The answers of Janar Holm, Auditor General of the Republic of Estonia, to the questions of Mr Yevgeny Antonov from the Russian News Agency TASS

Janar Holm | 9/19/2019 | 12:00 AM

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(TASS sent the questions to the Auditor General of Estonia in relation to the XIII Congress of the International Organisation of Supreme Audit Institutions (INTOSAI), which will be held in Moscow from 23 to 29 September and which will also be attended by the delegation of the Estonian National Audit Office.)

 

Question: What is your opinion of the organisation of national audits in Russia?

Answer: Russia has accumulated its audit experience over hundreds of years. As the nature and forms of a state have changed in time, so have new layers been added to the audit culture and experience. There is no doubt that a country like Russia has a lot of interesting experience and fresh approach angles to offer to the international audit community within the scope of the cooperation coordinated by the International Organisation of Supreme Audit Institutions (INTOSAI). The motto of the INTOSAI is “Experientia mutua omnibus prodest” (mutual experience benefits all). The supreme audit institution of Russia is a professional partner on the international scene and an active member of the INTOSAI, who has led working groups and contributed to many initiatives.

The National Audit Office of Estonia has had an pleasant and mutually respectful relationship with the supreme audit institution of Russia, which has also had a practical output: the performance of two audits in cooperation of the two states was agreed during the visit of the Chairman of the Accounts Chamber of Russia to Estonia in 2010. The first of them focused on the activities of the agencies that ensure cross-border flows of goods and means of transport, i.e. the shortening of queues on the border, and the other on guaranteeing environmental protection of the transboundary lake shared by Estonia and Russia – Lake Peipus – and the sustainable use of transboundary bodies of water. As we all know, the focus on environmental protection keeps increasing as a result of the climate change. This was the first joint project of its kind implemented by the supreme audit institutions of Estonia and Russia. The audit projects were successful and the heads of the Estonian and Russian supreme audit institutions at the time, Mihkel Oviir and Sergei Stepashin, signed documents that concern the common part of the parallel audits carried out by the two states in Ivangorod in March 2012. The meeting of Estonian Auditor General and Chairman of the Accounts Chamber of Russia was held in January 2013 in St Petersburg, Russia and parties analysed whether any progress had been made in solving the problems that were revealed in the course of the parallel audits carried out by the Chamber of Accounts of Russia and the National Audit Office of Estonia a year ago regarding the organisation of border crossing and the condition of Lake Peipus.

The audit institutions of both countries emphasised the importance of rational and mutually beneficial cooperation.

 

Question: Does anything have to be changed in the fundamentals of the work of the national supreme audit institutions of the world?

Answer: Yes, the supreme audit institutions of the world are at a crossroads and need to decide how to proceed. The development of information technology has changed the world so much that going on as before, where auditors submitted their conclusions after working on an audit for a year or even longer, is not possible. Decision-makers need our opinions and information a lot faster.

In the international audit community, I have often noticed the understanding that our goal is to carry out audits, to audit. This isn’t actually true. Auditing is just a work method, a means of getting information. Our goal should be to help the public sector act smartly and make important decisions in the interests of the public and weighing all kinds of information as thoroughly as possible before these decisions are made.

The execution of such a mission and the solution of problems related to government cannot be approached with a limited toolbox. If the decision-making processes in ministries and public authorities have changed, then supreme audit institutions must keep up with the times and adjust their tools according to these changes. This is certainly possible without losing our independence. In order to do this, we need to create new tools/products – quick audits, quick analyses, short reports, justified opinions and so on, and use them in accordance with our mandate at the right time and where necessary for the execution of our mission and function.

Information is the most useful when it’s accessible at the right time and in the right format. Retroactive auditing, where the public is given reassurance about the effectiveness of policies, lawful and correct use of resources and suchlike, has prevailed until now. This is certainly important, but we must look into the future. I see the increasing importance of the active monitoring of current policy-making and the provision of information and advice to the public during the process of policy-making as a growing role. As an Estonian proverb says – there is nothing to do with hindsight. This also applies increasingly more to the world of audit.

Due to its role, a supreme audit institution cannot become a participant in the policy-making process, i.e. take responsibility for the decisions of policy-making – but it has to intervene with its expertise when it notices, during its monitoring activities or analysis of the knowledge gained from earlier audits, that there are objective problems in the argumentation of policy selections – analyses are inaccurate, there are errors in the calculation of costs, important aspects or information have not been taken into account, etc.

Does giving advice and information during the policy-making process constitute intervention in politics? Yes, if such activity resulted in the audit institution making policy recommendations in favour of one or another specific solution. This is a landscape in which an audit institution cannot and must not intervene due to the nature of its role and functions. But giving advice and providing information during the policy-making process in the interests of better-quality decision-making does not constitute intervention in politics if the focus of the supreme audit institution is on the argumentation of policy choices that can be objectively assessed. This line which marks the start of policy-making values and convictions is also the line of the advisory function of the supreme audit institution, and recognising it is one of the most important tasks of a contemporary auditor as well as the head of an audit organisation.

I find that it would be irresponsible for supreme audit institutions to look on as decisions are made and implemented on the basis of faulty analyses or faulty measurable arguments, and to highlight the problems that can be seen during the decision-making process only after a long audit conducted years later. It would certainly be more convenient and risk free, but not in line with the organisation’s mission, at least not my organisation’s.

If our results arrive too late, they are useless and even ridiculous in the worst case. If we don’t do anything, then sooner or later we’ll find ourselves in a situation where the impact of the messages and activities of the supreme audit institutions will decrease.

The digitalisation of information exchange in the public sector, interconnected information systems and digitalised e-services have created an environment that allows us to get information about almost all policy areas in real time.

But the accessibility of data doesn’t only mean opportunities; it also means obligations. If the role and mission of the National Audit Office is to help the public sector act smartly, make important decisions in the interests of the general public and weigh all kinds of information as thoroughly as possible before these decisions are made, we have to do this, as said above, as soon as possible using all of our professionalism and accessible information. Collecting information and verifying its accuracy doesn’t take as long as it did a decade ago. We can use big data, carry out advanced data analyses and so on. The development of the e-state also means that we must rethink the work of supreme audit institutions. This is a challenge, but a requirement of the times.

The Estonian National Audit Office is preparing to take over the leadership of the EUROSAI IT Working Group in the next year and we’re looking forward to the opportunity to cooperate with our Russian colleagues, who are members of this working group, so we can learn from each other’s experience and to add more and more IT tools to the toolbox of auditors, which would contribute to the better organisation of the lives of our countries and people.

  • Posted: 9/19/2019 12:00 AM
  • Last Update: 9/20/2019 11:34 AM
  • Last Review: 9/20/2019 11:34 AM

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