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Reflections of an auditor

Posted by Gary Emery | Answering your questions | May 01, 2013
How does the OAG follow up on its audits, and do they make a difference?

I am standing in the kitchen of my house in Greytown, staring out of the window and watching the dark rain clouds slowly enveloping the hills in the distance. The first rain drops hit the roof and windows, making the sound of a Vickers machine gun – not that I really know what that sounds like, but I can imagine.

Window

I am in a reflective mood as winter approaches.

Maybe it's my age (I am in my late 40's) or the end of summer, but it feels like it's time to sit down around a roaring fire and ponder for a while. Work is a big part of many people's lives and it got me thinking about the performance audit work that I do. Does it really make a difference? By difference, I mean "how does my work at the OAG help improve public services, and what mechanisms do we use to try to ensure that it does?"

Our primary objective in undertaking performance audits is to provide assurance to Parliament. So what does that mean?

Parliament funds our office to carry out performance audits. Therefore, our priority is to report back to Parliament on what we find. So how do we report back? And how does the reporting that we do help drive improvement in the public sector?

First, we produce a report that gets presented/tabled* in Parliament. It is then a public document.

The report is also circulated to all members of Parliament (MPs), including the Prime Minister, to the entities we have audited, and to other organisations and individuals who might have an interest in our work. Copies of the report are also available by request.

But the circulation and publication of our report doesn't stimulate improvement on its own. We are usually asked to present our findings at a select committee of MPs. They ask us questions about what we found and sometimes the entities we have audited are asked to present how they have responded to our recommendations. This in itself can help stimulate improvements in how the services we audited are delivered.

The very fact we are conducting an audit can also stimulate improvement. As we are working with an entity, we will come up with ideas and views on what needs to improve. If an entity is focused on continuous improvement, they often start implementing improvements before we have completed our audit.

Once our reports are completed and tabled in Parliament, we will normally produce a follow-up plan to check progress against our recommendations. Although we can't require entities to act on our recommendations, most do.

Finally, we produce a progress report that also goes to Parliament. The report outlines the progress that has been made on the recommendations from our performance audits. We might also do a separate follow-up audit if we think that there were significant areas for improvement that are important to New Zealanders. A recent example of this was our follow-up report on Effectiveness of arrangements to check the standard of rest home services.

The fact that an entity's performance is reported to Parliament, that we work closely with entities when we audit them, and that we follow up our recommendations usually leads to improvements. Most entities are interested in doing things better and delivering better services, so they are usually receptive to what we find.

FireAs I sit back on the sofa, with the rain lashing down outside, I gaze into the fire. A log cracks in the grate as the flames intensify and I reflect on what have I seen that has actually improved – either directly or indirectly – as the result of our audits. But that's for another blog…

* In this context, "tabled" literally means what it says – the Speaker of the House actually lays the report on the table in the House of Representatives.

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