How to preserve SAI’s independence

One of the reasons that may pull SAIs back from advancing openness is rooted in the fear of compromising independence. There are many arguments related to the risks of engaging citizens in audit matters, but most commonly they are overestimated. It is therefore important to analyze these arguments and take into consideration that advancing engagement can maximize chances of success once the whole institution displays commitment and knowledge on what citizen participation takes.

Debunking myths about citizen participation

Most often, SAIs´ reluctance to engage with civil society is rooted in fear of private interests capturing the institution. The involvement of politicized groups in oversight duties—mainly characterized for their neutrality—can pose a threat to the institution and erode not only the quality of its work but also its integrity and reputation. Similarly, citizen participation can contribute to SAI strengthening when undue political interference threatens the institution.

“Where SAIs are weaker and experience political interference but civil society is relatively strong, SAIs may seek its partnership with CSOs as a way to strengthen its institutional position and follow-up on audit recommendations” (OCDE 2013)

Offsetting the benefits and risks entailed in SAI openness is important. The former outweigh the latter. Being cautious does not imply panicking. Risks can be overcome by designing strategies that effectively mainstream citizen participation.

Another fear SAIs experience is citizens´ lack of technical capacity to perform oversight duties. Civil society has to be provided with adequate training before they embark on joint initiatives because both partners can benefit from the partnership. To mitigate the issue, the citizen participatory audit (CPA) initiative has developed several learning modules to train CSOs for the audit process. For details, please click here.

One of the constant fears is that citizens will not be interested in participating; therefore, advancing engagement strategies does not make sense. However, evidence suggests that individuals are more cooperative and compliant when they are allowed to participate, that is, when they believe that their word will matter in decision making (Dal Bo, Foster, and Putterman 2010). In fact, the logic behind citizen engagement policies is precisely that participation influences citizen behavior.

Implementing participatory initiatives as a comprehensive institutional strategy

Pushing toward openness does not remain solely on political willingness. Commitment from the SAI´s head is a MUST. But effective strategies for engagement are those that bring on board a broad team. Participatory audit—as any other policy—entails teamwork. Especially when advancing citizen participation in the audit process, the audit team must understand the goals, benefits, and expected outcomes when promoting increased interaction with civil society. Building internal consensus and getting complete buy-in is critical to effectively engaging outsiders.

Either because audit teams are mainly devoted to technical duties or because their external relationships exclusively concern the audited entity, officials often are hesitant about engaging with civil society. Top-down initiatives can deepen unwillingness if the group does not see the core value of citizen participation.

What can work?

  • When organizing on-site meetings with external actors, invite the audit team to take an active role. Assign them the task of delivering a presentation or appoint them to answer CSOs´ questions. CSOs may be unaware of the scope and value of audit processes, and the best person to account for that convey that knowledge is definitely somebody from the audit team who encounters the problems on a daily basis.
  • Try to include workshops in small groups in which both technical staff and CSOs take part: this will not only help to encourage active discussion but it will provide the chance to unveil expectations and fears and allow the two groups to see how much they have in common.
  • Give talks and organize internal gatherings with SAI staff to share the institution´s vision about civic engagement.


Why should you engage the audit team?

See case of Argentina

Insights from the Argentinean experience

Since 2014, the General Audit Office (AGN) of Argentina has held thematic workshops at the planning stage of specific audits. The AGN invites CSOs working in the field to provide insights and share their perspectives so that they can contribute to enhancing better targeting and performance of audit processes. Those meetings entail an opportunity to engage the technical teams in charge of the audits, who rarely have the chance to speak directly with social actors who take part in SAI engagement initiatives. At the same time, the staff get to know studies developed by CSOs and other activities led in the field by external stakeholders.

“Watching the intentions and motivation that CSOs express on these initiatives also encourages [us] to work even harder and better, knowing that our final product—an audit report—will contribute to improving public management and build more effective public policies,” notes a member from the AGN audit team.

Gaining wider support for SAI engagement with other stakeholders requires oral advocacy skills to convince SAI staff about the value and benefits of increased engagement, but CSOs can benefit from other tools to advance openness. What has the SAI committed to, with regard to citizen engagement?

Search through national and international statements so as to back the initiatives with standards and regulations encouraging SAI commitment with civil society.

How can you support SAI engagement strategies?

  • What does the SAI mission statement say? Does it mention citizens as beneficiaries of SAI work?
    Open Case USA
  • Does the SAI´s strategic plan or internal auditing standards refer to citizen engagement?
    Open Case China
  • What are the international declarations to which the country subscribes?
    Open Case Indonesia

    Closely aligned with SAIs´ mission, Article 5 of the United Nations Convention against Corruption states that “Each State Party shall, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its legal system, develop and implement or maintain effective, coordinated anti-corruption policies that promote the participation of society and reflect the principles of the rule of law, proper management of public affairs and public property, integrity, transparency and accountability.”

    International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

  • Is the SAI a member of an international committee that pursues engagement with civil society?
    Open Case Costa Rica

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) states that its mission is “to support the Congress in meeting its constitutional responsibilities and to help improve the performance and ensure the accountability of the federal government for the benefit of the American people.”

The National Auditing Standards of the People’s Republic of China states that the audit institution should take the citizens’ concerns and requirements into consideration and select those audit assignments that had proven to be of deep concern to the citizens and, therefore, of great value. Acknowledging that requirement for prioritizing probes—and committed to citizen engagement at different stages of the audit process—the SAI of China implements a strong policy that entails (a) making public the annual plan of audit assignments; (b) soliciting citizens’ opinions regarding audit work through the SAI official website; (c) establishing a system of engaging “stringer auditors” (special part-time auditors working in other sectors and participating in the audit work upon request under special arrangement with the audit institution) to solicit the citizens’ opinions that will be considered in compiling the annual plan of audit assignments; (d) carrying out surveys among the citizens about their concerns and requirements related to the audit work before deciding audit assignments; and (e) soliciting the opinions and suggestions of the members of the People’s Congress and People’s Consultative Conference in China and responding appropriately to opinions and suggestions.

A reform movement in Indonesia in 1999 called for good governance freed from corruption. The public expected the government reforms to recognize the significant role of SAI Indonesia in addressing the citizens’ concerns. The Constitution secured the SAI’s independence, strengthened the relations between SAI and public representative institutions (parliament and regional representative council), and also introduced public access to SAI’s audit results. The law relating to Audit of Management and Accountability of State Finance in Indonesia required the SAI to consider input from public representatives in performing its duties. To cope with the changes and challenges, especially in maintaining public’s trust, the SAI devised and implemented public relations and communication strategies. Channels for opening communication with the public were established. The SAI started public campaigns to increase the public’s knowledge about its reports and issues in accountability.

The SAI of Costa Rica is the head of the Organization of Latin American and Caribbean Supreme Audit Institutions’ (OLACEFS´) Commission on Citizen Participation. Although it has earned a solid reputation among Latin American SAIs for its active transparency and communication policy, until 2014 it had not developed engagement strategies with specific groups but rather with the average citizen (through citizen complaints, information systems, and so forth).

Taking the lead as head of the Commission, in late 2013 the CGR embarked on a pilot project with support from German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) regional program “Supporting the Organization of Latin American and Caribbean Supreme Audit Institutions” to promote an approach to organized civil society. The CGR built upon the tools and products it had already developed—in particular, the system “What is your money spent on?”—and offered training sessions to community leaders so as to empower them through the use of reliable, public information regarding the management of state resources. After the pilot project was implemented, the experience was documented and the report was shared with SAIs of the Commission and within OLACEFS to promote this innovative engagement strategy.

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