International Journal of Government Auditing – July 2009
The past few years have seen a growing focus on social responsibility and policy results in the public sector. Governors, politicians, controllers, and government audit offices have become more interested in performance information in budgets and reports. Much of the information on social performance and effects is of a nonfinancial nature. It does not concern uniform measurable monetary units but rather numbers or processes and systems. Public sector users are especially interested in nonfinancial information, which reflects the results and effects of government policy. Therefore, the reliability and relevance of this information are highly important. Auditors can play an important role in providing assurance on the reliability of nonfinancial information.
Unlike reporting on financial information, reporting of nonfinancial effects is still comparatively new, and no generally accepted principles are yet available. Moreover, the data are very diverse; the more qualitative the data are, the more difficult they are to measure and assess. Also, the audit of nonfinancial information is a new audit subject for many auditors. For this reason, Royal Nivra (the Dutch organization for the accounting profession) initiated a project that resulted in the Nivra guide Nonfinancial information in progress, a guide to the reporting and assurance of nonfinancial information in the public sector. The guide aims to help develop a universal basis for reporting and providing assurance on nonfinancial information. It is the result of the work of representatives from different sections and disciplines in the Dutch public sector, including the Netherlands Court of Audit, the Dutch SAI.
This article presents the main findings reported in the guide, including a number of recommendations and an agenda for the future audit of nonfinancial information.
Need for Guidance on Nonfinancial Information
For financial information, comprehensive registration systems and generally accepted principles for presenting information have been in existence for a considerable time. However, this is not the case for nonfinancial information, where there are fewer safeguards for reliability and the quality requirements for the information are not yet standardized. Because suitable criteria and a frame of reference for nonfinancial information are not available, it is not always possible or desirable to provide assurance, especially in regard to measuring policy effects. A theatrical performance may be performed perfectly and meet all kinds of objective quality standards, but the audience determines whether they consider the performance a success. Nonfinancial information, therefore, requires special diligence in terms of its definition, frame of reference. and reporting.
In the guide, we use the following definition for nonfinancial information:
Nonfinancial information comprises all quantitative and qualitative data on the policy pursued, the business operations, and the results of this policy in terms of output or outcome, without a direct link with a financial registration system.
Auditors are increasingly being asked to provide assurance on nonfinancial information on a standalone basis or in conjunction with financial statements. However, auditors can only provide assurance if they have a clear framework for assessing the information. Currently, there is no generally accepted system for administering and reporting nonfinancial information, which concerns quantitative data such as numbers as well as policy effects that are difficult to measure because of the heterogeneity of the information and the divergent needs of users. This can give rise to debates on the interpretation or origin of the information. In sum, there is a need for more structuring, standardization and guidance.
This topic is, of course, not new. There have been various developments and initiatives with regard to nonfinancial information in the public sector. In some cases, a report on the process of preparing the information will suffice, while in others explicit assurance on the information itself is required. At an international level, INTOSAI has issued INTOSAI Guidance on Good Governance (INTOSAI GOV) 9220, Accounting Standards Framework Implementation Guide for SAIs: Management Discussion and Analysis of Financial, Performance and Other Information. This guideline identifies performance and governance information—which are of a nonfinancial nature—in addition to financial information. In the private sector, examples include corporate social responsibility reports, the involvement of the auditor with in-control statements, and privacy audits. The guide incorporates these ideas and initiatives.
Information is always reported in conformity with a specific frame of reference that presents the criteria or standards for the valuation, classification, and presentation of the information. Insofar as this framework relates to the presentation of information in a report, it is referred to as accounting principles. Financial reporting has gone through a long period of development, and generally accepted accounting principles are available for it. Examples include national standards issued by the Dutch Accounting Standards Board and international standards, such as International Financial Reporting Standards (private sector) or International Public Sector Accounting Standards (public sector).
With nonfinancial information, the quality requirements for the information and the way in which it is presented are not uniform. Only limited professional rules of conduct for auditors in this information field have been developed. The debate on reporting and providing assurance on the information is in its early stages. In terms of standardization, corporate social responsibility reporting is at the forefront. The Global Reporting Initiative issues international sustainability reporting guidelines whose application is voluntary. Although Royal Nivra published Dutch standard COS 3410N (Assurance Engagements Relating to Sustainability Reports) in 2007, little experience has been acquired with it in practice as yet.
To understand the reporting of nonfinancial information, it is instructive to consider public governance and the management cycle in public organizations. Reporting comprises the financial and nonfinancial information by which a public organization renders an account on its actions to its stakeholders. This information does not exist in a vacuum but forms part of a continuous cycle of planning, designing, implementing, measuring, and adjustment.
As shown in figure 1, public governance requires an adequate distribution of responsibilities among the governing body and management, policy departments, the controller, the internal auditor, the external auditor, and the supervisor. The quality of the management cycle of nonfinancial information can only be safeguarded if it is integrated or embedded in the governance of the organization.
Figure 1: Management Cycle for Public Governance
Auditors and Assurance
The auditor comes into play when users or providers of information want reliable information. His expertise and knowledge of organizations and information systems enable him to play a part in assessing nonfinancial information. The contents of this assessment are determined by the type of information, the method of rendering account, and the needs of the user. In this regard, it is important to distinguish between assurance and nonassurance.
For an assurance engagement, the auditor provides an assurance report that gives a predetermined degree of assurance on the reliability of an account or another subject matter. This requires that a number of specific conditions be met. For a nonassurance engagement, factual findings are reported without expressing a conclusion or opinion or providing advice. Every type of engagement has its own rules and reports, as figure 2 illustrates in regard to International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) standards.
Figure 2: International Framework of Assurance Engagements
ISA = International Standards on Auditing
ISAE – International Standards on Assurance Engagements
ISRS = International Standards on Related Services
The client and user must decide upon the role of the auditor. With respect to nonfinancial information, the auditor can have one of three following roles:
Other experts can be involved in the examination, such as electronic data processing auditors, management consultants, or social scientists.
The reporting of nonfinancial information is more than an externally directed process with the auditor as assurance provider. It must also be part of the governance structure and focus on users’ wishes. The guide groups propositions into three categories linked with the various phases in the management cycle of nonfinancial information. They are formulated so that they are relevant to both the public and private sectors.
Strategy and policy
Organization and Implementation
Reporting and Assurance
Agenda for the Future
The guide provides only a snapshot. Developments are continuing, especially in the field of information technology and public governance. Information is increasingly being provided in digitized form, and publication of information via the Internet is becoming the norm. The professional rules of auditors are also changing. The agenda for the future presents four recommendations for further initiatives in the field of the reporting and providing assurance on nonfinancial information. Every agenda item is intended for a specific target group and lays down a challenge for further action.
Agenda for Governing Bodies
Nonfinancial information must have an explicit place within governance. Extensive communication on relevance and reliability is required with all parties involved. The accountancy profession can play a coordinating role in this context.
Agenda for Accounting Institutions
Accounting institutions need to give auditors more guidance regarding examining and providing assurance on nonfinancial information.
Agenda for Auditors
Auditors have a societal role and must also be willing to formulate an opinion that is clear to the users on nonfinancial information.
Agenda for Technical Experts
New accounting and audit methods are needed to facilitate reporting and providing assurance on nonfinancial information. This is a task for controllers and internal and external auditors.
Since there are many parallels between the public and private sectors, the guide’s recommendations and agenda items are also applicable to the private sector. Governance attention at the highest level of organizations is an important condition for increased reporting and providing assurance on nonfinancial information. Governance and the management cycle of information are the foundations for reporting and providing assurance on nonfinancial information.
More information on this project can be found on the Royal Nivra Web site: www.nivra.nl. The guide can be downloaded free of charge from the Nivra Web site at: www.nivra.nl/Sites/Files/0000024233_EnglishversionNFI.pdf
For additional information contact the authors: Michèl Admiraal, project manager at Royal Nivra, at firstname.lastname@example.org and Rudi Turksema, performance audit expert at the Netherlands Court of Audit, at email@example.com.