COVID-19 continues to have a significant impact on the work of the National Audit Office, including our international work. Our team has continued to complete our international assignments successfully from the UK. We are actively exchanging experiences with other national audit agencies (also known as Supreme Audit Institutions – SAIs) on how to audit governments’ response to COVID-19 across the world, which provides us with valuable insight to strengthen our UK audit response.
The objectives of our international work are three-fold – we want to use international good practice to improve our UK focused work; we want to enhance the UK’s reputation by showcasing the quality of our public audit work worldwide; and we want to protect the UK taxpayer’s interests overseas by bidding to audit international organisations that receive UK funds, or by providing training to SAIs in countries that receive UK aid.
The NAO published its new strategy in June , so we were already planning how international activities could best contribute to our mission as the UK’s independent public spending watchdog. As Gareth Davies, the Comptroller and Auditor General, recently described, the NAO is undertaking a substantial audit programme on the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. From the start, we were clear that UK audit coverage of the pandemic would be stronger by including global insights. People who read our reports see media coverage contrasting how other countries are responding and want an objective comparison between these responses. We can also learn lessons from other countries that can help the UK to better respond to this pandemic.
The NAO has a global reputation as a leading SAI, but we strongly believe there is always more we can learn from others on how best to provide a modern public audit service. Having good links with other SAIs also allows us to make better use of international comparisons in our reports – particularly in key areas such as delivering major infrastructure and defence projects – providing Parliament with insights on how other governments approach the same challenges facing our own.
As we contacted other SAIs it was obvious our situation was not unique. As well as considering the specific nature and unprecedented scale of the pandemic, SAIs around the world were all thinking about how to audit the same thing at the same time. SAIs have a unique cross-government perspective and an independent evidence base that many other commentators do not. We are expected to audit government’s use of public funds but there is a lot to consider. How do we time our interventions so as not to compromise the emergency response, whilst ensuring full accountability for the use of public money. What type of audit product is useful at different stages of the response?
NAO staff have shared insights on the pandemic in webinars organised by the International Organisation of Supreme Audit Institutions (INTOSAI). We also established a new European Organisation of Supreme Audit Institutions (EUROSAI) Project Group on Auditing the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which we are co-chairing with SAI Finland. As part of this, SAIs from 30 European countries have agreed to coordinate and communicate COVID-19 work; share audit approaches, information and outputs; and scope content for any future lessons learned reports. In June and July we co-hosted eight online meetings where 30 SAIs set out the impact of COVID-19, their audit response, and what they wanted to share and learn. We will use these insights, and further information exchanges on specific topics, in our own reports to Parliament.
This isn’t easy, and each SAI has a different answer as every country’s context is different. However, what has quickly become apparent is that government responses around the world are similar: preparing, responding and then handling the recovery and long-term impacts of the pandemic. This involves significant expenditure in healthcare, wider emergency response measures and supporting individuals, businesses and the economy.
Since the pandemic started, operating internationally hasn’t been straightforward. In March we recalled our people working overseas at short notice and like everyone we have had to adapt to working online. Our work has continued successfully. We completed our international audits, including the World Intellectual Property Organisation, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and the Pan American Health Organisation. The international bodies we audit will have to consider new ways of working in response to the pandemic. To support them in this, our audit reports provided an important and independent perspective on the decisions they have to make on future strategic planning, more efficient and effective processes, and on making better use of the resources provided to them. We will also share experiences with other SAIs auditing UN organisations at the UN Panel of External Auditors this November.
Learning how public servants around the world have responded to the pandemic, many in countries with fewer resources than the UK, provides valuable comparisons. It makes us even more grateful to those on the front line of the UK’s response.
The aim of everything we do at the NAO is to help Parliament hold government to account for its use of public money and to help improve public services. The nature of public audit means we first need to look backwards to understand what happened, so we can then look forwards to recommend how to make things better. By working internationally, the NAO is also looking outwards to help us understand how others are meeting the same challenges the UK faces.
Authors: Daniel Lambauer, Kevin Summersgill, Damian Brewitt