Confessions of an SAI Superfan & Recent Lessons From Kenya+

Everyone has their "thing". That nerdy interest--bordering on obsession--that they get a little short of breath talking about and love tucking into in their spare time. Some people have Arsenal, or Assassin's Creed, or underwater photography. For the last 5 years, I've had Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs).

Ya. You read that correctly.

Supreme Audit Institutions: those government offices responsible for periodically checking up on public accounts. The Auditor-General's Office in Singapore, the Contraloria General in Colombia, the Tribunal de Contas in Angola...

When I mention my SAI thing to friends, colleagues, or random bar-goers, the response is almost always a confused or blank stare. For even the most educated and worldly among them--including a few who spend their days advocating for greater government accountability--knowledge of SAIs is limited at best. Where they do have the basic knowledge and theoretically recognise the value, they usually write off SAIs as too bureaucratic, too procedural, not "sexy". They are so very wrong.

Take recent events in Kenya: headline after headline has decried the "disturbing" new findings that only a quarter of the government's financial statements were properly accounted for (in an annual budget of approximately US$16bn). Another quarter of these statements was so poorly documented that it was impossible to tell if they represented efficient, or even lawful, transactions.

The source of these shocking findings? The government's own Auditor-General. Like SAIs all over the world, Kenya's government auditors exercised their constitutional mandate to scrutinize and report on government accounts. Sadly, also like many SAIs, their access to records was limited and much of the information they received was either misleading or incomplete.

Meanwhile in Libya, the Audit Bureau made headlines for naming 11 companies involved in an alleged foreign currency scam and for coordinating with law enforcement to freeze the bank accounts of 79 companies and individuals. Back in May, the Audit Bureau had also issued a warning about a sharp fall in foreign reserves that could trigger complete economic collapse in less than two years.

Looking a bit further back, South Sudan's National Audit Chamber--the office that sparked my interest in SAIs (and later my dissertation)--is a powerful example of the potential and limitations of these institutions. Well before to the horrific current conflict, high-level political interference and the refusal of many ministries to provide even the most basic documentation left the Auditor General unable to present his annual reports. The most recent report is for FY 2008. But that did not stop him from being an outspoken critic of government misappropriation and corruption, and from focusing the attention of citizens and international partners on major scandals and budget holes. His early reports also usefully detailed unaccounted-for oil revenues and expenditures in what was then the world's most oil-dependent country.

I am not arguing that SAIs are cure-alls. Even an SAI with the the perfect legal framework, a strong leader, and full organizational and professional capacity can be severely limited by the institutions around it; particularly legislators and law enforcement. But SAIs are on the very frontline of government accountability and have massive potential to change the way governments operate and citizens fight for fair and proper public financial management.

Consequently, my SAI thing is only just beginning.