Communicating effectively with audit reports
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw
When it comes to communication, never have truer words been said. Too often, the act of sending an email, having a conversation or publishing a report, is considered to be effective communication. Less often, ensuring the intended message reaches the intended audience at the right place and time is given sufficient thought and planning.
Who is our audience? Despite popular belief, it is usually not other auditors! Our audience is the mailman, the street vendor on the corner, a politician, a grandmother, a small-business owner and a student. Our audience is the average “man on the street” who, whether they know it or not, need to be empowered to hold their governments to account. It is this challenge that must be confronted by SAIs if we want to make a difference in the lives of our citizens. We cannot simply be satisfied with producing technically excellent audit reports. To truly claim full compliance with the ISSAIs, the requirements of ISSAI 12 on the Value and Benefits of SAIs, demand that we consider the needs of our audience as a primary consideration when drafting an audit report.
A lot has been said and written about the need for simplified, clear and understandable audit reports, and yet this continues to be a challenge. Our audit reports, especially financial audit reports, walk a tightrope between providing objective, unbiased and factual information and; providing understandable messages that enable change to happen. Striking the right balance requires careful planning and a clear intent of what impact the report should make. Unfortunately too many audit reports still require the reader to apply complex cryptography skills just to decipher what the real message is! However, by putting yourself in the shoes of your audience, and considering what they can and should do with the information, it suddenly becomes about more than just relaying the facts. We can make it easy for our audience by getting to the point, and getting to it quickly. For example, a short, jargon-free executive summary that highlights only the most important aspects of the report, is one of the simplest methods of getting the right message across.
An audit report is essentially a communication channel whereby the auditor can tell the executive where the shortcomings are in its operations; can enable the legislature to apply effective oversight and; can empower citizens to demand accountability on how their tax money is spent. That is a tall order, but challenge that we are uniquely capable of meeting. To quote Ms Obiageli “Oby” Ezekwesili, co-founder of Transparency International:
“…there are no [other] technical experts within the public sector that have the privilege of the depth and range of the information on adaptive problems that each of our countries and their institutions ought to be urgently remediating in order to entrench transparency and accountability, tackle corruption, improve good governance, raise our productivity and become competitive globally. …You are more influential than you ever imagined.”