Posted on January 26, 2016 by David Goldsworthy
Foreign embassy visits. Discussions with parliaments from Malaysia to Morocco. Spending weeks at the United Nations in New York. Every year NAO people spend anything from a few days to many months working overseas. Some conduct audits of international organisations; some evaluate UK spending overseas; some learn about international best practices; and others aid national audit offices and parliaments in developing countries. So how does this help the UK public sector?
As shown in the new International page on our website, our international reports cover a wide range of spending overseas, including issues such as Managing and removing foreign national offenders, Reforming the UK border and immigration system and the Ministry of Defence (MOD) spending plans. Not everyone joining the NAO thought they might have to swap suits for flack jackets and helmets to audit MOD equipment and supplies in war zones! Other important programmes on which we’ve reported recently include our review of the GREAT campaign, Exploiting the UK brand overseas, which found a return of £1.2 billion on Government’s investment of £113.5 million, and One HMG Overseas, in which we assessed progress on the ambitious programme to co-locate and improve the collaboration between all staff working for the UK government overseas.
Certainly the UK’s overseas aid expenditure attracts considerable press interest. In just the last few weeks we’ve published three reports on this issue. As we reported in Trends in total UK Official Development Assistance and the Department for International Development’s expenditure and Managing the Official Development Assistance target, in 2013 and 2014 the UK spent 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) on overseas aid (£11.7 billion in 2014). Within that total, DFID spent more than £1 billion per year on humanitarian interventions, as detailed on our report Responding to crises.
The general British public may be less aware of the importance of the NAO’s work with international audit bodies, which helps developing countries by strengthening parliamentary oversight and audit institutions. Most of this is paid for by development organisations such as the EU and the World Bank. I was recently in Uganda, a country for which I have had a soft spot since working there with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). Since joining the NAO I have been back to Uganda several times, providing support such as advice on the audit office’s corporate plans and resourcing, and training on conducting value for money studies. I’ve watched the audit office in Kampala grow and develop, in challenging conditions, under the leadership of a true hero. Not everyone his office audits is grateful for corrupt practices to be brought to light!
We are reminded everyday of the impact of failed and ineffective states. Residents lack access to fresh water, proper healthcare and good education. Refugee crises, terrorist movements and health epidemics are triggered. Strong governance, openness and transparency are crucial in helping states to function well and provide for their citizens. As one of the world’s leading audit institutions, the NAO has to play its part.
We play our part in auditing international bodies, too. In July 2016 we end a six-year turn on the UN Board of Audit where we have been auditing the UN Headquarters, UNHCR and others, including UN peace keeping forces in places like Lebanon, Ivory Coast and Kosovo.
The NAO also engages globally to ensure our work is based on international best practice and co-operation. For example, our HM Revenue & Customs team is establishing an international network of experts to share information about tax-related issues such as the hidden economy, criminal attack and tax evasion. As part of a study into the UK system of financial services mis-selling regulation and redress, our Markets & Competition team is reviewing international comparisons, including seeking the views of the Netherlands Court of Audit on the Dutch system and how the individual public bodies in the Netherlands co-ordinate their activities.
The NAO’s participation in the International Organisation of Supreme Audit Institutions (INTOSAI) makes this international sharing much easier. It also enables us to stay up-to-date with audit developments and contribute to ensuring internationally consistent standards and approaches. From our audit experts to our corporate functions, such as communications, we share our experiences and approaches to learn from each other and improve our services and our operations.
Whether focusing outwards on influencing, or inwards on learning, never has the mantra ‘think global, act local’ been more relevant – for the NAO and the organisations we audit.
About the author: David Goldsworthy is Head of the NAO’s International Relations and Technical Co-operation. He joined the NAO in 1995 after 20 years working in education and evaluation in Uganda, Australia and México. He spent 5 years as a VFM auditor before moving to the NAO’s international programme.
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