Outline of intervention by Charles Deguara during Contact Committee Meeting – SAIs interaction with Citizens

National Audit Office (Malta)

  •  Thank you Mr Klesic and your excellent team for hosting this Conference in such a unique and beautiful city. Coming from a country which treasures its rich historical heritage and its surrounding wonderful blue sea, it is no wonder we feel so much at home here! Being given this opportunity to share with you some insights on SAIs interaction with Citizens is greatly appreciated.  Thanks also to my dear colleague Mr Tomaz Vesel for moderating this forum; knowing him so well I am sure he is the perfect choice. 
  • When I was informed of the theme of my intervention, one of the first things that came to mind was ISSAI 12 – The Value and Benefits of Supreme Audit Institutions, making a difference to the lives of citizens.  As you are aware, it emphasizes the benefits of the independent and professional service we provide when auditing the public sector; this provides value to society, especially in view of the enhanced services given by Government departments and entities as a consequence of our audit findings and recommendations.  I am sure that the fact that our work has such an impact on our citizens is of enormous job satisfaction to us all.
  • Moreover, we must keep in view that, as stated during a recent Symposium on Good public administration and benefits for citizens, organized in Vienna by our Austrian colleagues, the concrete contribution that we can make to make our public sector institutions more accountable ties in with Sustainable Development Goal 16.  Furthermore, emphasis is made on what is stated in the Citizen Engagement Practices by Supreme Audit Institutions issued by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs,  quote ‘The international community has recognized good governance, including accountability and citizen engagement, as a means to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)’ unquote.
  • Within this scenario, we consider it of fundamental importance that our National Audit Office continues to enjoy the full trust of our citizens.  As you are aware, this cannot be taken for granted; indeed, it necessitates that, without any exception, all our audit work and assignments continue to be based on the fundamental values of independence, fairness, objectivity, professionalism and integrity.  Suffice it to state that both myself, as Auditor General, and our Deputy Auditor General need to obtain two thirds of the votes of our Members of Parliament to be appointed. Thus, we also need to enjoy the trust of Parliament, both Government as well as Opposition.
  • As most other SAIs, we are actively considering how to improve our interaction with citizens, such as through the more effective use of social media especially with our younger generations, in order to be able to carry out our Constitutional mandate in the best manner possible.  Coming back to ISSAI 12 – quote ‘Furthermore, it is important that SAIs have a meaningful and effective dialogue with stakeholders about how their work facilitates improvement in the public sector.’ unquote
  •  Incidentally, just this Monday, we have issued our own strategy for the coming five years, essentially seeking to improving governance and performance across the public sector.  Of course, this is in the best interest of our citizens who finance most of Government’s programmes and initiatives through their taxes. 
  • Our strategy is based on six main strategic goals, one of them focusing specifically on the formulation of audit plans ‘on established criteria, with particular focus on materiality and risk’.  Our choice of audits and investigations is extremely important for our citizens, to whom we need to provide the necessary assurance that public funds are being used in the best manner possible and according to the highest financial and ethical standards. Thus, this constitutes an important area where citizens themselves may suggest the theme of an audit or investigation.  Indeed, in May and June of this year we issued two reports which were both initiated as a consequence of particular concerns raised by our citizens.
  • I am sure we agree that our SAIs need to introduce some form of stakeholder engagement policy – this should be based on as wide a consultation process as possible, incorporating a prioritisation of stakeholders.  In our new strategy, and I quote, “we intend to cultivate mutually working relationships with auditees, scrutineers (including the general public) and peers within constraints set by ethical standards……”
  • We also need to make sure that our citizens are fully aware of our functions and responsibilities, in most cases as stipulated in our respective Constitution.  In this regard, informative initiatives on the various media are considered very important especially in view of the higher expectations of our citizens vis-à-vis our work and activities.  All of us are committed to promote the values of accountability and transparency, these being sine qua non conditions of good governance, within the public administration; but I suspect that at the end of the day some of our citizens may not be aware that we do not have any executive powers.   Thus, not being able to implement the necessary changes ourselves, it is even more important for us to have an effective follow up measurement mechanism thereby providing assurance to our citizens that our recommendations are being taken on board.
  • On the basis of various discussions and exchanges with some of you, my dear colleagues, I have come to appreciate that to provide the best audit service possible to our citizens, we need to consider the production of different forms of our audit assignments, possibly targeting different audiences including the younger generations, if possible.  We need to continue asking ourselves the fundamental questions – is the service we are giving to our citizens actually what they expect from us? Are we giving it within the timeframes expected from us?  And in the format which they can understand especially if complex technical issues are concerned?  Here, the effective use of info-graphics is of fundamental importance; in this regard, the European Court of Auditors is an example of good practice in so far as production of user-friendly reports are concerned.  Moreover, the use of simple yet extremely effective videos by the ECA is a case in point; it makes it so much easier for EU citizens to be aware of audit findings.

SAIs should be visionary oriented.

How can interaction with citizens help in achieving that?

  • As stated, one key measurement of the outcomes of our performance is to what extent our audits and investigations do address citizen concerns, especially if these are future-oriented.  Thus, we need to be aware of what the citizen concerns are in effect, not what we assume them to be but what they actually are.
  • In order to be visionary, we have no option but to continuously be aware of, and understand, the future trends and scenarios of the external environment, such as ongoing technological developments affecting the public sector.  Citizen concerns are one major aspect of such an external environment.  The need to be aware of such concerns which, as far as possible, we should try to address through our auditing assignments and activities cannot be overemphasised.  Thus, we, for instance, have decided that our performance audits should, as much as possible, focus on those areas which have a direct effect on our citizens, both present and future, namely the environment, education and health.  As expected, such assignments tend to generate more interest on the part of our citizens which is indicative that we are on the right path. Incidentally, some weeks ago we visited the Court of Audit of Slovenia and we were impressed with the environmental initiatives being taken by this national audit institution; we consider this a case of good practice whereby we do what we expect others to do.  The example of the beehive on the Office’s premises is a case in point; as informed, honey produced by the Court’s bees conveys a strong message in favour of sustainable development.
  • Interaction with citizens could also be a useful source of audit evidence; however, one must need to be extremely careful to avoid any vested interests on the part of individuals or pressure groups.  In all cases, we need to maintain, without any exception whatsoever, an objective, professional and fair perspective based on sound evidence and findings.
  • We should also do our utmost to keep the general public aware of what we are doing especially the outcomes of our reports and assignments. For instance, having an effective PR function  is extremely important to convey the findings and recommendations of our audits in a manner which can be understood by our citizens.  In this regard, our Office has decided to set up a more effective PR function.  We have also introduced a new policy for all our staff as regards our working relationship with the media through which such messages could be conveyed.  As experience has taught us, we cannot ignore the risk that certain sections of the media may have an agenda of their own but we cannot afford not consider the media as an important stakeholder in so far as our interaction with our citizens is concerned.

How to preserve independence and still be open to the different groups of citizens?

  • We should always be aware of the concerns of different groups of citizens, however, this should in no way interfere with our decision making as regards audit subjects or timing. As Heads of SAIs, it is indeed our duty to safeguard our organisation’s total independence without any exception; the fact is that without such independence no one of us would be in a position to offer the kind of service, based on an objective, professional and fair analysis, which our citizens expect.
  • Thus, whilst engaging effectively with stakeholders in the course of our work, we have to be fully independent in our choice of audit subjects and in the audit methods we engage in, as well as in the conduct of our audits and the organisation and management of our Offices.  I cannot overemphasise that this is the most fundamental condition for each and every one of us.
  • As a consequence, if we are to serve our citizens in the best manner possible, our Offices need to preserve to the full their strategic and operational autonomy. This necessitates being in a position to have adequate human resources to carry out our audit mission in the best manner possible.  I emphasise this point; in today’s fast changing scenario we have no option but to continuously monitor the adequacy of our internal expertise and support all our staff to develop their individual skills and competencies through ongoing professional development opportunities.  Otherwise how can we offer the required audit services to our Parliament and citizens?  Coming from the smallest EU national audit institution, with just 55 auditors, this consideration assumes greater importance.  Indeed, this year around 65% of our staff have attended professional training programmes which we have organized in cooperation with the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA). By next year, it is anticipated that practically all staff would have attended, as a minimum, one module of this professional development programme.
  • We need to ensure that the stakeholder groups with whom we communicate understand what our SAI’s mission, vision and functions are.  I am sure most of us have experienced instances when stakeholder groups expect things which fall outside our remit or competence and thus it is in our interest to ensure they are adequately informed of what we can and what we cannot do.  For example, most of us cannot audit policy issues; this being a key consideration of which, and I state this with the benefit of my ten years experience within the National Audit Office, some of our stakeholders may not be aware. 
  • Thus, our active engagement with stakeholders leads to greater audit impact by understanding the audit expectation gap that may exist within our own jurisdiction especially in connection with our mandate and capacity.
  • One final even if very important consideration – we must ensure that the absolute need to safeguard our independence should never, and I do emphasise the word ‘never’, be used as a pretext to avoid communicating or engaging with our citizens. 

Conclusion – As far as possible, we should intensify our efforts to engage with our citizens, as well as with any other stakeholders that we consider as important to our successful implementation of our audit mission, vision and strategy.  At the same time, whilst engaging with our stakeholders, we must always keep in mind that our SAIs must, at all times, have the final say in WHAT, HOW and WHEN to audit.  One final word of advice, the INTOSAI Guidance on SAIs Engagement with Stakeholders provides some excellent advice on this important subject.