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COVID-19 — ECA auditors’ account on delivering fast insights on actions undertaken during the crisis

By Nicholas Edwards, Sustainable Use of Natural Resources Directorate, and Adrian Savin, Regulation of Markets and Competitive Economy Directorate

Source: monsitj/GettyImages

In times of crisis, the need for information and first assessment is high while the availability of data, comprehensive insights and fact-based feedback is low. Public auditors are keen to address this but cannot proceed, for several reasons, with full-fledged audits. That is one of the reasons why the ECA issues reviews: to provide timely help to decision-makers. The COVID‑19 crisis required quick decision making on many issues, including from the ECA to deliver feasible outputs at speed. Nicholas Edwards and Adrian Savin were heads of task for two COVID‑19 related reviews the ECA published at the end of 2020 and early 2021, and share their experiences and impressions of reviewing crisis measures in constrained circumstances.

Real-time review in a crisis — getting the facts without getting under the auditees feet

In March 2020, the COVID‑19 pandemic struck the EU and threatened health and economic systems. Unclear information, disinformation, lack of confidence in public action and rumours compounded mounting uncertainties. Given the rapid spread of the virus across Europe and the magnitude of measures being adopted in response to it, the ECA decided in April to amend its 2020 work programme in order to launch two rapid reviews on COVID‑19 measures (see Box 1). The reviews were meant to inform the public in a structured and objective way about the EU response to the COVID‑19 crisis in two key areas: public health and economic policies.

We were working on other tasks when we were designated as heads of tasks for these reviews. It was clear to us that the challenges of these tasks were unique and massive but we were also excited to contribute to ECA’s high-priority tasks for 2020 and more generally to the accountability of EU institutions’ response to a massive and unprecedented crisis.

Collecting evidence in real time with minimal disruption to policy makers involved in the crisis management was an important constraint. We focused on understanding and organising publicly available information first and filled any gaps through interviews, surveys or data queries from the EU and national actors. Another challenge was the fact that we had to work to very tight deadlines while facing fragmented or inconsistent information on newly adopted policy actions with confidential, insufficiently explained or incomplete data. We also had to engage with an important number of diverse policy actors at EU and Member State level. Moreover, the ECA had to produce the reviews under new and untested working conditions due to the pandemic.

The reality matched our expectations and tested our adaptation skills. We had to organise our teams and cooperate with the reviewees under new working methods (in particular teleworking), discover new IT tools, adapt our internal communication and methods to gather evidence, and… carefully monitor the news to keep up with events. Our teams had to be brought together fast. People were pulled off other tasks and colleagues from other directorates and ECA Members’ cabinets contributed to the review work as well. The whole preparatory phase, which is also a useful team building exercise, was condensed to the shortest possible time. But the intensity of the work made up for this. Our swift progress on the tasks benefitted from rapid replies received from the institutions and actors contacted.

Scoping a moving target

We focused on providing a clear picture of the EU’s initial response to the pandemic but did not try to draw fully‑fledged lessons learnt while we lacked the advantage of hindsight. Our brief was to present key information in a structured overview and spot the main emerging risks and trends, or challenges and opportunities for EU coordination and budget stemming from the crisis and policy responses. For example, both reviews were able to present detailed data on the EU funds spent on EU health and economic responses at a time when the European Commission did not yet have such an overview.

Creating a clear picture of EU actions during a crisis was no easy task. When a pandemic is disrupting every aspect of our lives, it can be tricky to distinguish between what is a public health measure and what isn’t. We debated a number of times whether repatriation flights of EU citizens should be within scope (we decided against) as well as COVID‑19 related disinformation and fake news (we included it). The final scope for the public health review was still pretty broad (see Figure 1).

Clarity meant getting a comprehensive approach. When reviewing the EU economic response, one of our discussions concerned the inclusion of the national measures in the scope of the review. It was clear that the Member States’ quick and massive budgetary measures were key to mitigating the economic impacts and that it was important to take stock of this spending if we wished to understand the EU response and its coordination actions, in particular why and how the Commission and the Council coordinated the national fiscal responses. We obtained the data on the adopted fiscal measures from all Member States through an ad-hoc survey sent to the members of the Economic and Financial Committee, with whom we had excellent cooperation.

Figure 1 — Main public health related measures taken by the Commission and EU agencies up to 30 June 2020

The EU’s capabilities were stretched while the crisis risks exacerbating inter-MS inequalities

We found that the EU’s limited mandate in the field of public health made it particularly challenging for it to step in and step up rapidly in the early days of the pandemic. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) found it challenging to handle the volume of varied data it was receiving while existing tools such as EU-level joint procurement of medical supplies were little used by the Member States. We also highlighted the risk that the rapid spread of misinformation and disinformation poses to the role-out of a COVID‑19 vaccine.

We also found that the economic crisis risked causing uneven economic losses across countries and sectors and that this raised the challenges of EU coordination of economic policies in the recovery period. Governments adopted a wide range of discretionary fiscal measures adding up to about €3.5 trillion, generally in line with the EU’s crisis policy guidelines, i.e. job retention schemes and state aid to provide liquidity support to businesses. However, their size and composition reflected the Member States’ relative wealth, rather than how badly the crisis has affected them (see Figure 2). We therefore warned about the risks of economic divergence and distortions of the level playing field between Member States.

We also assessed risks and challenges for the implementation of the newly adopted recovery instrument Next Generation EU (NGEU) worth €750 billion in relation to its absorption, careful targeting of growth-enhancing measures and accountability. The review also highlighted the opportunity offered by the new budgetary instruments (NGEU, SURE) to enhance EU coordination towards common objectives (green, digital transitions, low levels of unemployment) and against EU-wide economic shocks, given their sizeable envelopes (see Figure 3).

Figure 2 — Comparison of aggregate fiscal packages (in % GDP) and estimated

GDP falls in 2020

Note: Fiscal measures adopted as of end-June 2020 were collected through a ECA ad-hoc survey and included discretionary budgetary measures (revenue and expenditure), liquidity support (tax payment measures and financial instruments such as public loans) and public guarantees.

Figure 3 — Comparison of EU and Member States’ estimated financial response to the crisis (in billion €)

Delivering impact and serving as stepping stones for COVID‑19 related audits

The ECA managed to publish the reviews as planned and could contribute to public and EU‑level discussions on future measures. For example, the review on the EU economic response was published in the middle of the Council discussions about several features of the NGEU. The ECA publications also allowed the EU legislator to strengthen and fine‑tune several legal provisions of the draft Regulation on the Recovery Resilience Facility (RRF) related to its accountability and audit arrangements. The review on public health was published at a time when the European Commission was reviewing all aspects of EU-level response to cross-border health threats, including the work of the ECDC, and could feed in to that reflection.

The reviews were key starting points for future audits. They allowed the ECA to further reflect on the most important EU measures taken in response to COVID‑19 that needed to be addressed through performance audits. According to the ECA annual work programme 2021+, a significant number of tasks to be started in 2021 are dealing with the EU’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the ECA launched audits on the EU’s procurement of COVID-19 vaccines and on the Commission assessment of the national recovery and resilience plans that Member States have submitted in the framework of the RRF.

This has been a useful experience for us in case we would need to carry out audit work on a crisis, and in a crisis, again. It is clear that we cannot and should not start a full audit when a crisis is still unfolding but being able to come in at an early stage with a review is valuable. We should manage our stakeholders’ expectations as, even working fast, it is imperative that we respect audit standards and processes which impacts our time to publication. We cannot publish our work to fit with the news cycle but we can identify and communicate early on key areas we are going to monitor and engage with our stakeholders to understand their expectations.

This article was first published on the 3/2021 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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The ECA Journal features articles on a variety of current audit topics, the ECA’s role and work. It is available in electronic form below, and paper copies can be ordered online at the EU Bookshop.

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