Government Auditors Beginning to Engage Citizens, but Must Do More

This post was written by Paolo de Renzio, Senior Research Fellow at the International Budget Partnership.

Yesterday at the 2013 Open Government Partnership Summit I attended a very interesting session on how supreme audit institutions (SAIs) can engage with citizens and other actors more meaningfully and successfully. Speakers were drawn from the SAIs of Brazil, India, the Philippines, and South Africa, and from civil society groups in Argentina (representing a Latin American network) and Montenegro. Two ongoing comparative studies provided some of the background material: one by the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre in Norway, and the other by the OECD’s Effective Institutions Platform (soon to be published).

Some exciting examples were presented of SAIs taking action to inform and engage with citizens and civil society groups around the audit process. The SAI in the Philippines started working with citizens in flood-affected areas to audit public projects intended to respond to the floods. The Brazilian Audit Court put in place expert panels to understand better how to engage with different groups of stakeholders, and the Auditor General’s office in India started publishing short and accessible summaries of audit reports to ensure that non-technical audiences could understand audit findings.

Mirroring these SAI experiences, civil society groups from different countries are increasingly engaging with SAIs. For instance, a number of organizations are using audit findings and recommendations to monitor issues raised about the government’s management of public resources and to push for follow-up action, while others are getting involved more directly in the audit process, independently of the SAIs or in collaboration with them.

While the mood in the room was upbeat, and emerging interesting good practices abounded, I pulled out some humbling data that point to serious continuing challenges. Results from the latest round of the Open Budget Survey show that audit reports are published in about two-thirds of the 100 countries covered. But, the SAIs in only 29 of these countries make some effort to reach out to citizens beyond the mere publication of their reports. And, in only nine countries do the SAIs go beyond disclosure and outreach to actually engage citizens more meaningfully in the audit process. This shows that while the door to improved dialogue and engagement between SAIs and citizen groups may have been propped open, a lot still remains to be done. In many countries SAIs remain suspicious of civil society organizations and hide behind their claim of independence. Very often, SAIs also suffer from structural weaknesses, deprived of adequate powers and resources to carry out their job effectively. This, compounded by a lack of budget transparency and by limited civil society capacity, creates huge obstacles to budget accountability.

Yet, the experiences shared in the session were a clear sign that things are starting to change. The international SAI coordination body (INTOSAI) has started publishing guidelines on the need for SAIs to reach out to various stakeholders, and forums like OGP could be used to highlight and promote emerging good practices, and encourage a broader shift that might spread to many countries beyond those that were present at the panel.

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