Arno Visser to speak at international conference for supreme audit institutions

President of the Court of Audit to speak on the sustainable development agenda at INCOSAI conference in Abu Dhabi.

Dear President Al Amini, President Alangari, Mr Wu, distinguished guests and dear colleagues, it is an honour for me to be here and to have the opportunity to speak to you as peers on our potential contribution as Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs) to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
In 2015 world leaders adopted the 2030 agenda and our governments are now in the process of translating this agenda into their own legal context and national policy framework. Let´s be clear: the Sustainable Development Goals are not legally binding. Each government therefore has to decide if and how to commit itself to the 2030 agenda and if so take the responsibility to establish national policies to reach the goals. For each of us this governmental commitment is crucial. Together with our mandate it forms the basis from which we as SAIs can address the SDGs in our work.
The SDGs not only cover key issues that we as SAIs should be auditing in the coming years if we are to remain relevant. They also offer us the opportunity to learn from one another and from third parties, and to develop new skills and techniques. We can do this as individual SAIs and as  partners within INTOSAI. I hope that in the next 10 minutes I will be able to convince you of the added value of us combining forces and assessing in parallel our national governments´ preparedness to implement the SDGs.
With a relatively small investment of resources we could create a wealth of insight in the form of multiple national baselines or reviews. These can be a foundation for sharing best practices, triggering innovation and boosting collaboration within the INTOSAI community.

May I invite you to join me briefly in the future?
Imagine the 27th INCOSAI Congress in 2031. Imagine that it is held in the Netherlands and that you have all taken your aerodynamic, solor-powered e-bikes from your hotel to the congress hall.
Imagine that there is a plenary session on the SDGs and that we share the outcomes of our performance audits on the extent to which our governments have achieved the 17 goals.
Probably we will have lots of conclusions about what went wrong, the gap between policies and their realisation and plenty of recommendations for improvement. Let’s call it our solid and traditional way of working.
Well… I have to be honest with you – I would consider such a conventional approach too little, too late in the case of the SDGs.
Would we have succeeded in demonstrating the added value and benefits of our work as SAIs – making a difference to the lives of citizens?
I believe that for the SDG agenda with its unique and ambitious programme we need to raise the stakes and search for innovative approaches to prove our added value. We need to step out of our comfort zone and into a more uncertain learning zone. We should do so together.
Trying out new approaches and cooperating, each according to our own national context, will help each of us to increase our expertise and skills related to the review and audit of sustainable development issues.
The realisation in 2030 of 17 inter-related and ambitious sustainable development goals will be a huge challenge for the governments that decide to commit themselves. 2030 sounds far away, especially if you are a policy maker. However, it is actually very little time if you consider the huge issues at stake such as ending poverty, banishing hunger, or taking effective climate action.
The challenge is even greater than that of the earlier Millennium Development Goals (the MDGs). Then there were only 8 goals, focused on developing countries. Now we have 17 universal goals, which are broader and cover all sorts of inter-dependent policy areas. Moreover, to be successful, governments can no longer go it alone - the contributions of the private sector and other stakeholders with money, ideas and energy are urgently needed.
With the MDGs INTOSAI did not have a common strategy during the implementation phase. As a consequence only a few of us gained and shared insights into policy issues relating to the so-called ‘wicked problems’ of sustainable development. Only a few developed a strategy to comprehensively audit our governments’ efforts on those millennium goals. We can avoid a similar gap or missed opportunity with the SDGs by joining forces in this early stage, each within our own national framework and in accordance with our possibilities.
For those of us whose governments have started to translate the SDGs into a national agenda and whose mandates permit, the time to act is now.
We don’t need to wait until there are clearly defined audit objects or policies. We can contribute to the creation of a sense of urgency.
One of the lessons learned from the MDGs is that the long start-up phase consumed precious time, which jeopardised the results. To avoid disappointment on the SDGs in 2030, governments need to start prioritising and implementing as soon as possible. Every month counts.
Some governments have already taken the lead with national strategies and assessments, others are still in the start-up phase. A number of countries may decide to prioritise other policy issues above the SDGs. Our national contexts are very different.
But if we are ready and able to act in a concerted effort, how can we get started?
Our INCOSAI theme I paper identifies a range of possible contributions of SAIs for the coming years. I will focus on the conduct of a baseline review of the preparedness of governments to implement, monitor and be accountable on the SDGs. We as supreme audit institutions traditionally call governments to account for their plans and we audit the implementation of policies. Most of the time we focus on ex-post auditing, analysing once the dust has settled. Most of our powers and our mandate are also formulated in that sense. But in order to stay relevant in a rapidly changing environment we cannot afford to wait until 2031 to audit the realisation of the SDGs.
By taking a pro-active, innovative role now, we can assist our national governments to effectively reach their SDG goals.
I realise that reviewing government preparedness is not a typical role for us. I specifically say ‘reviewing’ the preparedness instead of ‘auditing’ the preparedness. This is because the ‘oversight’, ‘insight’ and ‘foresight’ we hope to develop via a preparedness review does not result in a judgement or true and fair opinion. What a review does, is to provide a crucial snapshot of the policies and systems (or the lack of them) at the start of the SDG journey.
A baseline from which to measure future progress. We aim to assess the extent to which systems, processes and accountability lines have been established, are likely to be effective and produce reliable information. You could also call it a reality check.
A review is of course not completely new. Many of us have a role in the early stage of policy processes. Some of us have explicit responsibilities to conduct feasibility studies before public money can be spent and some of us audit budgets and comment on annual budgeting and available budget information.
Moreover, as ISSAI 12 states, one of the criteria of our effective functioning is that we make a difference to the lives of citizens, Parliament and other stakeholders by being responsive to changing environments. That implies ensuring that stakeholders’ expectations and emerging risks are factored into our strategic, business and audit plans.
I believe that we are in a good position as SAIs, gifted with unique powers, to review whether our governments are ready or not for the SDG challenge.
As one of only a few institutions at the national level, we are able to offer a broad and integrated analysis covering  different governmental departments. That is particularly useful in the case of the SDGs with their policy broadness and inter-relationships.
As SAIs we have access to the data systems of all public departments and services and are thus able to verify whether that information is available and how it is used. In reviewing preparedness, the availability of baseline data will be particularly important, because these figures will be the reference point for future monitoring and the measurement of results.
We also have the possibility of reviewing how the inputs of non-governmental stakeholders, such as the private companies, civil society organisations and citizens, who have a vital role to play in the successful implementation of the 2030 Agenda, are being incorporated into national government strategies.
Governmental preparedness is a key success factor for achieving the ambitious SDG goals. In collaboration with the European Court of Audit (ECA) and other SAI partners we have developed a seven step INTOSAI approach to review governmental preparedness, which can be followed in full or in part, according to your SAI’s priorities and available resources.
Based on the UN SDG reporting guidelines to member states, the model looks at seven key elements which determine whether or not a government is prepared to take up the 2030 SDG challenge:
The first 4 elements are grouped under “Policy setting and accountability”.
How prepared is the government on…

  1. Showing governmental commitment  and national responsibility to apply the SDGs.
  2. Building awareness for the SDGs and stimulating dialogue with all relevant stakeholders.
  3. Allocating responsibilities, resources, and establishing accountability arrangements.
  4. Developing implementation plans with attention for integration and coherence.

The last three of the seven elements are grouped under “Data Framework”. How far is the government on….

  1. Establishing systems to measure and monitor the SDG goals and targets.
  2. Setting baselines for the different indicators, against which to judge progress made throughout the SDG lifecycle.
  3. Making arrangements for monitoring and reporting on the progress regarding the  SDGs.

What does this review model ask of us as SAIs?

Engaging ourselves in this SDG process is not without risks, given the complexity of the subject matter, but if we start with our snapshot and focus on the preparedness of governments, I believe that we as SAIs can have an important contribution and can also benefit ourselves in terms of professional development - developing our knowledge of sustainable development issues, as well as new skills and methodologies. The process can also increase our contacts and dialogue with key stakeholders like the Parliament and citizens. Important partners to maximise the impact of our reports and recommendations.
Let me conclude.

The SDGs are important beacons for the future well-being of our societies. For their successful implementation, timely governmental planning and early insight are crucial. These elements will also determine what conclusions we are able to draw as SAIs at our 27th INCOSAI in 2031.  But we also need to practice what we preach. If we are to adequately fulfil our own potential role, we also need to plan carefully, start now and coordinate. I hope that I have been able to convince you that the INTOSAI review model with its 7 steps and other initiatives focussed on assessing government preparedness offer us the opportunity to get off to a flying start together and to stimulate necessary government action. We will be able to share our ‘snapshots’, new audit techniques and best practices, at the same time as contributing to the insight and foresight of our governments. If you want to learn more about the review model and its implementation, or about other possibilities such as the IDI/KSC SDG audit programme, I recommend you to attend the Approach 1 sub session this afternoon.
Dear colleagues and friends, we should not wait until 2031 – now is the time for us to act and contribute via our unique mandates and specific roles, leaving no one behind and using the SDG agenda as a unique opportunity to further our own innovation and collaboration.