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The EU Contact Committee Working Group on EU Structural Funds — a group which really worked

Meeting of the Working Group on Structural Funds at the ECA in Luxembourg (18–19 November 2015).

Setting up a working group of several EU supreme audit institutions (SAIs) on auditing issues related to the EU structural funds is one thing. Making it actually work and come up with tangible results is another one. Rolf-Dietrich Kammer, has led many of the meetings the Working Group on EU Structural Funds, established by the EU Contact Committee of the Heads of SAIs. Having retired in July 2018 as Member and Director in the Bundesrechnungshof, he looks back at the origins, set-up, modus operandi and results of this group, sharing some personal analysis and reflections.

By Rolf-Dietrich Kammer, former Member of the Bundesrechnungshof (German Federal Audit Office)

An odd idea

In 1999, the liaison officers of the supreme audit institutions (SAIs) of the EU Member States and the ECA, working together in the EU Contact Committee, had an odd, and perhaps even an ‘impossible’ idea. In search of new ways how to improve, deepen and strengthen the technical cooperation between the Member States’ SAIs, they discussed, among others, the creation of a joint working group at their meeting at the UK National Audit Office (NAO) in London. This working group would be assigned to do what SAI working groups, task forces, networks or whatever name the efforts undertaken had received, had not been able to do properly until then. To carry out joint audits — ‘real’ audits — on subjects of EU wide interest, in close and continuous contact and cooperation between all participating SAIS. These joint audits should bring together the findings, consolidate them and form the basis for a joint audit report highlighting the substantial results of the audit.

The field of EU Structural Funds and how these investment programmes were managed and overseen by the EU Member States was chosen since it seemed to best fit with these objectives. But there remained some serious questions. Would an audit project of this kind be feasible? Who could or should be the recipients of the reports? And, above all, would there be a sufficient number of SAIs willing not only to support the proposal, but also actively invest own resources in favour of nothing but a rough idea of audit cooperation with an uncertain ending?

First steps undertaken

After the EU Contact Committee of the Heads of SAIs had approved the project and decided that the working group should be set up, the formal kick-off meeting took place in November 2000 at the French Cour des comptes (CdC) in Paris. This meeting was the first one in the WG affairs that I attended. After the meeting in London, the Bundesrechnungshof’s (BRH) liaison officer had asked me if I would consider representing the BRH in this group. In his view I was ‘qualified’ for the job thanks to my many years of experience in auditing social services at the national level, together with my interest and some experience in international cooperation. In the end, and with the consent of the president of the BRH, I agreed and so I was off to Paris for the first Working Group (WG) meeting.

In Paris, representatives from some of the largest SAIs were present, including the French Cdc, the UK NAO, the Dutch Algemene Rekenkamer, the Italian Corte dei Conti, the Spanish Tribunal de Cuentas, the Danish Rigsrevisionen, and the BRH. The participants discussed the most suitable topics and agreed, as a first step, to mostly focus on procedural and methodological aspect related to audits in the Structural Funds area. This approach seemed to be most promising in view of ensuring a broad participation of SAIs. The participants also expressed their firm will to begin the active work as soon as possible.

Finally, an organizational frame had to be found because it was clear that the WG would need a sort of ‘administration’ for rendering services such as editing of reports, preparing and sending invitations, hosting meetings, and maintaining the overall communication among the group members. Though not volunteering for this burdensome honor, the BRH was nominated as chair of the WG. With that the BRH was charged with the above-mentioned tasks and thus had to keep the WG’s heart beating and make the WG run. In fact, the BRH has remained the chair of the WG until 2017 when the WG was dissolved. However, we received invaluable support from the co-chairs, being the Algemene Rekenkamer and — in the first years — the UK NAO.

Leap in the dark

The WG actually managed — after a lot of preliminary work — to meet in spring 2001 at the Rigsrevisionen in Copenhagen to plan and approve their first tangible audit project. Around a dozen SAIs (a number which was maintained during the WG’s lifetime) debated and approved the first audit plan. Such plan contained all necessary data such as grounds and objectives of the first audit, facts and other data to collect, ways how to do so, audit approach and methodology, reporting standards, time and venue of one intermediary and one final meeting of the WG, and the time line.

As it had no real best practice example to build on the WG thought it best to perform its first audit as an ‘orientation’ or ‘exploratory survey’ to underline the trial character and thereby keep leeway for all options, depending on the results of the ‘orientation.’ It submitted its first report on substance in 2002. The Contact Committee welcomed the report and gave the WG green light to continue its work. The WG had ventured — and succeeded.

Experience and consolidation

In the following years — from 2002 to 2017 — the WG’s work was featuring steadiness and perseverance, diligence and dedication to its mandate, growing experience and knowledge of the audit area. The most valuable item, however, was the extraordinary mutual understanding and trust among the members of the group. No matter if they belonged to the ‘movers and shakers’ or were more those remaining ‘in the background,’ all of them made important contributions to the audits undertaken by the WG. The results were in form and substance ‘presentable,’ and the production of a total of eight reports — one every two years — is the best evidence for the hard work it had done. These reports were generally submitted to the EU Contact Committee, and in some cases also to the European Commission. The ‘national’ results were sometimes also presented to the stakeholders in the respective Member States.

The box below gives an overview of the topics covered in the successive reports presented by the Working Group.

In total, the Working Group on Structural Funds presented eight reports:

Procedures implemented in the Member States to manage and control the Structural Funds (2002);

Arrangements for ensuring an adequate audit trail, including the 5% check (2004);

Processes for identifying, reporting and following up on irregularities (2006);

Performance (output/effectiveness) of the Structural Funds programmes in the areas of employment and/or environment (2008);

Cost of controls, including the use of technical assistance for the controls of Structural Funds (2011);

Simplification of the regulations for Structural Funds (2013);

Analysis of the errors in public procurement within the Structural Funds programmes (2015)

Contribution of the Structural Funds to the Europe 2020 strategy in the areas of education and/or employment (2017).

Readers who would like to know more about the Working Group’s output can find more information on the website of the EU Contact Committee under the tab ‘Closed Working Groups,’ where the reports are available in English, French and German.

Challenges and highlights

With the start of every ‘new’ WG task, the deck of cards was or actually had to be reshuffled. The recurring main question was whether there would remain sufficient members to keep and make the WG’s efforts and output worthwhile. As a rule of thumb, the ‘chair group’ around Germany, the Netherlands and the UK deemed a number of at least ten SAIs to be necessary, a threshold which was always reached (sometimes also enabled by admitting ‘active observers’). Also, when members of the previous WG task decided not to participate in the following one, new members came in, or those who had ‘paused’ for a period or more re-entered. Sometimes these fluctuations brought some unrest into the WG. Not easy, either, was the question which SAI would be willing to host the group meetings. Normally this entailed an organizing a kick-off, an intermediary and an exit meeting.

Of course, hosting such meetings involved not little costs to the host, both in terms of money and organizational capacity. To distribute the burden more evenly, the WG, already in its early days, agreed that one of the meetings should be hosted by the chair or co-chair, the other ones by one of the participating members. This agreement worked out really well. We came together and worked together at various places and in SAIs all over in the EU, bringing together professional and personal experiences which, I believe, the attendees will not easily forget.

Finding the ‘right’ audit subjects was often a major challenge. Every time the WG ‘solved’ this issue by recalling its overarching working principle, or one could say its ratio essendi: Being inclusive was the aim and at the same time the resource the WG was living on. With this in mind, the WG managed, often after discussions which were difficult and vivid, yet committed and fruitful, to agree on subjects which not only met the indispensable criteria of inclusiveness, but were also ‘feasible’ and could be done in practice. I think most of my WG colleagues will agree that the happiest moment for all was when the WG members in their exit meeting raised their hands…for approving the final report.

Ingredients for success

The WG has had a lifespan of 18 years. Over all these years 20 out of the current 28 Member State SAIs and the ECA came together in the WG, and quite a few of them during all the time of the WG’s existence. In my view, the WG could ‘survive’ such long time because some decisive factors came together. First and foremost, the enthusiasm and cohesion of a group of auditors ; their conviction of the common usefulness of the European audit ‘project;’ their willingness to sacrifice time, also private time, for the project; their ability to find the ‘appropriate’ subjects and concentrate on them; the atmosphere of trust and friendship that had been built up among the members; and their professional abilities. Last but not least: the willingness of the involved SAIs to support the WG project with the necessary means.

Many good memories come to my mind when I think back about the meetings and conversations I had with my colleagues from -in alphabetical order, hoping I haven’t forgotten no one — Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Malta, the Netherlands (let me mention here my dear friend and highly estimated colleague Peter van Roozendaal to whom the WG owed so much), Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom (the NAO regrettably withdrew after some years of excellent work, which meant a severe loss to it). To all these colleagues I say: thank you all so much that I could get to know you, work with you and learn from you. It was a success, and it was a pleasure!

Coincidently or not, at the time that the European project is said to be in crisis, real or alleged, the WG activities came to an end. However, there is no reason to be sorry about that. I have no doubt that at some point in time another working group with a similar ‘mission’ will arise.

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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