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Public Audit in the European Union — a book in the making

In January 2019, the ECA will publish a handbook on the 29 supreme audit institutions (SAIs) in the European Union (EU) and its Member States. Derek Meijers, project manager for this handbook, explains the rationale behind the initiative, what the handbook is about and how the publication will evolve in future years.

By Derek Meijers, Directorate of the Presidency

A handbook on the 29 SAIs in the EU and its Member States

The ECA will publish a new handbook on the 29 EU supreme audit institutions (SAIs) in early 2019. Entitled Public Audit in the European Union, it will contain detailed information on the status, power, organisation, work and output of the SAIs, and illustrate the differences and similarities between these 29 audit institutions.

The aim of Public Audit in the European Union is to provide public auditors, academics and other interested readers with a practical repository on public audit in the EU, at both the Union and national levels. By comparing comprehensive information on the work of SAIs in the EU and their role in the accountability process, the ECA hopes to contribute to important ongoing research in this field.

Why do we need a handbook on EU SAIs?

SAIs are essential institutions, particularly in the EU, where the existence of an independent external public audit body is a prerequisite for joining. SAIs are a key aspect of modern societies’ checks and balances to ensure the efficient, effective and economic use of public resources. They operate autonomously in a highly political context and are prerequisites for a properly functioning democracy. The simple fact that they assess government action can already positively influence good governance. Moreover, by helping parliaments to control governments and their country’s government, or EU executive institutions to improve policy-making and financial management, SAIs act as both service providers and independent guardians of citizens’ interests. In addition to promoting accountability and transparency on the national level, EU SAIs also actively support the capacity-building of public audit bodies in third countries.

Many of the 29 SAIs covered in Public Audit in the European Union can be proud of a long and rich history. They are the modern embodiment of a public audit function which, in some countries, dates back as far as the 14th century. And although the individual structures, mandates and working methods of most SAIs have evolved over time — sometimes as a result of political change or the reform of public administration, — their core function remains the same: to scrutinise the finances and policies of governments and build trust.

Example of the ECA and Member State SAIs cooperating well

Article 287(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union calls upon the ECA to cooperate with the SAIs of all EU Member States ‘in a spirit of trust while maintaining our independence’. It is this principle which underpins projects such as the publication of Public Audit in the European Union. Furthermore, it was an additional argument to compile this handbook in close cooperation with representatives from the different SAIs.

Creating the handbook — an ambitious project that took over one year to complete

We drew inspiration for this handbook from an earlier publication: the UK National Audit Office’s 2005 edition of State Audit in the European Union. We are especially thankful to our UK colleagues for entrusting us to continue their initiative. They had no objections to our proposal to release a handbook on the SAIs of the EU and its Member States. We also sought the consent of all other EU SAIs in the framework of the EU Contact Committee.

Following this, the first step in the project was to decide on the book’s structure and contents, and which details should or should not be included. We then began to gather together information that was readily available, for example on the websites of the individual SAIs, or in think tank reports and other studies.

We used this information to compile fact sheets on the individual SAIs regarding their legal basis, structure, resources, audit remit and working methods, as well as their output and cooperation activities. At this and all other stages, we mainly focused on the comprehensiveness and comparability of the content.

The next step was to have the content validated and the draft text approved by the SAIs themselves. This was by no means an easy task, as the way in which we chose to present information did not necessarily match the way they would have done so in their own publications.

Paired with the independent nature of SAIs, this diversity sometimes led to some elaborate and interesting discussions. Tackling certain points, such as an institution’s audit remit or year of establishment, turned out to be more difficult than expected.

Overall, it took us more than one year to complete the project, and we can proudly say that the result speaks for itself: it was worth the effort! In the end, we succeeded in presenting information on all the SAIs in a succinct and comparable way; clearly one of the key merits of publishing this handbook.

Contributing to research on public audit in the EU

This handbook illustrates that the EU SAIs consider it important to be transparent about their work and to provide our citizens with simple, accessible comparable information. In this sense, we hope that our publication deepens the knowledge on EU SAIs and will encourage these institutions to cooperate and learn from one another.

Finally yet importantly, academics and researchers dealing with public audit in the EU and its Member States may find this handbook interesting. The book, and the research it may inspire, will hopefully offer guidance to auditors, policymakers and legislators across the EU and beyond.

In view of this, we also intend to publish the handbook online, in the 23 official languages of the EU, and to update it regularly.

This article was first published on the November-December 2018 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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