Three fixes for the future of auditing

By Tian Jiao Lim

Public sector audit expert Bruce Turner shares advice on how departments can keep delivering quality insights to governments.

As coronavirus outbreaks sweep through the world, it has exposed the inefficiencies and limitations of existing government systems.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has been the catalyst for governments to cut red tape,” says Bruce Turner, former Chief Internal Auditor of the Australian Taxation Office. In response, public sector auditors must champion more efficient public service delivery and help agencies navigate a more complex landscape, he says.

Turner highlights three things internal audit departments need to do to slash through bureaucracy and showcase their teams’ effectiveness.

Demonstrate impact

Amidst the coronavirus-triggered economic slump, governments will be forced to reduce their spending as funding is redirected. “The biggest challenge for public sector auditors will be sufficient and sustained funding of the internal audit function,” warns Turner, who is also former Chair of the Institute of Internal Auditors International Public Sector Committee.

Auditors will need to continuously demonstrate the value of their work. He recommends setting up a "scorecard" which tracks the internal auditors' performance on key areas. "One of the KPIs that the chief audit executive should be measured against is professional outreach, including networking, because that is how they remain abreast of shifts in the profession, as well as digitisation opportunities," he says.

Even something seemingly mundane as report writing can help demonstrate the value of auditors to their management. Audit reports have to “align their observations more closely with the organisation’s risk appetite, and speak in a non-jargon language that is meaningful for senior stakeholders,” he adds.

Embrace technology

Audit departments will need to work more efficiently, even as they function in unpredictable conditions. “Chief audit executives will need to be smart in leveraging technology to compensate for the loss of people within their audit teams,” Turner says.

Many are using computer-assisted auditing techniques to expand audit coverage, he notes. Teams could go further, adopting tools like robotic process automation and artificial intelligence to assess the “integrity and completeness of non-financial information”. This is especially true for auditors creating regular reports to government ministers, boards, and the community. For instance, tech could be used to check whether public transport is running on time, or examine if health sector staff were granted “inappropriate or unauthorised access to patient records”.

As agencies use more complex technologies like biometrics, blockchain, automation and AI, cyber risks are becoming more prominent across the government. Auditors will need a strong understanding of these concepts to identify, evaluate and contain these risks, he says.

Chief audit executives will need to recruit people with a high level of digital expertise, he adds. Equipped with a thorough understanding of digital risks, these specialists can then “establish themselves as trusted advisors to management.” They should also be “tasked with cross-fertilising their digital skills with the other auditors in the team” to boost the internal audit department’s overall capabilities.

To reach these aims, chief audit executives need to start with a well-considered plan. “You don’t want auditors always running down rabbit holes in experimenting with technology, so there needs to be an overarching and longer-term audit technology strategy that guides the investment in technologies, how they are used, and how the auditors are trained in their use,” Turner recommends.

Balanced approach

While new technology can streamline the workload of internal auditors, these cannot fully replace the insights that traditional auditing techniques offer, Turner says. Auditors can use new techniques and tools to great effect, but they need to know when to gather on-the-ground insights as well.

They must not always rely on technology. Instead, they must interact with people, and give clear recommendations for organisational improvements where appropriate. “I don’t like auditors to be rooted in their office looking at their computer screens when you see much more of the organisational culture and operational practices when you visit sites and spend time there,” remarks Turner. “Auditors need a balanced approach, with audit technology used wisely and strategically with physical interactions with clients.”

As we enter a time of uncertainty, governments will need to ensure that they are working effectively and public funding is not being squandered. These three fixes can help auditors ensure nations stay on track.