Date: April 2021
Author(s): Marcos Mendiburu
Publication type: Learning Exchange Report
Published by: Accountability Research Center, ControlaTuGoberino, Fundar, Oxfam Mexico, Auditoria Superior de la Federacion, Communidad PIRC, Red por la Rendicion de Cuentas
A group of civil organizations committed to strengthening state-society synergies for accountability and Mexico’s National Audit Office (ASF) jointly organized the International Seminar on Citizen Participation and External Auditing in September 2020. More than five thousand people from 21 countries registered, and there were more than eighteen thousand virtual participants throughout the three days of the event. During the seminar, participants shared an assessment on the state of the subject regionally, research on the progress made at the sub-national level in a couple of countries, SAIs practices in the region, and examples from civil society on the use of SAI-generated information. Not only was the seminar useful to discuss progress and existing gaps but also to develop a series of proposals and recommendations that could be followed by OLACEFS and the SAIs themselves to expand on this issue.
Seminar participants acknowledged that citizen participation has advanced faster than its implementation by most SAIs in the region, which usually encompasses limited participation exercises. Thus, there is a risk that promoting citizen participation may constitute an effort to “be compliant” but not to generate any relevant impact on auditing.
Among the factors that would explain this situation were: the false dilemma between “citizen participation” and “audit”—based on the assumption that the former could affect the independence of the SAIs and/or the objectivity of the auditing; the organizational culture of the SAIs themselves; and the limitations of the citizen reporting mechanism as the dominant practice for citizen participation.
The ‘minimalist approach’ to citizen participation in auditing adopted by many of the region’s SAIs entails the need to go beyond their comfort zone and seriously consider the results and the impact of citizen participation, its sup-porting evidence, and how achievements are measured. In other words, citizen participation in audits must be results-oriented. Therefore, rigorous metrics are required on SAIs’ efforts to promote citizen participation. The data related to the implementation and results of citizen participation in audits by SAIs should be publicly disclosed on their institutional websites.
At the seminar, some institutionalized practices on citizen participation in auditing were shared, such as the participatory planning of the SAI from Argentina, the Council of Civil Society Associations (COSOC) of the SAI from Chile, the articulated audit of the SAI from Colombia, and the citizen report mechanism of the SAI from Mexico. However, the engagement of indigenous communities in the audit on the quality of drinking water services con-ducted by the Costa Rican SAI in 2018 showed that an enabling legal framework or specific internal regulations are not always required for SAIs to promote citizen participation. In this case, there was no internal practice to support such participation, but the willingness to experiment was essential. The innovation in SAIs must go hand in hand with citizen participation. This experience also highlighted the importance of involving the ultimate beneficiaries of the audit: the community members themselves.
It was emphasized that a broader view of citizen participation in SAIs requires an analysis of the various profiles of potential civil society participants. It also requires an understanding of the mechanisms these participants use to participate, their motivations, their possible contributions to an effective participation in an audit, and an adjustment of the practices implemented when they encounter obstacles gaining access to them. This approach also calls for adopting citizen participation practices based on a collaborative approach between citizens and SAIs instead of adopting consultative-nature practices prevalent in most institutions. This implies that citizen participation practices must be jointly created, that is, created from and with the citizens, not for the citizens. Furthermore, this approach involves citizen participation throughout the audit cycle, including during the execution and/or follow-up phase of an audit, when feasible and appropriate.
Likewise, it is also necessary to promote the accountability of citizen contributions or inputs from start to end, including the actions implemented by the SAIs (reporting on their capacity to respond or ‘responsiveness’) and how these actions or responses have contributed to other actions or changes by third parties. This requires SAIs to take a different perspective when reporting their achievements to transcend audit reports (and their findings or recommendations), emphasizing their contribution to the accountability ecosystem (for example, how other oversight bodies, the media, and society have used audit products), and how this contributes to improving people’s lives. This is key to prove the added value of SAIs in today’s world.
In summary, the challenges of the 21st century require public institutions to collaborate with other stakeholders, focus on results, be innovative, and use knowledge to adapt to changes in the external environment. These characteristics or qualities also need to be present among SAIs.
 The seminar was broadcast on YouTube. Please note that only those who wished to obtain a certificate of attendance registered, although others connected to the live broadcast without prior registration. On the other hand, the total number of virtual participants comprises the total number of people connected in each of the sessions.
 These qualities were pointed out by Diego Arisi, the IDB’s leading state modernization specialist, on November 20 at an event held in Bogotá, Colombia.