Technical Articles

International Journal of Government Auditing – April 2009

Case Study: Societal Perceptions of the Superior Audit Office of Mexico

One of the technical themes to be discussed at the XX INTOSAI Congress to be held in South Africa in 2010 will be the value and benefit of supreme audit institutions (SAI). The public's perceptions of the work we carry out and its impact on public administration are an important aspect of this discussion.

SAI auditing involves, above all, a commitment to society to oversee the use of public assets and to foster responsible and service-oriented conduct by government officials. It also involves being an effective instrument to reduce waste, improve the quality of public service, and attain the goals of public programs in accordance with the criteria of efficiency, effectiveness, and economy. In view of this commitment, SAIs would do well to ask how much society really knows about their role and performance.

The citizens of any society have a right to know the final destination of public resources collected from taxes, as well as the way programs and public policies use these resources to improve the collective quality of life. A strong culture of transparency and accountability within countries is the foundation for modern, democratic, and honest governments that are truly committed to society. If governmental performance and its outcomes are openly reviewed, public debate can become less subjective and can be based on relevant national issues.

The Mexican Experience

In 2000, Mexico passed a constitutional amendment designed to create a new and independent SAI with technical and managerial autonomy. This legislation resulted in the establishment of the Superior Audit Office of Mexico (SAO), whose goal is to ensure a professional auditing practice that substantially improved upon the performance of its predecessor, the Contaduría Mayor de Hacienda. Consequently, there was an important incentive to determine whether this new SAI was meeting the expectations of the citizenry.

In recent years, the SAO learned of several studies regarding its performance that different civil organizations or prominent public university investigators had carried out. Even though the results of those studies were positive, the SAO decided, at the end of 2007, to carry out its own research to better understand the citizenry's perceptions of its activities. The SAO carried out this research with the support of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the country's main research center.

Results of the Survey

The survey asked respondents their views on the SAO's duties, credibility, trustworthiness, progress in the fight against corruption, and other related elements. The results showed that while a significant percentage of the full population is not fully familiar with the SAO's tasks and responsibilities, those that do understand them have a positive opinion: more than 75 percent approved of the results of the SAO's work and its performance in carrying out its auditing duties.

About 77 percent of the population believes it is important for public institutions to be held accountable and act with transparency and agrees that the SAO's research outcomes should be more widely disseminated.

Many sectors of the population are interested in cases of governmental corruption. Of the general population, about 76 percent are interested in the cases of irregularities identified by the SAO. For this reason, although the SAO's tasks are very technical and only a qualified minority fully understands them, the SAO believes it must make an effort to offer all citizens simple, clear, and concise information.

The survey results revealed some interesting findings related to specialized sectors of the population (for example, members of the Congress, audited entities, state audit institutions, and the media).

Of these specialized sectors, 83 percent consider transparency and accountability very important issues; only 17 percent think these are somewhat or not important issues. The SAO's independence of entities it audits is also important. The survey results show that the majority deem external control the most reliable approach to promoting transparency in the use of public resources. There are doubts concerning the autonomy of internal control bodies, even though their responsibilities are highly valued as a complement to the activities of external control bodies.

Regarding the quality of the audits, 67 percent believe that the SAO's work is performed with technical rigor. The SAO has intensified its quality control measures by certifying its processes under the ISO 9001-2000 International Standard in the light of international best practices.

An adequate supreme auditing practice benefits not only society but also the audited entities themselves. Between 67 and 70 percent—including the audited entities—believe that the SAO's findings and recommendations have helped to improve administrative processes.

Important results flow from a process to (1) follow up on the recommendations the SAO issues as a result of its audits and (2) assess compliance with commitments stemming from administrative improvements, process reengineering, simplification, and corrective actions. The audit's main goal should be quality improvement through corrective and preventive measures, not just the imposition of sanctions.

Collaboration in the fight against corruption is a key component of supreme auditing. A significant majority (75 percent) believe that the SAO as an institution is achieving this objective.

As a result of its auditing tasks, the SAO has identified 13 broad opacity and risk areas in public administration where government actions can be improved. This proactive attitude has fostered important law, public policy, and administrative process amendments, thereby correcting irregularities that represent a high cost to society.

The perception of the SAO's neutrality should also be pointed out: 74 percent consider its performance as independent from the government, 72 percent as impartial, and 67 percent as autonomous.

The survey shows that almost 7 years after the SAO was established, 75 percent of the surveyed sample believe that its work has a reasonable degree of credibility. This is primarily the result of important constitutional and legal amendments that have allowed the SAO to conduct more effective work than its predecessor.

Regarding the SAO's technical staff, 83 percent believe that it possesses the expertise necessary to conduct auditing tasks, while the 73 percent believe that its personnel strictly comply with all due regulations when carrying out their tasks.

In 2008, the SAO was subject to an international peer review of its performance auditing practices, with the participation of the SAIs of the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Puerto Rico. The final outcome was largely favorable, as the review found that the SAO complies with INTOSAI standards.

An SAI must complement its technical practices with a professional and responsible attitude and ethical values, which it fosters in working with its collaborators. In this regard, we were pleased to learn that the majority consider that the SAO performs it work with objectivity (74 percent) and integrity (79 percent) and that its performance is efficient (68 percent).

Conclusions

The survey showed that society places a high value on transparency and accountability and that these values are regarded as indispensable conditions for fully exercising society's right to oversee the honest and efficient use of public assets.

The research also concluded that the Superior Audit Office of Mexico has positioned itself as a trustworthy institution that ensures the rights of society and acts with objectivity, efficiency, integrity, and independence.

We believe that INTOSAI's membership can benefit from our experience and conduct related surveys to objectively assess the ways in which their own societies perceive their SAIs' performance and their impact on improving the services rendered by public entities.

During the XX INTOSAI Congress, we will have the opportunity to further discuss these issues, which undoubtedly are of significant interest to our fellow SAIs. In this way, we will once again make INTOSAI's motto a reality: "Mutual Experience Benefits All."

For additional information, please contact the SAO at:
E-mail: agonzaleza@asf.gob.mx