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Mainstreaming SDGs in future audit tasks — how does the ECA do it

In order to maximize the impact of our work, it is essential to identify, select and plan audit tasks which are relevant and come at the right time. Our programming process helps us to do so. Through our audits we aim to address key issues affecting the EU; and the EUs commitment to the sustainable development goals is one of them. During the last three years, the ECA has been fine-tuning its programming framework by adding or modifying some elements every year. For the AWP 2020 a focus on SDGs was one of these new elements. Zsuzsanna Csak, responsible for programming in the Directorate of the Presidency takes us back slightly in time, to see how the SDGs became part of the programming considerations. Then, we look at what lies ahead.

By Zsuzsanna Csak, Directorate of the Presidency

Sustainable development and SDGs: part of the ECA work programme since many years

Sustainable development has been a very prominent audit subject in recent years, as illustrated by the many reports we have issued on climate change, education, water & sanitation, environment or energy, just to name a few. In addition, already in early 2017, our auditors suggested a task covering directly SDGs in our work. The root of the suggestion was that at the INTOSAI Conference in 2016 one of the focal themes was the role of SAIs with regard to reviewing and monitoring the implementation of the SDGs. While we have been auditing many subjects linked to one or the other SDG goals in the past, the implementation of EU’s commitments toward achieving the SDGs had by then neither been audited nor reviewed by us.

We in the Directorate of the Presidency receive many audit ideas as input to the upcoming work programme, but the main challenge is usually the selection and prioritisation. In general, each and every year, there are much more interesting audit ideas and subjects proposed than resources allow us to execute. If an important and relevant subject is not selected for a given year, the good ones are kept and will/can be “recycled”. This happened also with audits related to SDGs. Early 2018, when we started preparing the work programme for 2019 two separate audit ideas linked explicitly to sustainable development goals were suggested. The one about reviewing SDGs in a specific policy area (from 2018) and another one to review sustainability reporting in the Institutions. Several other audit suggestions were also closely linked to SDGs, e.g. an audit on gender budgeting, tasks linked to climate change, etc.

The outcome of our 2019 review on sustainability reporting by EU Institutions already published

The College also decided in October 2018 to include a review task on sustainability reporting in the AWP 2019. This review aimed at assessing whether the EU institutions and agencies have carried out the necessary actions to produce meaningful sustainability reports and have increased the transparency of EU institutions and agencies on these matters. This review also looked at the yearly report on sustainable development in the EU published by Eurostat, for which the 2019 edition has just been published (see Box).

The outcome of this review, titled “Reporting on sustainability — A stocktake of EU Institutions and Agencies”, has already been finalised and published in June 2019.

Box — 2019 report on sustainable development in the EU published by Eurostat

The recently published Eurostat 2019 report ‘Sustainable development in the European Union — Monitoring report on progress towards the SDGs in an EU context’ shows a mixed picture of EU’s progress on SDGs. While the report acknowledges that the EU has been overall successful in promoting sustainable development, it also indicates that further progress in needed, notably on environmental SDGs. It also identifies particular interlinkages and spillovers, and highlights some methodological issues in measuring progress in meeting the SDGs.

Overall, the 2019 report shows that there is still significant progress for the EU to make to successfully deliver all SDGs by 2030.

SDGs and foresight: strategic decisions taken by the College in early 2019

In early 2019, and following discussions at the yearly ECA Member seminar in the autumn of 2018, the College also decided to set up a strategy and foresight team which should help us to make our audit work and oversight capacity more future oriented, and more aligned with our strategy process. Linked to this subject the audit and the importance of the sustainable development goals and the question on how to built them into our work came also up in several of the discussions among Members. The College then also decided that cross-cutting factors, such as Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), should be explicitly considered when developing audit and review work.

Embedding SDGs in programming: around a third of all potential tasks clearly linked to specific SDGs

With this mandate, when starting again the yearly programing procedure for the 2020 AWP in early 2019, we have invited experts in SDGs within the ECA, to our regular meeting of the Director support teams of the five Audit chambers, with whom we are coordinating the work programming process. They presented the OECD framework and explained how we could identify for each of the proposed task whether there is a strong link to a specific SDG and if so, to which one.

Sometimes the link of an audit subject to one or the other SDG was obvious, sometimes it was more challenging to identify. This exercise was done in May 2019, on the basis of the around 60 potential audit or review subjects to select from (rather than the nearly 100 audit ideas whith which we started the programming process). By analysing all them in detail, we found that around a third of our suggested topics would have had a strong link to specific SDGs. The mostly covered SDGs were №8 Decent work and economic growth, №9 Industry, innovation and infrastructure, №10 Reduced inequalities and Nr 13 Climate action. There was only one SDG, the №17 Partnership for the goals for which no strong link was identified to any of our proposed audit tasks for 2020.

We are currently still in the middle of the AWP 2020 process. Obviously, we will not be able to select all of the nearly 60 topics proposed. Nevertheless, our Members will certainly consider, as one important consideration amongst many other, the aspect of the sustainable development goals when finally choosing the portfolio for our next work programme and beyond.

From programming to doing the audits: experimenting new ways of using SDGs in our audits

With the adoption of the 2020 work programme by the College in the autumn, our auditors get the green light to start preparing the audit work on these specific topics. How in practice we will streamline some of our work to SDGs remains to be seen when the teams present the audit planning memoranda (which set out the audit approach in detail).

At this stage, we already have some audit task from the 2019 AWP under preparation, like our gender equality task, where the EU actions could be assessed also against the SDG goal. Which brings up the question of how to use SDGs (and targets) as audit criteria. The extent to which this will be possible in the EU context may be subject to debate, not the least because the EU is not a member of the UN and has therefore not signed up to the SDGs.

We should certainly need to try out different ways of using SDGs in our audits. For doing this, our auditors might need some support from the methodology unit, we could cooperate with other SAIs for some of these tasks, we might set-up some knowledge nodes gathering experts within the ECA, or we could think of having some pilot tasks to establish a set of good practices — but in any case, SDGs will continue to play a role in how we will conduct our audits in the forthcoming years.

This article was first published on the 3/2019 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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