Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs)

As watchdogs of public finances, supreme audit institutions (SAIs) act as critical links in enforcing the accountability of executive agencies to national and state legislatures and through them to the general public. The SAI (which may also be called the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General) reviews financial management of public sector entities to ensure that transactions have been undertaken with due regard to propriety and regularity. Recently, several public auditors have also assumed responsibility for assessing value for money considerations in public projects and programs.

In order for SAIs to perform their role in holding the government to account for its management of public resources, it must be sufficiently independent of the executive branch and must have adequate capacity and resources. Unfortunately, this is not the case in far too many countries, as was shown in the Open Budget Survey 2008. The Survey found that in 26 of the 85 countries studied, the executive could remove the head of the SAI, and in 38 of the 85, the executive determined the SAI’s annual budget.

Civil society organizations (CSOs) can pursue their budget advocacy agendas and strengthen the level of accountability for public budgeting by alerting SAIs to cases of mismanagement or misuse of public funds and poor service delivery. Through budget execution monitoring, CSOs can generate evidence of problems and present it to the SAI to encourage them to do an official audit.

In the Provida case, Mexican CSO Fundar and its coalition partners tracked HIV/AIDS expenditure and found that funds were diverted to an organization (Provida) whose activities ran counter to the Mexican government’s HIV/AIDS policies and that was shown to have blatantly misused these funds. The coalition brought their evidence to the attention of the government, including the SAI. The immense pressure these advocates generated through coalition building and media outreach resulted in an audit confirming the coalition’s findings. Provida was required to reimburse the funds, pay a hefty fine (still unpaid and in the courts), and was barred from receiving public funds for 15 years.

In countries that make the SAI’s audit reports available to the public, CSOs can analyze these reports and advocate that the legislature and executive follow up on the recommendations. They can engage the legislature and executive directly and can generate pressure indirectly by making their analysis of audit findings known to the public and the media.

SAIs are usually prevented by their mandate from engaging in the policy process, including publicizing their results. CSOs can play a powerful role by taking the results and amplifying them or making sure that the government responds to the criticisms and recommendations contained in the report.

Learn more about the innovative methods used by groups in Argentina, India, Mexico, Philippines, and South Korea in the auditing and assessment of public expenditures in “Expanding Collaboration Between Public Audit Institutions and Civil Society.”