Expanding Collaboration between SAIs and Civil Society
Some donor and civil society institutions1 have suggested that government accountability can be strengthened through increased collaboration between SAIs and civil society. To date, most civil society activity has focused on examining the budget’s passage through the legislature and subsequent implementation rather than the auditing process and SAIs. However, civil society organizations around the globe are undertaking important activities that focus on government audit systems, and initial efforts have produced encouraging results in some countries.
This article presents brief overviews of innovative civil society and SAI practices
adopted in six countries—India, Mexico, South Korea, Argentina, South Africa, and the Philippines. The overviews are followed by an analysis of opportunities for increasing collaboration between civil society organizations and national public audit institutions, as well as the challenges that these working relationships will generate. Finally, the article discusses steps that could be taken to mitigate these challenges.
Civil Society Experiences in Auditing
Civil society groups in the six countries surveyed are using a variety of innovative methods to involve citizens in the auditing and assessment of public expenditures.
In India, the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS)—a peasant and workers’ union—uses public hearing forums to conduct social audits of local government expenditures in village communities. During these social audits, local communities check accounting and other records of 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.
In South Africa, the Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM)—a research and advocacy organization—works closely with the Eastern Cape Provincial legislature to track government agency responses to instances of financial misconduct and corruption identified in the auditor general’s reports. PSAM highlighted the large number of audit disclaimers issued by a provincial audit agency—which was unable to access financial information during its audit—and led a public campaign that resulted in strengthening financial management practices within provincial government agencies. _ Civil society institutions encompass all organizations that are not public or for profit, including universities, nongovernmental organizations, environmental movements, indigenous peoples’ associations, organized local communities, and trade unions.
In the Philippines, a participatory audit was successfully conducted as a joint undertaking of the national Commission on Audit and a nongovernmental organization (NGO) called the Concerned Citizens of Abra for Good Government (CCAGG). CCAGG specializes in monitoring infrastructure projects within its province and uses local monitors (volunteers drawn from the area) to verify that road construction projects are executed according to contract norms.
In Mexico, Fundar—a research and advocacy organization—obtained hundreds of pages of accounting records from the Ministry of Health using the national freedom of information law and identified large-scale corruption in a contract awarded to a private agency for an HIV/AIDS prevention program. An official investigation conducted by the SAI corroborated Fundar’s findings. Pressure brought to bear by the Fundar-led campaign resulted in government proceedings to recover misappropriated funds and changes in the policies governing the management of discretionary funds, including the HIV/AIDS prevention program.
In South Korea, the Concerned Citizens for Economic Justice (CCEJ)—the oldest NGO in the country working on economic rights issues—routinely uses the national citizen audit request system to request government audit investigations of public projects plagued with corruption or resulting in wasted resources. In one case, the organization’s dogged pursuance of a case led to action against corrupt officials even after the agency had been cleared by the audit. In another case, changes were made in procurement policies in part as a result of the organization’s advocacy campaign that demanded a limit on the issuance of no-bid contracts by the government.
In Argentina, the Civil Association for Equality and Justice (ACIJ)—a human rights organization—successfully filed a lawsuit to obtain the minutes of the hearings of the congressional commission responsible for reviewing the SAI’s public audits and initiating action based on audit recommendations. ACIJ used these records to highlight the commission’s lack of action in requiring corrective actions to respond to audit recommendations.
SAI Experiences in Participatory Audits
Some SAIs and governments have initiated innovative processes to include the public in the conduct of audits.
In South Korea, the Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI) introduced the national citizen audit request system under the Anti-Corruption Act of 2001 to allow citizens to request special audits from the BAI on public agencies suspected of corruption or legal irregularities.2 Applications are made under this system to a Citizens Audit Request Screening Committee, comprising citizens and audit officials who screen requests to identify frivolous complaints and decide which requests merit a full audit. Further, some local governments have decided to address complaints and grievances filed by citizens by appointing citizen auditors. These auditors, who are not public officials, review petitions for a certain period and, if necessary, conduct audits and notify the petitioners of the results.
In 2002, the national Commission on Audit (COA) of the Philippines entered into a partnership with several NGOs, including CCAGG, to conduct participatory audits, in particular performance audits, to determine whether government programs/projects had achieved anticipated results. Audit teams included members from COA and NGOs. In another instance, COA is cooperating with another NGO, Procurement Watch, Inc., by providing access to procurement documents of agencies that it is auditing to test a tool that measures corruption in procurement processes.
In India, inspired by the MKSS social audit process, the Andhra Pradesh state government is leading a social audit campaign together with a consortium of NGOs. All over the state, local communities receive information on the use of funds under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, and social audit forums are organized to discuss the veracity of expenditures incurred under this scheme. The state government acts on findings from social audits to improve the functioning of the scheme.
Lessons Drawn from SAI Collaboration with Civil Society
There is a wide spectrum of collaboration between civil society groups and auditors. In some cases, civil society organizations conduct independent audits. Organizations like the MKSS in India have developed innovative social auditing processes that are independent of formal government audit processes. In fact, many of the public programs covered by MKSS social audits had previously been audited by government auditors who did not report any of the misappropriation of funds that the MKSS later uncovered. Similarly, in Mexico, Fundar found problems with an HIV/AIDS prevention program when it conducted an independent investigation of the program accounts—an independent government audit later corroborated these findings.
In other cases, civil society organizations use audit findings of government auditors to hold government agencies accountable. Organizations like PSAM in South Africa and ACIJ in Argentina publicize findings from government audit reports—or the follow-up actions taken by the legislative committee responsible for overseeing government audits—to demand action from agencies.
In still other instances, civil society organizations collaborate closely with auditors. In the Philippines, CCAGG was a member of a government team undertaking performance audits of the public highways agency. Procurement Watch, Inc., measures procurement irregularities by accessing public agency documents possessed by government auditors at the same time as formal government audits of these agencies. CCEJ in South Korea actively uses the citizen audit request system to request special audits of government projects for which it has identified financial irregularities.
In some countries, auditors are increasingly receptive to citizen participation in their audit processes. The experiences of South Korea—including the development of the national citizen audit request system, the appointment of citizen auditors by local governments, and the implementation of the advance audit notice system—represent some of the most progressive policies in the public audit process to foster citizen participation. Similarly, the participatory audit experience in the Philippines represents a unique model for future potential civil society participation in government audits. Finally, the collaboration between the Andhra Pradesh state government in India and the MKSS in conducting social audits to monitor programs under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme underscores the diffusion of participatory audit innovations among government entities at the state level in that country.
However, auditors and civil society groups both have concerns about the nature of collaborative practices. For example, SAIs generally have a mandate to report to legislators but not to the public. Thus, in most countries, audit reports are submitted to the legislature, which is responsible for examining the audit findings and enforcing action against executive agencies. Audit systems themselves are not normally geared toward citizen participation—audit reports are not always released in a timely fashion to the public, the reports are written using technical jargon, and the public is not given an opportunity to offer input on the findings in legislative hearings.
Further, audit institutions may fear that their neutrality may be compromised through collaboration with civil society organizations. Audit officials are often concerned that any collaboration with citizens or citizen groups—which often have their own explicit agendas—may compromise the neutrality and objectivity expected of their institution and therefore compromise their independent audit opinion.
In particular, audit institutions typically have not developed processes for selecting partners from among civil society organizations. Thus, even if audit officials are receptive to closer collaboration, they may be uncertain about how to identify groups that have the skills and the credibility to assist in conducting audits.
For their part, civil society organizations are concerned that governments may come to develop corrupt or “unseemly” relationships with civil society organizations if there is no system of checks and balances on their participation in audits. Any government-initiated participatory audit scheme that involves the selection of NGOs or experts from civil society is in danger of being misused. If governments, rather than audit institutions, select civil society partners for audits, they may be tempted to select only those organizations or personnel that are sympathetic to them or that will not highlight major irregularities in their financial operations.
Strengthening Collaboration between SAIs and Civil Society
Measures may be available to mitigate some of the concerns of audit officials and civil society groups regarding increased collaboration.
First, the spectrum for collaboration between auditors and civil society is very broad, and collaboration could take a variety of forms depending on the comfort levels of either institution or the relevant country context. For example, civil society groups could (1) directly participate in audits (as in the Philippines experience), (2) focus on demanding follow-up actions to audit findings and put pressure on the government to require the implementation of audit recommendations (as in Argentina), or (3) identify entities that should be the subject of audits (as in South Korea). Further, civil society organizations could even undertake independent audits that complement formal government audits (as in the state of Andhra Pradesh in India).
Second, concerns that audit findings are not geared toward citizen participation can be mitigated if audit institutions develop accessible reports that are widely distributed to the public in a timely manner and if legislators hold public hearings on audit reports and publish minutes of meetings in which audit reports are discussed. In fact, section 16 of INTOSAI’s Lima Declaration of Guidelines on Auditing Precepts is titled “Reporting to Parliament and General Public [emphasis added]” and asks that SAIs be empowered by the national constitution to report their findings publicly as “this will ensure extensive distribution and discussion, and enhance opportunities for enforcing the findings of the SAI.” Section 17 expands on this point by stating that audit reports should “present the facts and their assessment in an objective, clear manner and be limited to essentials. The wording of the reports shall be precise and easy to understand.” Making such information available will help citizens understand legislative hearings.
Finally, to mitigate concerns that close collaboration with civil society could compromise the neutrality of SAIs—and to ensure that SAIs are able to select partners from among civil society in a fair and effective manner—audit institutions could conduct audits so that any citizen, irrespective of ideology and partisanship, has the opportunity to provide suggestions to the audit team. This could ensure that no one person or organization dominates or misuses the collaborative process. Alternatively, the procedure for selecting civil society partners could be made transparent to address concerns that governments may co-opt the partners that it selects to collaborate with audit institutions. One such measure would involve creating an independent board—akin to the South Korean Citizen Audit Request Screening Committee—that could act on behalf of the government to select the appropriate organizations to partner with audit institutions.
Recent trends in civil society show the emergence of activities that focus on government auditing systems and the use of innovative tools that incorporate aspects of the audit discipline to monitor public resources. Citizen participation is increasingly recognized as an essential component of good governance practices. We are just beginning to see the potential for this collaboration and are excited by the possibility for improved transparency and service to citizens.
1 Partnering contracts include any mutually beneficial contractual relationships between public and private sector
parties that involve a collaborative approach to achieving public sector outcomes.
2See the April 2006 issue of the Journal, "Audit and Civil Society: The Korean Experience," for a more detailed discussion of SAI and civil society experiences in South Korea.