Reviewing global cooperation and putting it into practice: the UN Board of Auditors

Interview with Kay Scheller, President of the German Bundesrechnungshof and Member of the UN Board of Auditors. Source: German Bundesrechnungshof.

The United Nations (UN) is often identified with international cooperation. The supreme audit institutions (SAIs) also cooperate at the UN, particularly the three that make up the UN Board of Auditors, which serves as the UN’s external auditor. Kay Scheller, President of the German SAI, the Bundesrechnungshof, is one of the three members of the UN Board of Auditors. Clearly inspired by the work and its multiple dimensions, he explains what the mandate entails and why it is necessary.

By Gaston Moonen, ECA Directorate of the Presidency

Embarking on a big audit task

part from his function as President of the German Bundesrechnungshof, a role he has held since 2014, Kay Scheller is one of the three Board Members of the UN Board of Auditors (UN BoA), together with the heads of the supreme audit institutions (SAIs) of India and Chile. When he took on the task in 2016, it was a very conscious choice. ‘We knew from the start it would be a big and challenging project for us. But I was highly committed to taking on the task. UN programmes and projects are financed by taxpayers’ money from all over the world. UN funds come from national budgets. Germany, as many EU Member States, pays a substantial part of the UN costs so we have a high interest that the funds are used to achieve best value for money. The funds need to be used properly and efficiently, just like at the national level. The key objective of our UN BoA mission is to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of UN actions through our audit results and recommendations ’.

We knew from the start it would be a big and challenging project for us. But I was highly committed to taking on the task.

Kay Scheller is very enthusiastic about his work at the UN: ‘It was a very unique opportunity for our members and auditors and also for me personally to embark on this work.’ Clearly not taking his work lightly, he explains: ‘We built up one department with six teams, in charge of auditing peacekeeping, refugee organisation, development programmes, and several other topics. In Bonn, we also have the climate secretariat (UNFCCC) and the organisation to combat desertification (UNCCD). And we have a back office supporting the teams. Overall 50 to 60 auditors are working on these audit tasks.’

… it was a good chance for us to design a recruitment programme to get young people …

To deploy so many staff, the German SAI had to recruit new people. Kay Scheller explains: ‘Many of our auditors involved in ‘UN audits’ come from the audit fields we cover at national level. At the same time it was a good chance for us to design a recruitment programme to get young people — we have now a good combination of senior and junior staff for our UN audit work.’ Building what was basically a new department for this was also a challenge for the German SAI: ‘For the auditors involved it means a lot of travelling all around the world, it is a tough job, not a picnic. For example, we do a lot of field missions in Africa, going to refugee camps, looking how management runs them, how procurement is done, etc.’

The skills required to meet this challenge appear to be very diverse. Kay Scheller is clearly proud of the different capacities created in his institution: ‘In our audit units we have lawyers, engineers, experts coming from the military of Germany, people specialised in International Public Sector Accounting Standards and the many financial regulations the UN has in place. Getting this expertise is also very important for our ‘domestic’ audit activities because they bring in new skills and rejuvenate our workforce. We bring a lot to the UN but we also get a lot back!’ He also refers to some similarities with work back home. ‘If you take procurement: we cover this issue both in Germany and at the UN. The management of procurement is not that much different, and the same is true for technical assistance issues.’

… through our work on the UNBoA, we also gain more insights on how other SAIs work.

On this topic, he also brings up another international aspect: ‘Apart from the skills and experience we gain through our work on the UNBoA, we also gain more insights on how other SAIs work.’ He points out that this will be beneficial for other international activities of the German Bundesrechnungshof. ‘It will be good for our audit work as a whole, for example also for our activities in the International Organisation of Supreme Audit Institutions (INTOSAI).’

Board organisation and dynamics

Source: German Bundesrechnungshof.

When it comes to cooperation with the other members onf the UN BoA, Kay Scheller is quite clear : ‘Working together with India and Chile is an enriching experience for us, offering us new approaches. We often learn a lot when doing cross-cultural teamwork. In addition, the UN itself is a very complex organisation of 193 countries and cultures. This also adds to our experience. Of course, we’ve already had previous contacts with our partner SAIs and I find the cooperation very enriching .’

We often learn a lot when doing cross-cultural teamwork.

Kay Scheller explains that the Board has a collective responsibility for the work: ‘We discuss audit findings in the Board. Each audit institution has its own reporting but we get together, and our directors in New York City before us, to discuss the reports and work together on them. Then the audit findings are published in the respective reports. In last year’s report on the UN peacekeeping operations we had a special chapter on aircraft capacity for troops. Here we focused on management and its performance.’

… our efforts are taken up and are sustainable.

Kay Scheller underlines the fact that the Board is external and independent: ‘There are of course many bodies and agencies within the UN structure giving advice on for example programming and implementation. But our role is different, and we address our findings to the UN General Assembly, after we have met its financial committee and the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ).’ Kay Scheller continues by saying that the UN Secretary-General is highly committed to reforming the organisation and improving management in the UN. ‘Here the Board provides recommendations, and also advice, and I am proud that we found our ideas on this topic in the General Secretariat’s report on financial management. This shows that our efforts are taken up and are sustainable.’

The ‘matchbox,’ building of the UN General Secretariat in New York. Source: Pixabay.

Another example Kay Scheller covers is providing input on how to prevent misspending, including fraud and corruption: ‘This year we published a report on the management of risks of fraud. We are not a policing agency but look at how organisations in the UN family prevent corruption and fraud. There needs to be a proper monitoring in place. We reviewed how these organisations have built a risk strategy and mitigating measures. Proper implementation of these strategies is vital.’ He points out that there is room for improvement: ‘One of our added values is that we look at the system as a whole, and identify possible gaps that organisations need to address.’

When speaking about performance audits in the field Kay Scheller brings up a mind-set that he finds very important: ‘The UN organisations we audit can benefit from our work. For them we are not a “burden,” or some kind of “opponent,” but support and advice they can rely on. They also want to learn from our audits. A healthy attitude to stimulate improvement.’

[UN organisations]want to learn from our audits. A healthy attitude to stimulate improvement.

Within the UN framework, Kay Scheller is also a member of the UN Panel of External Auditors. He explains: ‘Here all the external auditors of UN organisations provide input. We met just a few weeks ago. We discuss audit methodology, developments regarding rules and regulations, in order to improve the quality of the external assurance process. We meet once a year; we have a total of 11 panel members covering a wide range of UN organisations as external auditor. This format is very useful to share thoughts and experiences and obtain a ‘whole UN’ view.’

SDGs — relevant for the UN, for its member states and…the INTOSAI community

One topic that has high priority on the UN agenda is the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). ‘This is a major topic for the world, encompassing many cross-border issues. Many UN members support the SDGs, nationally and internationally. It is very important to make them part of the UN actions. So it’s a major project for us, with an enormous cross-cutting dimension. We provide some interesting insights on this in our latest audit report, available on the internet.’ For Kay Scheller it is important that the UN organisations adhere to the 17 SDGs formulated: ‘No doubt that, as external auditors, we can provide valuable advice here, inspiring the heads of administration to think in SDG terms.’

[on SDGs] … as external auditors, we can provide valuable advice here, inspiring the heads of administration to think in SDG terms.

Kay Scheller quickly relates the SDGs to other international platforms he is working with, relates themparticularly referring to SAIs: ‘For INTOSAI SDGs will be a major topic for the years to come, as became also clear during the last INTOSAI Congress in Abu Dhabi. They will be important for EUROSAI, the regional INTOSAI organisation in Europe, and for the Contact Committee of EU SAIs.’ In his opinion, it will be crucial to take appropriate action at every level: ‘At the different levels below the global one, below INTOSAI, we need to collect the lessons learnt by SAIs in regions, countries, regional cooperation levels such as EUROSAI and the Contact Committee. We need to discuss it there and pass on the results to the INTOSAI level. A global snapshot of these developments would be very beneficial. We already started this work in Germany, discussing it particularly with the regional audit institutions. More audit work on SDG implementation progress needs to be made, it will be crucial to have a proper and comprehensive follow-up on the SDGs, in a bottom-up process.’

… it will be crucial to have a proper and comprehensive follow-up on the SDGs, in a bottom-up process.

UNBoA ensuring UN added value for citizens

For Kay Scheller the added value for the UN is a fact, particularly in a world where international confrontation is increasingly competing with international cooperation. ‘Many problems in UN member states are the problems of the world. Our national governments and organisation — we live in a globalised world and problems have to be addressed by engaging countries from all continents. The issue of climate change poses enormous challenges. It is only logical to get together to address this issue…together. And we are closer together than 50 years ago!’

Our job is to bring more transparency to the UN.

As a member of the UN BoA, he sees an important role for auditors, including as external auditor of the UN: ‘Our job is to bring more transparency to the UN. It is important for our citizens that this is done, so they can back up the UN. The UN needs to further improve and develop and we contribute to that. Citizens need to know that all these efforts help provide better value for money and that the UN is working efficiently and effectively. After all, the UN is the major global instrument to do so.’

Kay Scheller sees clear support for the work the UNBoA is doing: ‘The UN General Assembly supported our work, for example regarding the SDGs. They made a resolution on this, underlining their support. They want us, the Board, to do a good job.’ And Kay Scheller also reports on his experiences back home: ‘I also share our audit findings with the Public Accounts Committee in Germany. It is good for them to know, and they provide feedback. And we need this feedback, it is motivating for our auditors active in many places around the globe. ’

Now I know so much more about the UN and appreciate much more the work done …

Looking back, Kay Scheller concludes: ‘When I started on the UN BoA I did not really know how things were run. Now I know so much more about the UN and appreciate much more the work done and the interest in the work of the UN BoA — interest coming from the administration of the UN and elsewhere. It is very important to get proper feedback on what we recommend because we want our audit findings to be used, to be implemented worldwide. In our audit reports, we cover many aspects, from strategic issues to the use of resources, SDGs, refugee camps, logistical aspects, procurement, airplane fields in South Sudan, etc. We see many things. And they matter to people, to many people. It is a great privilege for us to help make a difference.’

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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The ECA Journal features articles on a variety of current…

#ECAjournal

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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Articles from the European Court of Auditors, #EU's external auditor & independent guardian of the EU's finances.

#ECAjournal

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.