised of citizens and audit officials. The committee is designed to screen requests in order to identify frivolous complaints and to decide which requests merit a full audit.

    Efforts to include citizens in audits in the Republic of Korea are not limited to the national level. Some local governments have decided to address complaints and grievances filed by citizens by appointing Citizen Auditors. These auditors, who are not public officials, are appointed to review petitions for a certain time period. If necessary, the Citizen Auditors conduct audits and notify the petitioners of the results. Under a Civil Petitions Reception System, citizens are also encouraged to file petitions with the BAI against public agencies using a variety of media including the Internet and a 24-hour toll-free hotline. About 8,000 reports are filed each year. Under the Advance Notice Audit System, the BAI notifies citizens in advance of planned audits and requests them to provide feedback to help with audits.
  7. Use of an advisory committee or board comprising a wide range of dignitaries from different sectors of society – The BAI in the Republic of Korea draws upon the services of non-governmental experts, particularly university professors and researchers, in its Policy Advisory Committee, which provide advice on matters concerning the BAI's audit direction and audit-related policies.
  8. CSO use of civil rights – In Argentina, La Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia (ACIJ)—a human rights-focused organization— filed a lawsuit against the country's congressional commission, which is responsible for reviewing reports filed by the SAI and initiating action based on audit recommendations, to obtain the minutes of meetings of congressional hearings. ACIJ subsequently used these records to highlight the lack of action taken by the commission to require corrective action in response to audit recommendations.

Collaboration between SAIs and CSOs: How?

The different degrees of collaboration between SAIs and CSOs can be made to engage CSOs in public auditing processes. Based on the modalities previously discussed, modalities to collaboration can be placed into three categories:

  • CSOs can conduct independent audits: CSOs have developed innovative social auditing processes, such as those practiced by MKSS in India and Fundar in Mexico, that are independent of formal government audit processes.

  • CSOs can use audit findings produced by government auditors to hold government agencies: accountable: For example, as a strategy to publically demand action from agencies, South Africa's PSAM publicizes findings from government audit reports in press releases and radio talk shows. PSAM also publishes a scorecard measuring the comparative compliance of various provincial agencies with public finance laws— these scorecards draw in part on the findings of official audit reports. Another example of this method is ACIJ in Argentina, which investigates the actions taken by the legislative committee responsible for oversight of the government audit recommendations presented to it.

  • CSOs can work closely with SAI auditors: CCAGG participated as a member of a government audit team undertaking performance audits of the public highways agency, for example. During formal government audits of public agencies, Procurement Watch Inc. accesses public agency documents, which are in the possession of government auditors, to measure procurement irregularities. CCEJ in the Republic of Korea actively uses the citizen audit request system to direct special audits on government projects identified by the organization as suffering from financial irregularities.

Issues and concerns about collaboration between SAIs and CSOs

SAIs should be aware that developing effective collaboration practices between SAIs and citizens does not jeopardize their traditional roles or compromise institutional independence. Listed below are issues regarding effective collaboration between SAIs and CSOs; SAIs collaborating with CSOs should develop mitigating measures for these concerns:

  • SAIs, in general, have a mandate to report to legislators but not to the public. Regardless of the SAI's model, SAIs are generally mandated to report to the legislature. It is the responsibility of the legislature (and usually of its designated legislative committee) to examine the findings in audit reports and enforce action against the executive agencies.

  • Due to mandate and other professional responsibilities such as confidentiality, audit reports are not always released in a timely manner to the public.

  • Audit reports are often written using technical jargon resulting in misunderstandings by citizens. Clarification can require tools such as the Simple Measure of Gobbledygook (SMOG) testing as practiced by the National Audit Office in the United Kingdom.

  • The public are not given an opportunity to offer input on the findings in legislative hearings.

  • There are numerous CSOs in every country, leading to an issue of who to include in the audit process.

  • A close political attachment of CSOs may result in a biased opinion. In some cases this may affec the neutrality and objectivity of the SAI.

  • The lack of a developed process for selecting partners from among civil society organizations can create confusion.

  • CSOs may lack the resources to participate in audits without financial remuneration.

  • Determinations must be made as to what is the professional responsibility of auditors, and what is the responsibility of engaged CSOs.

Nepal's endeavors towards engaging citizens in the audit process

Since its establishment in 1959, the Office of the Auditor General of Nepal (OAGN), Nepal's SAI, has been working for enhanced public accountability and transparency. Nepal has always put citizens, and the general society, in focus in discharging its constitutional mandate. However, the agenda of engaging citizens and CSOs into the audit process has recently come into the picture in more apparent and straightforward ways. The following developments have taken place to enable greater engagement by citizens in public audits conducted by the OAGN:

  • Formation of an Advisory Committee – At the Auditor General's chair, an Advisory Committee of 15 members has recently been formed. The Committee comprises wider ranges of CSOs' representatives, including retired top-class bureaucrats, the ex-vice chair of the National Planning Commission, a veteran journalist, an economist, management experts, and a legal expert. It is hoped that the committee will provide new insights for the development of public sector auditing in Nepal.

  • Workshop held to identify possible opportunities for participatory audits – In October 2013, a one-and-a-half-day workshop on exploring challenges and opportunities for implementing various participatory audit mechanisms in Nepal took place, with support by the World Bank, at the OAGN in Kathmandu in October. The workshop discussed the various modalities of collaboration, and their possible inherent risks, for participatory audits.

  • Formation of Working Group – As a result of workshop held to identify possible opportunities for participatory audits, a six-member Working Group led by the Assistant Auditor General has been formed. This group is designed to take the deliberations of the workshop forward a and prepare an approach paper on engaging CSOs in the audit process in two areas: dissemination of audit recommendations, and partnering with OAGN in carrying out performance audits. The Working Group consists of the chair from OAGN and representatives of CSOs.

  • Issuance of public requests – Public request notices occasionally published in national newspapers request the public to provide information to the field audit teams or to the OAGN through posts, fax, telephone, email, and complaint box on any information they have on the misuse or misappropriation of any public property, or any irregularity in spending public money.

  • Notice board services – In 2012 OAGN started a notice board service to make its activities and information transparent to its stakeholders. Such information can be obtained by dialing a toll free telephone number.

  • Provision of public hearings, public audits, and social audits in local government bodies – There is a mandatory provision of public hearings, public audits, and social audits as per local self-governance law. This provision requires all local government bodies to conduct public hearings, public audits, and social audits at specified times.

Conclusion

Acting in the public interest places a great responsibility on SAIs to demonstrate their ongoing relevance to citizens. Unless SAIs add value and provide benefits to citizens, their ongoing relevance cannot be demonstrated. Therefore, public sector auditing championed by SAIs should always, in conducting audits, keep citizens in focus. CSOs, as representatives of society, may play vital roles in promoting accountability and transparency—government activities are aimed at them, and they have firsthand information about the effects of government activities. CSOs are the natural partner of the SAIs, as they can play a critical role in building pressure on the system to improve overall public financial management based on the audit recommendations. In this way, CSOs help promote accountability and transparency. Further, based on the degree of collaboration, CSOs can provide input during the planning, execution and reporting phase of the audit process.

References

"A Paradigm Shift in Auditing in Nepal," News, The World Bank, October 11, 2013 http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2013/10/11/a-paradigm-shift-in-auditing-in-nepal

ISSAI 12: The Value and Benefits of Supreme Audit Institutions – making a difference to the lives of citizens http://www.intosai.org/issai-executive-summaries/view/article/issai-12-the-value-and-benefits-of-supreme-audit-institutions-making-a-difference-to-the-liv.html

Jeremy Lonsdale. "Undertaking Citizen-Focused Audit: Problems and Practices." Value for Money Audit Development, National Audit Office, United Kingdom.

Ramkumar, Vivek and Warren Krafchik. "The Role of Civil Society Organizations in Auditing and Public Finance Management." International Budget Project, Washington, D.C. (October 2006)

21st UN/INTOSAI Symposium on Effective practices of cooperation between Supreme Audit Institutions and citizens to enhance public accountability, Vienna, Austria, July 13–15, 2011.

22nd UN/INTOSAI Symposium on Audit and advisory by SAIs: Risks and opportunities, as well as possibilities for engaging citizens, Vienna, Austria, March 5-7, 2013.