Less site visits and fewer cooperative audits – the pandemic has affected environmental auditing in several ways
The INTOSAI Working Group on Environmental Auditing just conducted its 10th Survey on Environmental Auditing. This global survey that we send to all SAIs, not only our 79 Members, is realized every three years. While we are still analysing the results in the Secretariat, here is a small preview on one topical matter: whether and how the pandemic has affected environmental auditing in SAIs?
Out of the 64 answers to this question, 14 SAIs stated that the pandemic had no impact on environmental auditing, or any other auditing. 80% of the respondents, however, identified some impacts. The most obvious consequence of the corona crisis is the adoption of remote working and the use of digital tools. Although digital arrangements were usually introduced smoothly, sometimes unstable internet connections have caused problems. The access to auditees’ systems also varies in SAIs.
In some SAIs, digital working has been hampered by the fact that all public sector records are not necessarily available in digital format. For example, those SAIs whose mandate extends to municipalities had to cut audits sometimes because documents are available only on paper.
More desk reviews, no field visits
The pandemic has also affected audit methods. While the amount of desk reviews has exploded, a quarter of respondents noted that the lockdown meant that site visits and fieldwork became impossible. On-site visits and checks can be very important while auditing environmental topics, whether it is about wildlife protection or location of air quality measurement stations. Some respondents expressed worries on how the lack of physical verification affects the quality of audits. The pandemic has also made it impossible to continue with novel approaches, such as Citizen Participatory Audits.
One SAI out of ten had also faced delays in audits. This was not only due to of problems on the auditee’s end, but at times because SAI staff members had fallen ill.
Besides working methods, the pandemic has also affected what SAIs audit. On the one hand, the pandemic has shifted SAIs’ audit planning towards Covid 19-related matters, which has drawn resources temporarily from environmental audits. In one SAI, resources had been reallocated altogether from the SAI to tackle the pandemic.
On the other hand, some SAIs noted that due to the pandemic, there will be audits on resilience and recovery funds for achieving climate and environmental objectives. The pandemic has also raised awareness of the importance of biodiversity for human health, which might mean that these topics will emerge in audit strategies. Audits could also address negative impacts of the pandemic, such as an increase of plastic waste, but also positive aspects including cleaner air due to decreased traffic.
Main takeaways for the Secretariat
One of the key models for cooperation in the WGEA regions is cooperative audits. One respondent noted that a cooperative audit was cancelled because of travel restrictions and anticipated that there might be fewer cooperative audits in the future, which could affect the capacity building in SAIs. This is an important message for us in the Secretariat and a nudge to think together with regions whether there are any possibilities to support cooperative audits in new ways.
Concerning the WGEA meetings, which we have now organized in an online format, the main critique was the difficulty to participate in them due to time differences. This is a problem we in the Secretariat are aware of, nonetheless, it encourages us to rethink the aspect better in the future.
The respondents also pointed out some positive impacts related to the pandemic: cutting travels means less environmental emissions. Digitalisation was generally considered a good thing and the crisis had facilitated some SAIs to developed new ways to audit, such as launching agile audits to optimize resource use.
A comprehensive report on the 10th Survey on Environmental Auditing will be finalized later this year.