Reflections from the Top

For more than 180 years, the Audit Office of of the Australian state of New South Wales has been assisting the Parliament of New South Wales hold government accountable for its use of public resources.

Recently the New South Wales Auditor General for the past seven years – Peter Achterstraat – concluded his term and he took the opportunity to reflect on the privileges, challenges, and lessons learnt from such a distinguished role.

Achterstraat makes some interesting observations that can be applied across all governance and audit teams – irrespective whether in corporate or government administration:

  • I made a point of visiting areas we were about to audit. I wanted very much to understand their business so my audits would be more effective.
  • Testament to my staff and their professionalism that the Parliament of New South Wales has asked the Audit Office of New South Wales to undertake additional audit work.
  • My 2010 audit on speed cameras broke new ground for an Auditor-General’s office by engaging the public on topical issues we are auditing. In an internet-based survey we asked the public to indicate which fixed speed cameras they thought improved road safety and which they thought were merely revenue raisers.
  • I judge my success on whether government and its agencies act on my recommendations

Achterstraat also noted that:

My seven years as Auditor-General have confirmed some universal principles for public administration.

Integrity – be straightforward, be honest, and act with the highest level of probity and propriety.

Transparency/trust – be open, inclusive and transparent about decision-making processes and outcomes.

Accountability – clearly understand your responsibilities and roles and accept external scrutiny as a positive part of public administration.

Stewardship/service – public servants act on behalf of the public.

The public sector must uphold all of these principles to truly act in the public interest.

Finally he noted what operational practices were evident in agencies that performed well:

  • Good governance is fundamentally important – leadership and risk management are two key levers.
  • Sound financial reporting – timely and accurate financial reporting is essential for effective decision making and public accountability.  ‘Early close’ procedures and quality reviews encourage timely and error free financial statements.
  • Accurate performance information is essential. It may cost you money to collect it but it will cost you a lot more if you don’t. Set concrete goals and monitor performance.
  • Coordination between agencies is fundamental to the success of Government programs.
  • Effective project and contract management are essential, particularly in IT and when partnering with the private sector.
  • Extra money is often not the answer, better ways of using existing resources is.
  • Early intervention is often the most effective and cost efficient way to improve outcomes and achieve lower costs down stream.

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