Parting blog:

Our dear friend and long-time colleague, David Goldsworthy, has announced that he is retiring and will no longer support the CBC’s work with SAIs in complex and challenging contexts. We are sorry to see him go and have invited him to write a farewell blog which we now share with you. We would like to thank David for all his help and contributions to the work of the ACCC and for his genuine engagement and dedication to support SAIs operating in the most complex and challenging situations.


 

The political in the public – persuading governments to act on audit findings

By David Goldsworthy, Development Action, United Kingdom

 

 


 

“In my years with the UK National Audit Office, I managed twinning projects with many different SAIs. When I would visit colleagues based full-time in these projects, I would ask them what contacts they had made with the Ministry of Finance, the President’s staff, the parliament, and major donors such as the World Bank. Sometimes I was greeted with a surprised look – “Our job is to work in partnership with the SAI, why do we need to make connections with all these others?” For them their work was about helping colleagues strengthen their capacity to become better auditors, develop improved human resource management systems, or implement new IT arrangements.

And yes, they were partly right. If I look back over more than 20 years of capacity building across the SAI community, I have witnessed massive and sustained improvements in many of the technical aspects of delivering audits and managing SAIs. At the same time, much less progress appears to have been achieved in ensuring that the results of these technical and managerial improvements have a direct impact on citizens and the services governments provide. It is this gap between what we do and what is done with what we find and produce which underpinned my questions to my colleagues during my project visits. We may be producing better audits, but we do not always know sufficient about why the results of these audits do not lead to beneficial change for citizens.

SAIs operate in intensely political spaces where the promises made by governments to their electorates can and ought to be subjected to rigorous scrutiny.  Even the most benign governments can feel uncomfortable when their failure to deliver their commitments becomes public or where the services delivered are shown to be wasteful, inefficient, and even ineffective. It takes considerable maturity on the part of the political classes to accept that making such information publicly available is a necessary part of open and accountable government.  In situations where the social contract is weaker, where MPs must spend a small fortune to be elected, and where downward accountability to citizens is weaker than upward accountability to party bosses, it is not surprising that many governments seek to shoot the messenger rather than heeding the message. Often it is easier to attack the SAI rather than act on its recommendations.

In recent years, I have been fortunate to work closely with leaders of SAIs operating in incredibly complex and challenging situations. The best of them understand intrinsically that they cannot improve the impact of their SAIs unless they understand how power is exercised in their countries. They know that they need to develop trusted relationships with key stakeholders in their countries, particularly, ministries of finance, presidential administrations, parliamentary committees, and major donors. These relationships enable them to educate end users, persuade and cajole reluctant governments, but also to listen and understand the boundaries of the possible. Heads of these SAIs  need to be incredibly tough to avoid being manipulated, stand up to bullying, and galvanise external support when absolutely necessary.

I have witnessed also how lonely a position it is for such SAI leaders and seen how the support of others in similar situations can make a difference.  It is important that CBC and others continue to facilitate peer to peer exchanges and conversations so that such leaders can feel less isolated as  the problems they are facing are often replicated elsewhere. Solutions may not always be evident but knowing that others are wrestling with similar challenges can help. There is scope for INTOSAI to run practical, scenario-based leadership workshops on how to analyse political structures, navigate the corridors of power, and create sustainable strategic partnerships with parliaments, presidencies, and senior government figures.

There are signs that INTOSAI is placing more importance on its role as an advocate for the SAI community, especially those operating in the most difficult situations. Where a SAI’s independence is threatened, IDI, regional SAI organisations, and others are increasingly demonstrating a preparedness to speak out and let recalcitrant governments know that their actions have been noticed. However, more needs to be done to persuade international and regional organisations to take the role of SAIs seriously. They need to be encouraged to use their networks and status to increase the pressure on those countries which fail to respect the freedom and integrity of their audit institutions and fail to heed the warnings emerging from their audit work. It will be the efforts of those strong and dedicated auditors I have worked with over the past two decades who will make the difference in their own countries. But those of us working regionally or globally can help make their struggles a little less difficult.”