Audit and Civil Society: The Korean Experience
With the development of democracy, citizen awareness of government has increased, and citizens have come to actively demand more rights as taxpayers. Citizens may express those demands through many different types of civic groups, commonly referred to as civil society.1
Civic groups are exerting a huge influence on societies and governments around the globe. They not only monitor various government activities but also intervene in government decision making. Governments can no longer remain unilaterally supplier-oriented, ignoring the wishes of citizens: they must inevitably make public services consumer-oriented and responsive to the citizen needs expressed by civil society.
Relationship of Audit and Civil Society
A key role of audit is to take a critical view of and monitor government activities from a third-party perspective. The activities of civil society may also include criticizing/ monitoring government operations and directly participating in various government activities to achieve citizens’ objectives. Thus, the two are interrelated and similar.
Both civil society and the audit agency can share and use the results of each other’s activities. For instance, civil society criticizes government based upon SAI audit reports or uses them as a means of monitoring. On the other hand, the SAI can use civic groups’ information and data on the oversight of government. Thus, the SAI may view civil society as playing a cooperative and complementary role. However, conflicts of interest may arise between the SAI and civil society when, for example, civic groups wish to demand a transparent conduct of audit on national security issues followed by full disclosure of all results, citing the huge amounts of taxpayers’ moneys that have been spent in this area. Responding to such demands greatly increases the possibility of divulging classified national defense strategies.
Furthermore, since an SAI’s audit activities are among the categories of government activities that civil society criticizes and oversees, the relationship between the two can change from being collaborative to confrontational. Civil society expects the SAI to carry out its responsibilities with a higher degree of transparency than other agencies because of its function as an oversight agency. Like any other government agency, the SAI may in response take a passive and defensive position or try to justify its behavior.
Civil society sometimes expects the SAI to audit specific areas where citizens’ interests are strongly affected. As citizens’ interest in government activities grows, countries around the world commonly witness that citizens are expecting not only compliance audits, but also performance audits that examine whether government programs and projects are conducted in an economical, efficient, and effective manner. Accordingly, the scope of audits has been expanded to include examining and evaluating the outcomes of government programs and projects.
Furthermore, civic groups may expect that experts in a wide range of areas of civil society will be allowed to participate directly or indirectly in an SAI’s audit activities. Direct participation, however, may threaten the SAI’s independence, and this issue should be approached with due caution and prudence. The SAI should maintain independence and neutrality in relation to both auditees and all outside influences. Indirect participation—for instance, citizen experts’ participation in audit planning as advisors—is highly recommended as it raises the SAI’s level of expertise, which may not be otherwise sufficient. Citizens’ wishes and complaints, which may not be fully grasped by the audit agency, will also be conveyed appropriately through this channel.
The BAI’s Experience in Partnering with Civil Society
The relationship that has been developed between the Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI) and civil society in Korea may serve as a useful example to other SAIs. The following sections illustrate some of the different measures that the BAI has undertaken to satisfy the expectations and needs of citizens by introducing various arrangements that help to incorporate citizen opinions and input into its audit activities.
Policy Advisory Committee and Advisory Groups
The BAI has a policy advisory committee, which serves as an advisory body for its chairman. The committee comprises experts from all walks of life who are active in civic groups. They offer advice on the BAI’s audit direction or on audit-related policies and communicate concerns and suggestions from external parties. Their ideas are purely suggestions and have no legally binding force. In addition to the policy advisory committee, each of the BAI’s audit operations bureaus has its own advisory group. The groups’ members are primarily professors or representatives of respected research institutions who share their professional knowledge in relation to the BAI’s audits.
Advance Notice Audit System
To encourage citizen cooperation and participation, the BAI is implementing the
Advance Notice Audit System to notify citizens in advance of the scope and timing of planned audits that may have a bearing on their interests. Using this system, the BAI can receive citizen complaints or information on poor practices of executive government organizations and reflect this information in its audits. The BAI receives much of this information through the Internet, which is widely used in Korea.
Citizens’ Audit Request System
To promote timely and efficient audits and trust in the national audit agency, the BAI introduced the Citizens’ Audit Request System in July 2001 in accordance with the provisions of the Anti-Corruption Act. Citizens may request audits related to public sector organizations in which the violation of laws or corruption could seriously undermine the public interest. (Matters related to state secrets, national security, criminal investigations, court trials, administration of punishment, private legal relationships, and matters currently under audit are excluded.) A Citizens Audit Request Screening Committee, established within the BAI, decides for or against a request. For those requests that are approved, the BAI conducts audits and notifies the requesting parties of the results.
The system has become widely known among the general public, and the number of audit requests is increasing. To better respond to the demand, the BAI changed the composition of the seven-member screening committee from four BAI officials and three outside experts to three BAI officials and four outside experts. In addition, an outside expert was named to chair the committee.
Civil Petitions Reception and Citizen Auditor System
To address civil petitions that citizens lodge against executive government agencies, the BAI has established a Civil Petitions Reception function. Civil petitions may be filed with the BAI by letter, fax, e-mail, or telephone. The BAI has in place a 24-hour, toll-free 188 hotline to receive all allegations of fraud, complaints, and civil petitions. About 7,500 reports were filed through the 188 hotline in 2004. Some local governments have introduced a Citizen Auditor System to address grievances and complaints filed by citizens. A citizen auditor who is not a public official is appointed and serves as an auditor for a certain period to review petitions. The citizen auditor conducts audits, if necessary, and notifies petitioners of the audit results.
Disclosure of the Full Text of Audit Reports
Previously, the full text of audit reports was not disclosed to the public; only a summary report was issued. However, a number of citizens, civic groups, and politicians called for full disclosure of audit results. In response, the BAI recently decided to issue the full text of audit reports to the public. The only exceptions are for reports including national secrets and matters that would, if disclosed, have a serious, adverse impact on public safety and security.
Oversight of the BAI
A strict internal control system is in place within the BAI. The BAI inspector general is responsible for internal audit and is authorized to monitor the behavior of BAI auditors for violations of the code of ethics. The inspector general also examines the private lives of BAI auditors to determine whether their actions are open to social criticism
Nevertheless, civic groups have continued to criticize the arrangements for monitoring and overseeing the BAI as inadequate, and the need to strengthen transparent internal control has been recognized. The BAI plans to institutionalize the appointment of the BAI inspector general and chief internal auditors (inspectors general) of government agencies from among qualified citizens in the private sector.
Active oversight/criticism and participation of citizens and civic groups in government activities help to keep government agencies and officials on the alert and cognizant of the need to implement policies that address citizens’ concerns and give due regard to their rights. Citizens and civic groups should thus be viewed as a force that promotes cooperation between government and civil society, rather than a force that seeks to limit and challenge government authority. Citizens’ oversight of and participation in the activities of an SAI will eventually help fortify the cause of audit and contain the abuse of audit powers.
Civil society and the BAI of Korea may serve as a good example for a desirable relationship between the SAI and civil society. The BAI has sought to develop diverse mechanisms through which the expectations and needs of citizens can be met and their opinions can be reflected in audit activities. However, participation and oversight of citizens in audit activities should not compromise the SAI’s independence, which is the SAI’s core value.
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1 Civil society encompasses all organizations that are not public or for-profit institutions. Such organizations may include universities, nongovernmental organizations, environmental movements, indigenous peoples’ associations, organized local communities, and trade unions.)