Strengthening the Accountability Ecosystem: Strategic Approaches to Leveraging Audits for Accountability

This blog is adapted from comments given at the workshop co-hosted by IBP and the Nepal Office of the Auditor General, December 11-12, 2019

Public auditors are important actors in the accountability ecosystem of their countries.  Yet their audit reports and recommendations are often not acted upon.  Why not?  Accountability is an inherently political process, and thus approaches to undertaking and leveraging audits must navigate these political dynamics.  Ensuring that audits and their recommendations are more nuanced and feasible, combined with action to leverage these findings in broader strategies is more likely to influence government responsiveness to address challenges in a more meaningful and sustainable way.

Nature of the problems covered by audits

There are diverse factors that contribute to the problems that are revealed by public audits.  There are technical and institutional factors, political dynamics, there are power structures, social factors, and there are norms, ideas, mental models held by individuals, institutions and societies writ large.  So we need a holistic understanding of the problems that audits are addressing.  Some Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs) have multi-disciplinary teams in house and others bring in subject matter experts as needed, while others have a specifically financial approach.  We need multiple lenses to understand the nature and causes of the problems that are being audited, as well as to produce feasible recommendations that will be most likely to lead to more meaningful and sustainable change.  Reform processes – particularly those associated with more effective and inclusive public services – in public institutions are complex, and successful shifts are driven by incremental adaptation underpinned by an understanding of the politics of institutional change and reform; recommendations made by audit reports should reflect this reality.

Related to the above, several of the audits the organization I work for (the International Budget Partnership) is supporting actors to leverage more effectively are speaking to systemic issues in broad sectors or programs, like education.  For example, the root of the issues found in an audit of the school feeding program in Ghana are deeply tied to political parties’ patronage networks.  These issues are often firmly embedded and resistant to change.  Thus, audit reports and recommendations, and pressure and engagement around them, must often be a part of a broader set of actors, processes, and influences that shape public accountability through multiple pathways.  This includes shaping public perceptions and demands, government incentives, available evidence, possible solutions, enabling of other accountability pathways, etc.  It’s important to think both about the immediate impacts of the uptake specific audit recommendations, but also the longer-term processes of strengthening the accountability ecosystem that shapes the way government functions.

On the other hand, some audits target relatively more focused and concrete issues, so specific audit findings and recommendations can be a central component of an accountability and problem solving approach.  Another example from Ghana is the auction of public vehicles as a specific and tangible problem.  More concrete does not necessarily mean easier to resolve, and one dimension of audits targeting both systemic and more focused problem-centric issues is that they are often exposing situations that are currently benefiting relatively well-connected actors.  The recommendations proposed would diminish the benefits to these actors, and thus we would expect them to work to undermine the implementation of these recommendations.  This could be in more direct ways, or more likely indirectly through their influence in government or on the broader political system.

We need to ask why the situations and problems that are the focus of public audits exist in the first place.  It could be the complexity of the causes and thus the difficulty of resolving them, the lack of capacities needed to address the issues, and/or that a set of actors are benefiting from the status quo.  The audits that SAIs undertake and the recommendations they make then enter into this complex equation of actors and factors. Thus, we actually shouldn’t be surprised that recommendations are not fully taken up because they are one input into a complex dynamic of actors, incentives, capacities, etc.

Accountability ecosystem

In the workshop, colleagues from Nepal shared some of the challenges in the accountability ecosystem, in which various actors are not fully playing their role for a diversity of reasons.  Given the benefits that some actors derive from a weak accountability ecosystem, the process of strengthening these systems is inherently a political challenge.

There are things that SAIs can do to improve the enabling environment for the uptake of audits, like building capacity of Public Accounts Committees (PACs) or simplifying information for PACs and audited entities, but given the dynamics of the accountability ecosystem, whether meaningful action will be taken is ultimately out of SAIs’ control.  Indeed, IBP’s audit accountability initiative is based on the premise that the direct mechanisms of audit uptake and responsiveness are often weak.

In IBP’s discussions with CSO and SAI representatives about audits, many talk about making citizens more aware of audits, and able to understand them, with the assumption that this would lead to some kind of engagement or even putting pressure on government to act on audit recommendations.  But just as with the causes of the problems found by audits, we must ask the causes for citizen inaction.  The answers, in addition to the fact that they don’t know about them and/or don’t understand them, are that they don’t know what action they could take, their neighbors aren’t taking action, they don’t believe government would pay attention to them, they have other priorities, etc.  There is a growing body of research that providing information to citizens on issues that affect them is not enough for them to take action; there are many other preconditions that exist.

Even when citizens do raise their voice and act, in the case of certain scandals for example, this attention is usually short lived.  Often the changes that result from this citizen outrage or action are superficial and only address the symptoms, not the root of the problem.  So the role of citizens in the accountability ecosystem is equally challenging.

Thus, in addition to understanding the nature of the problems audits are targeting, it’s important to understand why the government (and public) is not acting on the audits.  The answer entails specific response to a given audit, and the functioning of the SAI and audits (and the public) within the broader accountability ecosystem, as well as broader explanations related to the nature and causes of the problems identified by audits.

In summary, given the complexities and challenging political drivers of many of the problems targeted by audits and the weak accountability ecosystems (including the role of citizens) in which SAIs are often embedded, we shouldn’t be surprised that many audits are not meaningfully acted upon.  To make matters worse, the recommendations made by SAIs may not fully align with what we know about how problems get solved in the public sector.  In other words, we may be proposing the right solution, but that solution may not be able to be implemented, for example because of a lack of capacities, or because it requires coordination amongst government actors who rarely do so.

Maybe this analysis is overly complicated.  Maybe there is a simpler narrative.  SAIs find something that government isn’t doing right and say what needs to be done to correct this, 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 the government to do it right, it becomes clear that audit findings and recommendations are part of a complex set of actors and factors often not aligned with meaningful accountability and government responsiveness.

Strategic implications

The challenges and complexities outlined above suggest that a very strategic approach is needed to leverage audits most effectively.  Several SAIs in the workshop highlighted the need to be very selective about prioritizing audits.  Consideration should be given to how audit finding and recommendation can have the most impact on a relevant problem, to address the causes and not just the symptoms.  Among other things, that involves analysis to understand who is benefiting from the status quo and might oppose the implementation of audit findings, and how to account for this resistance in our strategies.

The complex causes and possibilities of change around the issues audits target suggest multiple potential routes to change, which are not at all mutually exclusive:

  1. More direct: facilitating action on audit findings through established mechanisms (PACs, response by audited entities)
  2. More indirect: leveraging audit findings and recommendations through other change strategies, like litigation or civil society engagement (advocacy or broader mobilization)
  3. Even more indirect: leveraging audits to strengthen the role of the SAI and the broader accountability ecosystem. For example, a case in Argentina of a train crash not only resulted on action on audit recommendations, but also in bringing the SAI into the public consciousness.

Given the challenges of raising public awareness about audits, it’s important to consider involving those impacted by the problems revealed in the audits.  Similarly, it’s useful to consider other actors (CSOs, international organizations, etc.) working on the issues covered by the audit, but might not be aware of the audit findings and recommendations.  They are another constituency that would be much more likely to engage with audits.  Reaching out to affected groups and other relevant groups strengthens the credibility to efforts to get government to act on audit findings, brings a diversity of perspectives and capacities into a potential coalition around the issue, and offers the possibilities of collective action that can potentially shift incentives of public actors to take up audit recommendations in ways that CSOs or SAIs often struggle to do.

As noted, in many cases of corruption scandals there has been public outcry but little systemic change.  In other cases, corruption scandals were leveraged to strengthen the accountability ecosystem going forward.  SAIs and other pro-accountability actors need to be more flexible to engage issues that do have significant media coverage and public outrage, and leverage audit findings and recommendations to advocate for more strategic demands and actions to be taken in response, rather than just superficial ones.  This can be reinforced by more strategic engagement between NGOs and public protests, for example, in which audit recommendations are incorporated into citizen demands.

In summary, we need to consider more integrated strategies, incorporating both shorter-term direct routes of audit uptake, as well as longer-term shifts necessary to strengthen the accountability ecosystem.  Additionally, we must target audits most strategically at the kinds of problems and solutions that can be acted upon, with the support and engagement of the right set of actors.  Work being undertaken in Argentina by ACIJ, in collaboration with the AGN, to build a coalition around Chagas disease leveraging the audits done on this issue, is a good example of a multi-pronged strategy with shorter and longer-term objectives.  Other CSOs and SAIs that IBP is partnering with are exploring similar approaches, but this could be strengthened going forward, both in the work IBP is supporting and in broader efforts to strengthen the role of audits and auditors in the accountability ecosystem.

2 thoughts on “Strengthening the Accountability Ecosystem: Strategic Approaches to Leveraging Audits for Accountability

  1. Pingback: Public accountability and COVID-19: Keeping a systems lens amidst uncertainty and adaptation | Politics, Governance and Development

  2. Pingback: Citizens, Civil Society and Auditors: COVID-19 requires an ‘ecosystem’ approach to accountability | Politics, Governance and Development

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