Annual Report 2018: Sticking to the facts

2018 was the year in which the Netherlands Court of Audit strengthened its staff establishment again following the reorganisation in 2017. The government decided to increase our budget to bring it more into line with the performance of our statutory duties. As from 2018, the additional budget awarded to the Court will increase in steps from an extra 1 million in 2018 to an extra €3 million per annum as from 2022. We used the additional funds to make significant investments in the recruitment, training and development of our staff during the year. We recruited, inducted and trained 57 new members of staff.

The Court of Audit published its Annual Report for 2018 and submitted it to the House of Representatives on 21 March 2019.

The Court’s President, Arno Visser, said in the foreword,: “In this report we present not only an overview of the reports we published and their contents. We also let others look over our shoulder and attempt to reflect on ourselves and what we do.”


Sticking to the facts

As the novelist Aldous Huxley pointed out almost 100 years ago, facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored. And yet today’s world seems to be turning into a whirlwind of fleeting images, news flashes and – yes – even occasional doubts about the truth of ‘facts’. 

This annual report does not fall into the latter category. Our aim has been to produce a transparent account of our portfolio of work. One good way of doing this is by taking a step back when answering questions such as ‘What did we do, what did we find and what did we learn from the findings?’ But what’s the point of keeping a distance? Well, people tend to believe that good results follow automatically from good intentions. And this belief is particularly strong where the intentions in question are your own. That’s why, in compiling this annual report, we asked our stakeholders to take a close look at our work. 

The task of the Netherlands Court of Audit is to audit central government, both on our own initiative and in response to requests. Our independence, as laid down in the Dutch Constitution, is a statutory guarantee of distance. We assess how government policy pans out in practice and how ministries and executive agencies are performing. We report our findings to parliament. Our reports may not be written in prose that would have filled Aldous Huxley with envy; they do not need to be. What we want is for everyone to be able to see how the government is performing, so our overriding concern is that the facts should be accurate and that our reports should be couched in plain, easy to understand language. 

At the same time, we are aware that the government is changing – and this is a trend to which we must respond. A few years ago, we borrowed what proved to be a fitting slogan from the Dutch-American artist, Willem de Kooning: “You have to change to stay the same”. 

Last year was the first year after our reorganisation in which we operated under a new organisational structure. The reorganisation had been prompted by two factors: firstly, budget cuts imposed by previous governments and, secondly, a realisation that a modern government auditor has to keep pace with its changing operating environment – with its new technologies, new forms of communication and sometimes even different working methods (both internal and external). We are also trying to work more in partnership with universities and other organisations, such as the National Ombudsman and the Council of State. We are involved in a wide range of partnerships with national audit offices in other countries. And we ask academic researchers to take a critical look at our publications.

Our challenge is to deliver classical content in a modern packaging. Although this sounds a bit like a commercial for a new car, it simply reflects what we are trying to be – and indeed what we need to do. What we are is reflected by our products and publications: from weighty reports and quick-fire focus audits to web pages, articles and conference presentations. More and more often, these are packaged and delivered as part of an overarching programme.

This review is more than just a list of our reports with a summary of their contents. While we have a policy of inviting outsiders to assess our work, we also try to reflect ourselves on what we are and what we do. To this end, we developed a method of self-reflection in 2018 that has now been transformed into a software tool. This tool highlights the themes and topics underlying the reports we published in 2018. Expressing as it does both the focus and the perspective of our audits, the resultant picture makes an ideal navigational tool. We can use it to decide – from a distance – whether we are still on course or whether we need to adjust our bearings or our speed.

One unexpected but nonetheless welcome development in 2018 was parliament’s approval of a government proposal to make a number of budgetary changes so as to align the funding allocated to the High Councils of State more closely with their statutory tasks. This means that, after a number of years of declining staffing levels, we will now be able to take on more staff as from 2019. The foundations are in place and we can build on them to pursue our mission of helping to improve the performance and operations of central government – by sticking to the facts.

Arno Visser
President of the Netherlands Court of Audit