Engaging citizens in auditing work: the experience of the Superior Audit Office in Mexico
By Benjamín Fuentes Castro
A real public sector accountability framework must embrace mechanisms or processes allowing citizen participation to become a relevant component of government organizations’ management.
An essential element for these policies’ consolidation deals with minimizing the information asymmetry gap among organizations’ management and the citizenry. In this regard, the main task for government institutions is to ensure an adequate level of transparency and access to information. These components provide the basis for societal involvement in public agencies’ endeavors.
This is particularly relevant if we consider that the work of those institutions in authority to monitor and evaluate other public agencies’ performance and to ensure cross-cutting accountability, such as the case of Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs), is highly technical and complex.
Often, citizens are not able to understand the scope of these institutions’ work and are majorly unaware of their actions. This is not surprising, if we take into consideration that SAIs use standards, guidelines, criteria and technical procedures for carrying out their audits, thus rendering written audit reports difficult to understand for most people.
In Mexico, the Superior Audit Office (ASF) was created in 2000 to monitor public agencies performance and to oversee income and public funds spent by any actor, either public or private. The ASF is dependent on the legislative branch and was established as a fundamental pillar to ensure greater accountability in a country with low levels of institutional development.
Since its creation, the ASF has been aware of the challenges associated to promote citizens’ involvement in its work. A first challenge mentioned before has to do with finding ways to make the technical work of the ASF accessible and easy-to-understand to the regular citizen. A second challenge relates to the prevalent low levels of citizen participation and citizen involvement in public affairs in Mexico.
To tackle these challenges, the ASF has been using and proposes four strategies to increase the citizen’s supply of available information and improve its quality.
“Citizen’s Guide: What is and what does the Supreme Audit Office of Mexico do?” In this guide, the reader gets to know the scope of the ASF activities and learns how audits are performed. This guide is written in a plain language and includes diagrams and illustrations to facilitate its understanding. The Guide, created in 2013, is available in the ASF’s website and is timely updated so as to provide the reader with relevant information about the institution.
“Open data system on audit information” It’s an online platform that shows the results of all the audits performed by the ASF since 2000, as well as the current status of the corresponding observations and recommendations. The system also generates statistics and cross-reference results at users’ demand. So far (August 2015), more than a thousand visits by 900 users have been registered.
“ASF Kids” It’s an educational video aimed to minors so as to contribute to foster an accountability culture and values in them. It explains what the ASF does, how it is done and why it is important in order to promote accountability. This program also includes visits to schools in order to present the video, distribute brochures and interact with the children. 760 schools in the Federal District area, the capital of the country, have been visited, and the video has been seen by 92,453 students.
“Report Line” The goal of this project is to provide citizenry with the opportunity to denounce any wrongdoing involving the use of federal resources; it can be done on-line, via e-mail, regular mail or through a telephone line. In order to improve the service and increasing its scope, a general overhaul of the line is currently undergoing. One of its objectives is the development of whistleblowing within government agencies as a means to allow the involvement of civil servants in the oversight of public business.
These four strategies were designed to support one of ASF’s strategic objectives: to bridge the information gap between the institution and the citizenry. We are aware that transparency policies are necessary but are not enough. Lacking information is the first barrier for understanding; therefore, it is essential to develop innovative projects that encourage an increasingly active citizen involvement and make information accessible, appealing and easy to understand
Here in the ASF, we are conscious that SAIs have an enormous responsibility in making those who make use of public resources accountable. It is evident that auditing is key in curtailing public actors’ discretion, and thus contributing to reduce corruption. However, this impact is minimized if the public is unaware of the auditing outcomes and if they do not engage in the work of the ASF.
These have been our efforts. We hope that sharing them proves to be helpful to promote further debate on citizen engagement with accountability institutions. You can have access to the aforementioned four mechanisms at our website and we also invite you to comment this blog. We look forward to receiving your feedback.
About the Author
Benjamín Fuentes Castro is Technical Secretary to the Mexican Auditor General. He has a Master’s Degree in International Economy from the University of Essex. He has been lecturer at the Universidad Panamericana, the Universidad Anáhuac and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). He was Director of the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation Program. He was also Director of Research on Dumping and Subsidies.
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