Accountability is in danger if national watchdogs are compromised

17 May 24

As startling infringements on the independence of national public auditing authorities reflect a worrying global decline in democratic systems, INTOSAI and the OECD call for more hands on deck.

The auditor-general of Sierra Leone, Lara Taylor-Pearce, can lay claim to a formidable list of chartered accountancy and business management qualifications, a stellar and unblemished career of thirty-plus years in the private and public sectors and particularly in public financial management in Sierra Leone, and several national awards including the National Integrity Award and recognition as one of the country’s 50 most influential women.

At a global level, she has been a stalwart champion of auditor-general offices worldwide (collectively known as supreme audit institutions or SAIs). Within INTOSAI, the UN-associated organisation supporting SAIs around the globe, Taylor-Pearce has served as vice-chair of the governing board of the INTOSAI Development Initiative (IDI) and as chair of AFROSAI-E.

Add to this her position on several pan-African and global anti-corruption, PFM and transparency and accountability committees and think-tanks, and it becomes almost impossible to comprehend the overnight suspension from office of Taylor-Pearce and her deputy Tamba Momoh, or the recent government tribunal against them for unprofessional conduct on which the suspended auditor-general is awaiting a verdict.

It’s less difficult to understand on discovering that her abrupt dismissal came shortly before the SAI’s incriminating audit report on suspected corruption in the Office of the President was due to be published.

“The emergency and unprecedented nature of such spending within our public sectors gives room for processes, procedures and laws to be overlooked. This, in some cases, has resulted in financial malfeasance, mis-procurement and human resource issues to name a few, as reported in various countries’ Audit reports on the use of funds during Covid 19,” said Lara Taylor-Pearce in an earlier interview.

“A similar situation was experienced during the Ebola crisis, which some West African countries witnessed during 2014 [and] 2015. The sad reality is that individuals may use such situations to override nations’ public financial management laws, resulting in a disadvantage to citizens.”

Director General of IDI, Einar Gørrissen, who was called as a witness to the tribunal hearing and to comment on the BBC and CNBC during the suspension proceedings, believes this case represents a growing tide of infringements to SAI independence in many countries and regions, which strongly impact on the ability of public sector auditors to carry out their role.

“SAIs across the globe exist literally to hold their governments to account. Their ability to investigate, audit, report on and share citizen-level information about government spending of public money and public sector service delivery must be without constraint. The Sierra Leone case may be an extreme example of punitive limitation on an auditor-general’s ability to carry out their function fully and effectively, but unfortunately such infringements are far from unique in the experience of SAIs.”

INTOSAI, the International Organization for Supreme Audit Institutions of which IDI is a part, has long campaigned for the rights of SAIs to remain independent of the government they audit, with their mandate to do so encapsulated in its Mexico and Lima Declarations and in a portfolio of support for SAIs and their stakeholders to understand and mitigate independence challenges. As well as being chair of INTOSAI and serving on the governing boards of IDI and the regional INTOSAI body, OLACEFS, Bruno Dantas is president of the Brazilian Court of Audit. To Dantas, the backsliding in SAIs’ ability to maintain transparency in their reporting and hold governments accountable is concerning.

“The Mexico Declaration defines eight pillars of SAI independence, ranging from operational autonomy such as the ability of SAIs to appoint their own staff and organise their budget, to the fundamental right to access information for audits and share the results with their parliaments and the public,” he explains.

“The SAI’s mandate should be enshrined in the constitution, and the head of the SAI must be protected from arbitrary removal from office. Yet we see many examples of erosion of these principles across all eight pillars. As a global voice for SAIs, INTOSAI needs greater support in recognising the extent of these threats to democracy, stability and financial integrity that every one of these infringements represents.”

To amplify that global voice, INTOSAI’s Donor Cooperation (IDC) appointed world leader Helen Clark as goodwill ambassador for SAI independence in 2022. Formerly Prime Minister of New Zealand and Administrator of the UN Development Program, Ms Clark has extensive first-hand experience at both a national and global level of the vital role played by SAIs.

“Throughout a long-term career in politics from my time in opposition to three terms as New Zealand’s prime minister, I have noted again and again how hugely important it is to the proper management of government for checks, balances and unequivocal sources of impartial information to be made available by the SAI.” She adds, “That impartiality is key, of course. I was fortunate to be in a country where the Office of the Auditor General is independent of the government it audits. Unfortunately, all SAIs are not created equal in this regard.”

Feedback from SAIs globally also indicates that independence under one government or regime does not guarantee it for the long-term. Gareth Davies, UK Comptroller and Auditor General and IDI Board member, is concerned that the Global SAI Stocktaking Report 2023 published by IDI showed that SAIs are reporting a deteriorating position on their independence.

“Interference in SAIs’ ability to carry out their job, which can range from a refusal to provide information or publish reports to the removal of the head of the SAI from office, has increased since the last survey in 2020, which showed in turn a general decline from the previous survey in 2017,” he comments. “SAIs must remain vigilant and support each other as far as possible to maintain and elevate transparency and accountability.”

Such support is certainly available to Supreme Audit Institutions. Globally, the likes of INTOSAI, IDI, IDC, IMF, IBP, Transparency International and more are working tirelessly to highlight the need to unite for increased clarity about the gathering and expenditure of public monies. In 2022, the G20 Anti-Corruption Working Group negotiated high-level principles that advocate for the independence of SAIs which, once adopted, will serve as a reference point to anchor the efforts on the fight against corruption.

At a country level, SAIs can also access resources and practical support. Through its team dedicated to SAI independence, IDI has developed the SIRAM process – the SAI Independence Rapid Advocacy Mechanism. Anyone from SAI staff to a member of the public can report a threat to SAI independence. That threat is investigated and assessed to see if there is an infringement, in a legally-founded and transparent process conducted in conjunction – where possible – with the head of the SAI. If needed, redress is then recommended.

“Not only have we seen an increase in the number of SIRAM cases reported,” says IDI’s Einar Gørrissen, “but we have also found the range of threats to vary from the subtle to the overt. For instance, future changes to legislation that would impact on the SAI’s independence can easily fly under the radar, even though they represent a significant infringement. Other more obvious limitations include the refusal to let a SAI publish their audit report, or arbitrarily replacing a SAI leader. There is great benefit to highlighting and addressing them all.”

Recent cases of note were SIRAMs in Poland and in Ghana, two contrasting SAIs in terms of size and scale. In Poland, the SAI suffered significant limitations to its independence, including delays in the appointment of its management team by Parliament and restrictions in conducting specific audits. The situation became so critical that at one point in 2023, only four members of a 19-strong management team were in position. Fortunately, through combined advocacy efforts, the situation has improved, and the SAI now has a fully functional management team.

In Ghana, the auditor general was sent on leave for 133 days by the President of the Republic. The decision came after a series of legal proceedings initiated against high level officials, based on the results of audits conducted by the SAI. This decision to send the auditor general on enforced leave created a huge controversy and was deemed opportunistic and questionable by various local and international actors. Finally, in May 2023, the Ghana Supreme Court unanimously ruled the president’s decision unconstitutional, adding that the decision violated the functional and Institutional independence of the auditor general.

Yet while support is available, the dire need to ensure SAIs’ independence from their governments is increasing as fast as stable, reliable governance in general is declining. If SAIs are to serve citizens, they need the ability to challenge and question government accounts, and publish the results of their audits in a timely fashion. Often this basic right is sadly lacking, at least in part. To that end, following a recent event to maximise understanding of independence concerns to SAI heads, co-hosted by OECD and IDI, the request to the development and governance world became clear.

“SAI independence is critical to strong, transparent governance across the board. It is not just an accounting and auditor issue,” says Bruno Dantas, INTOSAI chair. “We need more parties to unite around the table to create an ‘all hands on deck’ approach to SAI independence, and we welcome partnerships with all key bodies concerned about the wellbeing and global governance of our world.”

And as Lara Taylor-Pearce’s case rumbles on, all concerned parties are hopeful that it won’t take another forcibly removed auditor-general to make the world sit up and take notice.

  • INTOSAI Development Initiative

    A not-for-profit body that supports supreme audit institutions in developing countries.

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