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‘Auditing requires creativity!’

Interview with François-Roger Cazala, ECA Member since 1 January 2020

François-Roger Cazala

On 1 January 2020, François-Roger Cazala took office as ECA Member. As a former auditor at the French Cour des comptes, and with a diplomatic experience, amongst other roles, he has extensive experience in the French public administration and in the Organisation for Cooperation and Economic Development, where he worked on the SIGMA programme. We interviewed him about the highlights of his career so far, his views on the EU public audit sector and how it can provide added value, and the challenges of starting in a new job during the lockdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

By Derek Meijers and Gaston Moonen

An unusual ‘settling in’ period

François-Roger Cazala became ECA Member on 1 January 2020, first arrived to the office at 6 January and had to start teleworking just over two months after that. This made integrating himself into his new working environment just a bit more challenging than usual. ‘On 12 March I was back home again and I think that, until now, I have spent more time in my apartment in Paris than in my office in Luxembourg! Obviously that’s not the best introduction one could think of, but I must say I am impressed by the professional way in which the ECA and its staff dealt with these difficult times.’

He explains that business was continued more or less without any interruptions and that, by now, the institution can remain fully operational whilst working fully remotely. ‘And I have to mention as well that, nearly none of our colleagues got infected after the safety measures were taken.’

Quickly after this unusual start, François-Roger Cazala acquainted himself with the ECA and its staff members, who, as he was happy to see, share his conviction to serve in public institutions and to spend a career working for the public good.

A conscious choice to work in the public sector

Indeed, a career in the public sector was a very conscious choice for François-Roger Cazala. After his studies in gymnasium and a Bachelor’s degree, he went to Sciences Po — political sciences and the École Nationale d’Administration — the ENA. ‘In my family there are some civil servants but most family members have a profession libérale — like doctors and pharmacists. And as I had little affinity with the private sector and the business world, it was quite a natural step for me to choose a career in the public sector.’

His move to the audit sector, however, was less of an obvious choice. ‘When I finished my studies at the ENA, I was hesitating between two very different things: the Court of Audit and diplomacy. I did work in diplomacy in the end, but I hesitated a lot and ended up in audit after all.’ And by opting for audit, in fact, he postponed the real choice. François-Roger Cazala: ‘At least in France, many people begin their careers in audit, but only to gain some experience before they move to other, more operational, positions, or even politics, like the current First president of the Cour des comptes, Pierre Moscovici, or his predecessors Pierre Joxe and Philippe Séguin, ,not to mention Jacques Chirac or François Hollande.’

“At least in France, many people begin

their careers in audit, but only to gain

some experience before they move to

other, more operational, positions, or

even politics…”

François-Roger Cazala thinks that his experience as an auditor provided him with good training. ‘I learned a lot, which helped me throughout my career. Also later on, when I managed to spent some time as would-be diplomat, or when joined the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the OECD, to work on the SIGMA programme [Support for Improvement in Governance and Management].’ Laughing, he adds that during those nearly ten years at the OECD, he actually managed to join both his love for audit and diplomacy.

Shaping public administration in candidate countries

All of François-Roger Cazala’s different experiences shaped his thinking, but he especially values his time spent abroad, working in the international field. ‘Certainly, my stay in the OECD was extremely nice to begin with and the position allowed me to combine my interest in international affairs in general, particularly European affairs and audit.’ Working in the SIGMA programme, he was dealing with European countries, which were candidates to join the EU or willing to candidate.

François-Roger Cazala: ‘SIGMA is a joint initiative of the OECD and the European Union aimed at strengthening the foundations for improved public governance, and supporting socio-economic development through capacity building in the public sector.’ There, he used his experience in the public sector and his competences as a public auditor to help the candidate countries shape their public administration in particular in the areas of public finance, internal and external audit, EU funds management etc.

François-Roger Cazala: ‘The most exciting about that period was that I really felt I had a very direct impact by helping those countries to improve their structures. That was something very positive!’ He explains that SIGMA was a relatively small programme back then and that he worked with a relatively small team of peers. ‘There was barely a hierarchy,’ then laughing, ‘sometimes not enough!’ He quickly adds that, obviously, all participants were professionals. ‘But they had very different backgrounds, which helped to create a sort of advantageous start-up atmosphere that enabled us to make significant progress.’

He adds that, interestingly, some of his former speaking-partners , when in the SIGMA programme, are now his colleagues at the ECA. ‘For instance Jan Gregor, who I happened to meet in the Czech Republic where he worked in the Ministry of Finance. Or Ivana Maletić, with whom I worked in Croatia, and Juhan Parts, who was actually one of the first people I met in Estonia when I entered SIGMA in 1998. So these are good memories, both professional and personal!’

Life-long auditing

During his time at SIGMA, François-Roger Cazala saw how supreme audit institutions — SAIs — might influence the legislative process. Now, at the ECA, he might gain similar experience, as he might be involved not only in audit work, but also in ECA opinions, through which the ECA provides its views on new or updated laws with a significant impact on EU financial management. François-Roger Cazala: ‘There are indeed many things here at the ECA that are familiar to me. Partially because I knew the ECA before joining it, but of course also because its basic role and work is similar to that of the French SAI.’

“There are indeed many things here at the ECA that are familiar to me. Partly because I knew the ECA before joining it, but of course also because its basic role and work is similar to that of the French SAI.”

Despite the overlaps, he thinks there are also clear differences between the ECA and the French Cour des comptes. ‘Take for example the opinion on a draft Regulation (Just Transition Mechanism) that was prepared under my supervision in our Chamber.’ That is something the French SAI does not do. It is rather new to me and I find this type of work interesting.’ François-Roger Cazala adds that he particularly enjoys being involved in the draft opinion because it enables him to have a direct –positive — impact on the legislative process. ‘Of course, with audit work you normally should have this influence as well, as I have also seen many times in the French Cour des comptes, and I hope to have that experience here as well.

“If you are not curious, you will find it very boring.”

Whether working on an opinion, or on financial or on compliance or performance audit tasks, the ECA Member thinks that the most important quality any auditor should have is curiosity. ‘If you are not curious, you will find it very boring. In my case, I am particularly interested in public affairs in general and the European context in particular. No doubt audit can be very challenging and interesting indeed!’ He explains that if you want to see how something really functions, curiosity helps to create the desire to go deep. ‘It helps to address something that can be totally new for you and this is our faith as auditors. Most of the time we simply have no clue, but we need to find all the clues. And to succeed in that, we need to be curious.’

“It helps to address something that can be totally new for you and this is our calling as auditors. Most of the time we simply have no clue, but we need to find all the clues. And to succeed in that, we need to be curious.”

‘Moreover,’ François-Roger Cazala adds, ‘we also need to be humble, thorough, and objective. I am not saying that I possess all these qualities, nor that I am an expert in all the different technicalities. But we must combine as many of those talents as possible in our audit teams. From analytical skills, to knowledge sharing and statistical sampling etc. But the basic, primary virtue is curiosity!’

EU Added value

In his hearing before the European Parliament, François-Roger Cazala indicated that the quality of public management is a condition for other major components of the public governance system. ’This is a key issue for me as I think that without good, transparent and accountable public financial management, and especially good staff, the rest of the public system lacks a solid foundation! This is one of the most important lessons I learned at the SIGMA programme as well, as you can have the best system and flawlessly comprehensive handbooks, but if your civil service is either incompetent or corrupt, or not well trained, it does not help much to have nice and cutting-edge programme and performance budgeting.’

“…you can have the best system and flawlessly comprehensive handbooks, but if your civil service is either incompetent or corrupt, or not well trained, it does not help much to have nice and cutting-edge programme and performance budgeting.”

According to François-Roger Cazala this is especially true for the management level. ‘That means the quality of the decision-making process and the coordination need to be perfect at each and every level. Especially at the top where we must make sure that the decisions that are taken in the different areas of government, ministries etc. are well-articulated, coordinated and not completely chaotic.’

With this, François-Roger Cazala arrives at the issue of the European added value, which he perceives from both a national and a more European perspective. ‘Take for example the issue of European common goods and common interests. Here we must ask ourselves what our role as auditors could entail and which angle we should chose to tackle the issues we need to deal with.’ He elaborates that, while thinking about what EU added value is, he came to the conclusion that the very definition of what EU added value is differs from one person to another.

Laughing: ‘I am always a little reluctant to discuss this kind of buzz word because you can put a lot of different meaning into a term like European added value, yet, at the end of the day, you are still confused! For me, as a Eurocrat, EU added value helps me, as a supporter of EU integration, to make Europe a little bit more popular, and to justify its actions and help to improve them.’

François-Roger Cazala explains that, when he was younger, ‘let’s say 40 years ago,’ it was obvious what EU added value was. ‘There was no question about it. You still had people who were against the EU as such, mainly people from the radical left or right.’ ‘Nowadays,’ he adds, ‘the situation is completely different and I feel the need to explain and support the EU, as it is no longer obvious what European added value represents.’ He thinks this is due to a lot of factors, including the economic situation, crisis, and, of course, the fall of the Berlin wall.

François-Roger Cazala: ‘But these are speculations. I am not a sociologist, so I should refrain from speculating about the reason why the EU integration or the Europe as such is not obvious to all citizens. And note that I explicitly say obvious instead of popular. I remember the time when the idea of a single market was discussed, sometimes with reluctance, by a part of the public opinion in France. However, after a while the common opinion turned and it was seen favourably because political parties endorsed it and said: ”We need to prepare for the single market.” Who is doing that nowadays?’

“We are not in a political position to campaign for the EU or things like that. The only thing we can do is to do our job professionally, independently and objectively, thereby contributing to public trust…”

But then, contextualising: ‘Scepticism in public opinion has always existed. Remember for example the referendum on the European Constitution and the negative results in France and the Netherlands.’ Being a public auditor, he believes that the ECA has a role to play, but a specific one. ‘We are not in a political position to make propaganda or things like that. The only thing we can do is to do our job professionally, independently and factually, thereby contributing to public trust in the European finances and their management, and in the European institutions as such.’ In doing so the ECA can be outspoken: ‘We should say whether it works or does not work, including, if this comes out of our work, that it could for example be more efficient to organise it at a more decentralised level, in Member States, etc.’

Taking up recurrent and new tasks

François-Roger Cazala has been appointed to the Chamber ‘Financing and administering the Union’ and is a member of the Audit Quality Control Committee. When asked about the tasks he is working on now, he explains that, in his Chamber, he has been allocated to Chapter 9 (Administration) of the ECA’s Statement of Assurance (SoA). ‘I was really happy with this task, as it provided me with an overview of our institution’s work, but also because I get to work with an extremely good and professional team, which helped me to understand the process and to get familiar with the issues we are assessing.’

Another report François-Roger Cazala is working on is the review on the 3rd country contributions to the EU budget. ‘A fascinating topic, as it dives into the question what the requirements are that we impose on our neighbours, such as Switzerland, Norway, and Iceland. It was extremely difficult to find some initial work on this, such as academic research, as there are very few articles on this. This shows that it is important the ECA looks into this, as the topic basically brings us into unchartered waters.’ He hopes that the review will raise a lot of interest in the European Parliament and the Council.

Public auditors’ work instrumental for the EU to find the right balance

Concluding, François-Roger Cazala indicates that most important is that the ECA and other public auditors do their jobs professionally and independently, contributing to clarity where the EU is obtaining results and where not. Taking a wider perspective, he thinks that as external auditor you also have to look at finding the right balance between complicated procedures meant to ensure transparency and keeping things workable from a performance point of view. ‘The risk of establishing extremely complicated systems to manage funds is that we see unused appropriations, so EU funds for which Member States want to find projects.’

“The risk of establishing extremely complicated systems to manage funds is that we see unused appropriations, i.e. EU funds for which Member States want to find projects”

He believes that in the end the EU is not looking for projects which may be perfectly regular, but which do not really lead to something. ‘A regular waste of money, so to say. As external auditors, we need to check that things are legal and regular. But what I would prefer would be regular investments, regular spending which also leads to good results. This is where I am a bit afraid of with regard to the €750 billion fund decided upon by the European Council and to be spent in a relatively short timeframe. ‘We face both risks — to have irregularities at a high level and to have projects for the sake of spending money.’ Another risk he sees is the risk of too much dissemination: ‘If funds are too much disseminated into different areas, sectoral and geographical, it might not have the power to make a difference. On all these issues the EU must find the right balance and, as ECA, we need to contribute, continuously, in doing so.’

“… the EU must find the right balance…”

This article was first published on the 3/2020 issue of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors.

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