Development outside the comfort zone
Experience of a parallel performance audit in the Western Balkans
In it’s very foundation, every change means stretching, it means excursion outside the usual habits and routines we are comfortable with. This kind of journey always takes us along a bumpy road and our destination often seems far away and uncertain. So, what is it that keeps us driving?
For the last two years, under the leadership of the Swedish National Audit Office and the European Court of Auditors, the six Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs) of the Western Balkans have conducted a parallel performance audit on the topic of public procurement. When we first embarked on an idea to conduct such a project, we were met with high suspicion and a certain level of resistance among professional peers. Only a couple of decades ago, these countries were at war, and now we expect them to work together, to talk to each other and share information on government issues, to exchange their experiences and help each other improve the quality of their audit work. Challenging, to say the least. Even when we focused only on a purely professional level – bringing together several different SAIs in a joint audit project, expecting all the teams to audit the same issue and keep their audit work along the same common path – it seemed like a mission impossible. On top of everything, drafting a synthesis report with common conclusions from six audits that all have a completely different focus, seemed completely undoable.
These issues are difficult to tackle, and the only conclusion that naturally imposed itself onto the entire project team was to simply stick to the most common practice. The region already has a cooperation platform – a Joint Working Group for Audit Activities (JWGAA) – so the easiest thing to do, was to organize a few workshops within the existing activity plan, carry out some trainings and provide audit methodology advice to the participating auditors, without any in-depth involvement in their own audit work. Our role within the JWGAA is to facilitate cooperation between the members and we are not expected to worry about the outcome of their actual audits. In the end of the day, outcome of the audit work is responsibility of auditors, not advisors. We could just have a great time together and do what we do all the time – organize a few workshops with an almost guaranteed successful outcome. Easy.
As the process started, we realized that JWGAA is more than just an organization of peers, and the participating auditors had much more to offer than their simple “presence” at the workshops. Each meeting was followed by spontaneous social activities. The entire group was always spending time together – at any time of day or night, we could stumble upon them sitting together talking. In periods between the workshops, they formed groups on social media and exchanged stories and local jokes, that gave an impression of them being an old happy family with a long history together. No wonder – the region used to be under the “same state umbrella” for decades, with common history and culture, and everyone is still facing almost identical social and government challenges. Auditors as they are – curious to explore their environment – found this audit project an excellent opportunity to fill this empty gap of curiosity, to compare and compete with their colleagues, and to measure their own situations against those of their neighbors. This was not something that the facilitating team immediately recognized as an opportunity, we saw it more like a marginal effect of the project. But in its essence, this was exactly the key to success.
All the professional challenges we have earlier anticipated were present indeed. Selecting the audit topic was a major problem we faced right from the start. Every SAI had a different vision of what is the most important for them and their own environment, but if everyone selected a different topic, we would not be able to call this a parallel audit, nor let it result in any sort of a joint publication. Even after we overcame this initial hardship, we had to twist and tweak ourselves throughout all the work stages – from selection of audit criteria and audit scope, all the way to taking the ambition of writing a joint publication. That was the toughest decision of all – as, when we approached the end of the audit process, it looked as if there was very little in common from the six audit reports that were being produced.
In February 2016 at the initial project-planning session we understood the scope of problems we were about to face, if we wanted to do a true parallel audit. From the facilitators’ point of view, we could still do the project, as the greatest part of our work is still required by the JWGAA work plan – providing a series of trainings and workshops that follows an audit cycle. But such an objective is too small, it looks more like a plain bureaucratic “tick of an item from an activity list”, and the good social and professional atmosphere in the group would remain un-utilized. We all found ourselves at crossroads. Should we take an easy way out and do just what we do every day – auditors can plan and conduct their audits as usual, and we can do our training sessions as always? There is no risk associated and the result is guaranteed – even if just mediocre, it is all that is expected of us. Or should we take a bumpy road – stretch ourselves beyond our usual roles, and compromise our comfort for an uncertain outcome and an increased risk of failure?
We chose the hard way. After exactly two years of work, in February 2018, we have published the Synthesis Report on Public Procurement in Western Balkans, with joint audit findings and conclusions from six participating SAIs. This is the biggest such publication ever done in the region. The media attention we received was beyond ordinary. It started with a ten minutes live interview in prime time on the largest regional TV network, which was then re-played by a number of local stations, followed by a number of newspapers articles and radio broadcasts. Audit results were presented at a regional prosecutors’ conference on public procurements. Further results are yet to come. Each of the six SAIs – even with different audit scopes, all came to, more or less, the same audit conclusions. This makes the arguments presented in the audit reports much stronger and more difficult to ignore by the authorities.
The project was a success, the journey was a very bumpy one, and there was not a minute of comfort along the way. Everyone had to compromise. Auditors had to adjust and change everything they usually do – from their work plans, through their methodology, to the structure and contents of their audit reports. Facilitators had to dive into local administrative circumstances, had to get out of the training rooms and write things themselves, and even stand up in front of the TV cameras, as if they were talking about their own audit work. A challenge that was completely out of the ordinary.
What was driving us all? Enthusiasm and energy within the friendly Western Balkans audit group that was, and still is, able to see beyond the horizon of daily routine.