At this stage of the pandemic, Supreme Audit Institutions (SAI) all over the world are grappling with the question of what to do now and how to plan for the future. The World Bank’s latest paper on the ‘Role of Supreme Audit Institutions in Governments’ Response to COVID-19: Emergency and Post-emergency Phases’ underscores the importance of transparency, accountability, and engaging citizens and civil society organizations (CSO) to counter perceptions of corruption.
Participatory auditing led by SAIs, with various stakeholders’ participation has evolved over time. Successful approaches, which can be useful during COVID-19, vary in terms of the level of involvement of citizens and CSOs. In rare cases, SAIs may conduct audits jointly with citizens and CSOs. On the other end of the spectrum, audit plans can be developed based on complaints from citizens and CSOs.
During the emergency phase, auditors are expected to not hinder governments’ rapid responses to the pandemic. So, direct CSOs and citizen participation may not be appropriate during this stage. However, in countries where SAIs have the mandate to conduct ‘pre-audit’ or ‘ex-ante’ audits, this can be done through citizen participation using digital tools.
They need to be mindful that civil servants may have had to make quick decisions during the emergency response. Citizens and CSOs can help validate audit findings and bring third party objectivity to the information and findings disclosed by ministries who often did not have time to deliberate. They are more likely to reflect the broader concerns of the public and would add value to the audit process. Where possible, credible CSOs and citizens with well-established knowledge could also be directly involved in the audit process on a voluntary or token honorarium basis, with appropriate checks and balances.
While such reports can give early insights to and be used primarily by policy makers and executive leadership as governments embark on strengthening their health systems and adopting economic recovery measures, they will also provide citizens and CSOs good information to demand accountability on a more timely basis.
Citizen engagement can also help SAIs mitigate their own institutional challenges, particularly in developing countries. One challenge that can be exacerbated during the pandemic is budget cuts, which could significantly affect SAIs ability to conduct audits of COVID-19 expenditures.They can ensure that this is communicated to citizens and CSOs as well as other stakeholders (e.g. The World Bank) that support SAI independence. Support from stakeholders can help protect the funding of SAIs, and thereby ensure effective audits of governments’ responses to COVID19.
In addition to improving SAIs’ credibility, involving citizens and CSOs in SAIs’ audits would contribute to ensuring the much-needed collective action in dealing with the aftermath of the pandemic. The global pandemic has created an opportunity for increased openness and collaboration to improve the quality and depth of SAIs’ audit work and to build future resilience. So, SAIs could seize the opportunity to mainstream participation of citizens and CSOs in audit of government finances/programs going forward.