The Bermuda National Audit Office hosted the 20th Conference of Commonwealth Auditors General July 6-9, 2008. The Commonwealth comprises 53 nations and 2 billion people, approximately 30 percent of the world’s population.
More than 45 Commonwealth SAIs were represented at the conference. Participants also included representatives from the United Kingdom Commonwealth Secretariat and observers from the INTOSAI Secretariat General, the Organization of American States (OAS), this Journal, and the Samoan SAI. The conference theme was Accountability for the 21st Century, and participants considered two primary topics under this theme: the powers and responsibilities of Commonwealth auditors general and supporting the scrutiny functions of parliaments and legislatures.
At the opening session, Bermuda’s Minister of Finance, the Honorable Paula Cox, officially welcomed conference participants. Linda Fealing, Inspector General of the OAS, reflected on the conference theme and the role of the OAS in transparency and accountability. On behalf of Dr. Joseph Moser, INTOSAI’s Secretary General, Gertrude Schicker, Deputy Director of the Austrian SAI, summarized the work of the XIX INCOSAI and underscored the themes of the conference. She noted that the principle of auditor general independence embodied in the recently adopted Mexico Declaration on SAI Independence would “continue to strengthen the position of the INTOSAI member institutions toward legislative bodies and authorities, as well as governments.” Conference attendees also received a message of welcome from the Commonwealth Secretary General, Kamalesh Sharma, and a presentation by John Wilkins and Marah Kaifala of the Commonwealth Secretariat. These opening presentations set the scene and provided broad background and context for the remaining conference sessions. The speakers clearly established the central role of auditors general in the accountability framework as key to enhancing accountability across the Commonwealth.
Terence Nombembe, Auditor General of South Africa, chaired subtheme 1, overseeing presentations by SAIs from the United Kingdom, Australia, Ghana, Uganda, Sri Lanka, the Cayman Islands, Malaysia, India, Malta, and Papua New Guinea.
The presentations and subsequent discussions reinforced the centrality of the auditor general’s independence to ensuring that accountability mechanisms function effectively and the critical importance of preserving that independence in the constitution or by law. It was noted that this principle of independence, recently reinforced in the adoption of the Mexico Declaration on SAI Independence, is the most significant attribute of the auditor general function within the Westminster, or Parliamentary, external audit model.
However, enshrining the independence of the auditor general in law does not in itself guarantee that independence. The conference heard about a number of challenges to the independence of auditors general. The first arises from the increasing demands and expectations that auditors general are called upon to meet. Participants agreed on (1) the importance of constantly maintaining professionalism and the quality of their work and (2) dealing with Public Accounts Committees (PAC), government, and other stakeholders in an open but robust way. The second challenge is securing the resources auditors general need to discharge their responsibilities fully and effectively. Auditors general have explored different ways of funding their offices, including charging fees for the work they do. Overall, they expressed a preference for direct funding from Parliament or the legislature, even though this arrangement may not be ideal in all circumstances. Participants stressed the need to demonstrate clearly the benefits that a well resourced, fully functioning audit office can bring to all concerned.
The third challenge is functioning effectively in a difficult and at times hostile environment. To meet this challenge, auditors general must engage effectively with stakeholders and others who use their work—in particular Parliament, the legislature and, where it is in place, PACs. Auditors general also stressed the importance of following up on recommendations to ensure that the government responds properly to their work.
Subtheme 2, chaired by Terrance Bastian, Auditor General of the Bahamas, took as its starting point the varying functions and levels of effectiveness of PACs in different countries. In the theme paper for this topic, Sheila Fraser, Auditor General of Canada, reflected on the Canadian experience and her SAI’s commitment to helping parliamentarians oversee public finance. Ms. Fraser outlined various means by which her office supports the PAC and other parliamentary committees in carrying out their scrutiny functions—for example, appearing as an expert witness, providing advice and support, and responding to requests to undertake specific audits. In particular, she noted a guide (Examining Public Spending) her office provides to parliamentarians to assist them in their reviews. Conference attendees received copies of this primer.
The Auditor General of South Africa, Terence Nombembe, began his remarks on this theme by noting that “in spite of the difficult legacy it inherited, South Africa is a dynamic country filled with promise, hope, and opportunity.” His country paper focused on two related areas: what his office is doing to help support national, regional, and local oversight within South Africa and the role Commonwealth auditors general can play in promoting a renewed international focus on supporting PACs. He also highlighted the progress that has been made within South Africa through the formation of the South Africa Association of PACs (APAC) and the Southern African Regional Association of PACs (SADCOPAC).
The Auditor General of the Bahamas, Terrance Bastian, described recent CAROSAI attempts to collectively raise the profile of the region’s SAIs and encourage parliamentary scrutiny of public finances. A CAROSAI survey carried out by the Trinidad and Tobago SAI concluded that the PAC model was not working effectively in the Caribbean and identified a need to train and support parliamentarians and their staff, increase transparency, and make oversight a higher priority for the region’s parliaments.
The concluding presentation for this subtheme introduced a research paper prepared by the Overseas Development Institute for the United Kingdom’s National Audit Office. The paper explored the effectiveness of PACs around the Commonwealth and suggested at least three key effectiveness principles: the independence of the PACs, the capacity to avoid questions of policy, and the ability of different parties to work together. A fourth principle emerged from conference discussions—transparency in the work and proceedings of PACs.
Conference participants discussed topics related to this theme in three separate workshops. In the first workshop, participants discussed how audit offices can help their PACs become more effective. Auditors general concluded that they could learn from each other’s experiences in supporting PACs. They also discussed the importance of improving communication between the auditor general and the PAC—for example, by presenting reports and other material in a way that engages PAC members and facilitates their examination of specific subjects. Auditors general also agreed on the importance of the PACs considering topics of current public interest. However, in a number of Commonwealth countries, backlogs and delays in the preparation and submission of accounts made this difficult. Auditors general also felt that more could be done to provide training for PACs and to identify best practices that promote effective PAC functioning. They concluded that more exchanges of learning and experience between PACs would be helpful and suggested that the Commonwealth structures might be able to help facilitate this process at the international level.
In the second workshop, participants discussed the wider support audit offices can provide to Parliament. Auditors general concluded that there were opportunities in this area, and they identified potential benefits as well as risks and barriers to providing this wider support. However, auditors general can adopt strategies to surmount these barriers and manage these risks.
The third workshop focused on issues arising from Commonwealth Secretariat initiatives to strengthen public financial management and promote better governance in Commonwealth countries. Participants concluded that the Secretariat and Commonwealth auditors general could collaborate more closely in this area.
In all three workshops, the auditors general expressed the desire to continue the dialogue with the Commonwealth Secretariat that began at the Bermuda conference. They also expressed the hope that the Commonwealth Secretariat would participate in future conferences.
At its final working session, the participants approved without amendment a proposal for funding future Commonwealth Auditors General conferences and accepted an offer from Namibia to host the next conference in 2011.
Throughout the conference, the Auditor General of Bermuda and his staff treated participants with warmth and hospitality. They arranged for a welcoming reception at the historic Government House and, on the following evening, a lovely outdoor reception at the Premier’s Residence, where the conference attendees were entertained by local musicians and welcomed by the Premier. The conference concluded with a gala dinner at the Commissioner’s House with wonderful music and entertainment. Conference participants also had an opportunity to tour St. Georges and learn its history.
For additional information, contact the Bermuda National Audit Office: e-mail: email@example.com.