- Audits in the public sector often uncover complex and challenging issues. For audit reports and recommendations to lead to more meaningful change, auditors must have a holistic understanding of these issues and their causes
- The complex root causes of problems in the public sector, including actors unduly benefiting from the status quo, help explain government inaction on many audit findings and recommendations
- Auditors must think and act strategically with other stakeholders to help advance accountability and reform
Public sector auditors, internal and external, are important actors working towards accountability in their countries. Yet, auditees in government do not always act upon their audit reports and recommendations. Why not? Accountability, i.e. the government being held responsible for its actions, depends on many actors and mechanisms, which are in turn embedded in an equally complex political economy context. We might think of actors and factors involved in ensuring government responsiveness as the accountability ecosystem. Auditors must navigate this ecosystem to encourage meaningful government action to address public sector challenges. Ensuring that audits and their recommendations are holistic and feasible, combined with actions to leverage these findings in broader accountability strategies, is more likely to influence governments to address problems in a meaningful and sustainable way.
Diverse factors contribute to the problems revealed by public audits. These may be technical, social, institutional and political. Audits therefore require multiple lenses to analyze the causes of problems and to produce feasible recommendations that can lead to lasting change. Reform processes – particularly those associated with more effective and inclusive public services – are complex, and successful shifts are often driven by incremental adaptation; recommendations made by audit reports should reflect this reality. Thus, some Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs) have multi-disciplinary teams, while others bring in external subject matter experts.
Getting to the root of the problem
The organization I work for (the International Budget Partnership) supports SAIs and other reformers in a number of countries to leverage audits and their recommendations more effectively to address systemic issues in broad sectors or programs, like education. We also support audits targeting focused and concrete issues. However, more specific does not necessarily mean easier to resolve. One dimension of audits targeting systemic and focused problems is that they are often exposing situations that are currently advantaging relatively well-connected actors, as illustrated by the case of misuse of funds by politicians and other well-connected actors in the Philippines. The audit recommendations proposed would diminish the benefits to these actors, so we would therefore expect them to work to undermine the implementation of these recommendations.
Public sector auditors, both internal and external, should seek to understand why the problems they are auditing exist in the first place. These problems could be due to the complexity of the root causes hence the difficulty in resolving them, a lack of state capacity needed to address the issues, and/or that a set of actors are unduly benefiting from the status quo. Audits and their recommendations enter this equation of actors and factors. It’s not surprising that recommendations are often not fully taken up, because they are only one input into the accountability ecosystem, which includes the actions of other relevant stakeholders and contextual and political factors.
Maybe this analysis is overly complicated and there is a simpler narrative. Auditors find something that government isn’t doing right and say what needs to be done to correct it, and governments should act on that. But if we think about why that thing wasn’t being done right in the first place, and what factors would be needed to influence and enable the government to do it right, it becomes clear that audit findings and recommendations must account for these issues if they are to contribute to meaningful solutions.
The challenges and complexities outlined above suggest that auditors must undertake very strategic approaches to leverage audits most effectively. Consideration should be given to how audit findings and recommendations can have the most impact on a relevant problem, and address causes not just symptoms.
So what’s the solution?
There are multiple, potentially complementary, routes to accountability that auditors and other stakeholders can pursue:
- Direct: facilitating action on audit findings through formal mechanisms (Public Accounts Committees, response by audited entities) with concrete and clear recommendations.
- Indirect: advancing audit findings and recommendations through other accountability channels, like litigation, media coverage, civil society advocacy or broader popular mobilization.
- Even more indirect: leveraging audits to strengthen the role of auditors and the broader accountability ecosystem. For example, a case in Argentina of an audit report for safe train service issued after a train crash not only resulted in audit recommendations being acted on, but also made the SAI’s role more visible to the public.
Given the challenges of raising public awareness about audits, it is important to consider involving those impacted by the problems revealed in those audits. Equally important is engaging other civic actors, from non-governmental organizations to media, who can contribute to accountability in ways that auditors cannot. Engaging stakeholders and other relevant civic actors strengthens the credibility of efforts to get government to act on audit findings, brings a diversity of perspectives and capacities into a potential coalition around reform, and offers the possibility of collective action that can potentially shift incentives of public actors to take up audit recommendations in ways that activists and auditors often struggle to do alone. Examples of these approaches should encourage auditors to think strategically, find accountability partners, and help move from audits to government actions!
The full version of this piece can be found here: https://politicsgovernancedevelopment.wordpress.com/2020/04/20/strengthening-the-accountability-ecosystem-strategic-audits-and-uptake-approaches/
|About the expert|
Brendan Halloran is International Budget Partnership’s Head of Strategy and Learning. In this role, Brendan facilitates strategy and learning processes at IBP – both the internal production of learning insights and drawing on evidence and ideas from broader research and practice in the governance space. He’s particularly interested in complex change dynamics, and how to support organizations to both navigate and strengthen their accountability ecosystems.
Prior to joining IBP in 2016, Brendan lead the learning work of the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, where he played a role in shaping and interpreting evidence about what works, as well as supporting collective learning spaces, such as the TALEARN network. Before that, Brendan spent five years living, researching and working in Guatemala, most recently as a Governance Advisor for USAID. Brendan has a Ph.D. from Virginia Tech, and has published work in a variety of journals, think pieces, and blogs, including his own — Politics, Governance, and Development.
The views in this article are the author’s only, and do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD or its member countries.
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