Citizens, Civil Society and Auditors: COVID-19 requires an “ecosystem” approach to accountability
by Brendan Halloran, International Budget Partnership— Sep 15, 2020
Governments around the world are at a critical juncture. Democracy is continuing to erode in countries across the globe, with increasing threats to citizens’ freedoms and restrictions on civic organizations. At the same time inequality is high and rising. Frustration with governments (democratic or not) failing to address peoples’ needs, alongside cases of corruption, has caused citizens to take to the streets in unprecedented numbers, forcing government action. Yet often the root causes of impunity remain untouched.
At the moment, these medium-term trends are overshadowed by the COVID-19 emergency. Faced with this crisis, governments in the north and south have taken action, both to protect their populations from the virus and, given the economic harm often necessary to prevent the spread of the virus, to provide social protection programs. Effective response by governments are necessary to save lives and prevent families from falling into poverty and hardship in the short term, and hold the key to coming out the other side of this crisis with strengthened social safety nets, health systems, and more. However, it is likely that funds meant to strengthen public health infrastructure and reach vulnerable groups will be mismanaged. This is an opportunity for public auditors to ensure that public money is well spent during and after the crisis.
This is the moment for Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs), entities mandated with checking whether public funds are being managed properly, to become much more visible accountability champions, strengthening their hand to ensure government resources reach people in their moment of need. However, many SAIs will struggle to seize that opportunity. Evidence shows us that even technically sound audits undertaken by independent auditors are often not acted upon by governments. Parliaments may not take up the audits, or if they do, they may not enforce meaningful action. Findings of mismanagement or corruption could potentially implicate politically well-connected actors, both inside and outside government. Thus, it is not surprising there would be resistance to holding them to account, which could embarrass the government and even shut down what might be lucrative opportunities for enrichment. Of course, not every audit finding is about corruption and some may point to challenges faced in delivering complex public programs. In these cases, even if audits point to the right solution, these may be difficult to put into practice. Both a political economy lens, who stands to lose from audit findings being acted upon, and a practical lens of the challenges of implementing audit recommendations, may point to barriers to meaningful action.
This challenging reality suggests a need for more strategic approaches to leveraging audits for accountability, one that is realistic about the causes of public sector problems and the complexities of reform to address those challenges. Thinking about the role of SAIs within a broader accountability ‘ecosystem’ of actors and mechanisms suggests that ‘connecting the dots’ between these actors is more likely to result in meaningful change than isolated efforts. That means bringing together citizens and civil society organizations to work with SAIs to undertake audits and champion findings and recommendations. Too often, civic efforts fall short when seeking to address systemic challenges related to public resources and services, and could be strengthened by connecting more meaningfully to state oversight. IBP’s efforts to support CSOs and SAIs in five countries has shown promise in assembling diverse coalitions that leverage audits to engage government actors and ensure corrective action.
In the context of a decline in trust in public institutions, citizen engagement with the state in seeking accountability can make a difference, from strengthening the active practice of citizenship and the social contract to more tangible outcomes in improved government efficiency and responsiveness. SAIs are increasingly engaging citizens more broadly, both to inform audits and to help ensure action. Cases such as South Africa demonstrate that SAIs are increasing interested in tapping into these potential synergies. SAIs are increasingly adopting the language of public engagement, and there are promising cases of collaboration.
Even in contexts of a weak accountability ecosystem and limited democratic governance, evidence shows that civic action is an important factor in audits being acted upon by government. In the best cases, citizen participation with SAIs is both a means to more effective audits and ultimately greater accountability, and an end in itself in terms of democratizing audit processes, strengthening the accountability ecosystem, and deepening citizenship practices. However, engaging citizens and civil society is no magic bullet, as examples of ‘box ticking’ in other domains, such as participatory budgeting, confirm. Collaboration between mobilized citizens, CSOs and SAIs can lead to effective coalitions with powerful synergies, but this requires significant effort to build relationships, strategize together and align ways of working.
Given the many challenges faced by citizens and governments around the world, there is an urgent need for SAIs to be more effective in their oversight efforts to ensure scarce public resources are used most effectively. During the present COVID emergency, lives depend on it. Accountability strategies that leverage SAI, CSO and broader citizen roles – along with media, private sector and other government actors, such as parliaments and courts – can mitigate some of the challenges faced by oversight actors, particularly during the COVID emergency. This can lead to public resources being used more effectively in the short term. In the long term, it could contribute to strengthening and democratizing the accountability ecosystem.