Speech Vice-President Mr Ewout Irrgang at the 50th anniversary conference of Cour des Comptes tunesienne

Speech Vice-President Mr Ewout Irrgang of Netherlands Court of Audit at the 50th anniversary conference of Cour des Comptes tunesienne, Tunis, 8 maart 2018.

Cher Monsieur le Premier Président de la Cour des Comptes, honorables invités, chers collègues et chers amis.

Permettez-moi tout d’abord de vous remercier de votre invitation.

Je voudrais vous féliciter pour le cinquantième anniversaire de la Cour des Comptes. Je me réjouis de pouvoir participer et de pouvoir revoir le Tunis que j’ai visité plusieurs fois.

Je m’excuse de continuer en Anglais parce que je peux pas parler Français parfaitement comme vous.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Almost fifty years ago, on the twenty-second of November 1968, my father arrived in Tunis. He came here to work as an electrical engineer under a work permit from the Tunisian authorities.

For three years, he lived in the ‘El Menzah’ neighbourhood. At number nineteen, Impasse de lbn Chabat. My father is still alive and Tunisia still has a special place in his heart.

In 1973, shortly after he returned to the Netherlands, he married my mother. For their honeymoon, the happy couple travelled to Tunis and Nefta. After I was born in 1976, my father and his family visited friends in Tunisia in 1977, 1981, and 1988.

From 1998 until 2012 I worked in the Dutch parliament. I served as an MP between 2005 and 2012. My daughter was born in 2011, a year that holds a special place in Tunisian history. Her name is Jasmina which I am sure you will find appropriate given the year of her birth. In 2013, I visited Tunisia again with my wife and my daughter Jasmina. After that, we moved to Tanzania. A country in the east of Africa rather than the north. I worked there for three years to improve local healthcare. Last year, I returned to the Netherlands and was appointed Vice-President of the Netherlands Court of Audit on the first of September. It is therefore a special honour for me to be invited here for the fiftieth anniversary of the Cour des Comptes, fifty years after my father first visited Tunis. My sincere congratulations once again! 

So I can say: personal commitment matters!

Some ten years ago Mrs Faiza Kefi of the Tunisian Cour des Comptes and the former president of the Netherlands Court of Audit, Mrs Saskia Stuiveling, who sadly passed away suddenly last year, had coffee together and decided there was an opportunity for their organisations to cooperate.

To be more precise: our cooperation was born in 2005 during the EUROSAI Congress in Bonn, Germany, where the two Presidents met and shared their ambition for greater collaboration between European and Arab SAIs. This resulted in a long-standing partnership between the Cour des Comptes and the Netherlands Court of Audit.

The two organisations have now been working together for almost eleven years as institutional partners in an environment that has changed radically since the first contacts were made in 2005.

We are proud to have worked together for so many years, and our Tunisian colleagues have taught us how to operate in what have sometimes been difficult circumstances. We have learnt that we can truly help each other as friends. We have been through transformations such as the Arab Spring in 2011 and learnt what they mean to a supreme audit institution and its environment.

Throughout those challenging conditions, we stayed connected. Even if it meant we sometimes saw a little less of each other.

Together with partners from six other Arab countries we continued our long-standing cooperation with Tunisia in 2016 under the umbrella of the Dutch Sharaka programme. This is a broader cooperation programme between the NCA and seven partner SAIs in the Arab region. The programme is financed by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. ‘Sharaka’ means partnership.

Within the Sharaka programme we are working together on many projects in the fields of integrity, performance auditing, public financial management, IT auditing, stakeholder management and communications.

Working on our impact on government and society in Tunisia is not the same as it was ten years ago. A lot has changed in just the six years since my daughter Jasmina was born: she is much less fragile now. At six years old she is becoming more independent and developing her own unique character. Some problems have arisen along the way, of course, but we are confident they will be resolved as she grows up.

I am sure something similar holds true for the Jasmin Revolution – at six years of age. The revolution echoes every day in this town, this country and this region. Tunisia today lives under a new Constitution, has a more active and powerful parliament, and changes are still taking place in all types of public organisations. It's an ongoing process, with society increasingly calling for good governance, transparency and accountability. As an independent and valuable institution, the Cour des Comptes should make a difference and contribute to the new Tunisia by securing and developing these principles. To position of the Cour des Comptes should be empowered by law. It is good to hear today in Tunis national parliament, the Assemblee of the People, will aprove the new draft law next April.

When I worked in the Dutch parliament, first as a staffer and later as an MP, the Netherlands Court of Audit’s reports were almost always valued by myself and my colleagues.

Why was this the case?

For several reasons, I believe. Firstly, the NCA’s reports were known to be sometimes critical of the government, but not always. So as an MP, you would always take notice: what does the NCA have to say about a topic? Is it critical or not?

Secondly, its reports have a reputation for quality. If the NCA thinks the evidence is not critical, it will not say that it is. But the opposite is also true: if the facts are uncomfortable, the reports will tell an unlucky minister the harsh truth. In sum, this tends to produce a reputation that SAIs should aspire to: a reputation for being concise, but not shying away from telling the truth in clear terms if the audit work merits it.

Six months into office, I now have a clearer picture of the NCA’s work from the perspective of the SAI itself. It is my strong belief that we should never make compromises and stop writing concise reports. Our reputation is everything. That’s where SAIs should stand out in the age of clickbait and fake news. We can and must continue to communicate as clearly as possible and make sure our audience inside and outside parliament understands our message.

There is always a risk that SAIs will shy away from the most sensitive political issues because we auditors by nature tend to be more risk-averse than risk-prone. Looking at my own, still rather limited experience, it’s also important that we don’t focus exclusively on the processes: are the rules being followed? We should not forget the even more important question: do the rules make sense? Do they ensure taxpayers’ money is spent wisely?

In that sense, Tunisia is probably in a different position. In my country, over 99% of the central government budget is spent according to the rules set in the budget. So as a SAI we try to focus more of our effort on the second question: is the money being spent wisely? Because you can waste a lot of taxpayers’ money but still spend it in accordance with the rules. In Tunisia, you might need to spend more time on the first question: is taxpayers’ money being spent on its intended purpose? Is public money being used for private purposes? I believe the Cour des Comptes, in close alliance with parliament, should always aspire to be the taxpayers’ ally in the fight against corruption and wasteful spending.

SAIs know how important timing is. It is vital we deliver our audits on time, so that parliament and government can use the information properly. And it's crucial we choose the right audit topics.

Let me share a successful example at our sister institution in Tanzania, the country I worked and lived in for three years. Large gas fields have been discovered in Tanzania in recent years. The revenues from this national resource should benefit the people. The National Audit Office of Tanzania wants to play a major role in the accountability for oil and gas revenues and their transparency. Its reports contain some very critical findings regarding the environmental impact, knowledge management, the management of geological material and the procedures in place to award licences and permits. The reports enjoyed a lot of media attention and also led to concrete measures, including a staff reorganisation at the supervisor. The NCA assisted in the audits.

Tanzania’s President is waging war against corruption in the public sector but at the same time risks weakening institutions that can help contain corruption, such as parliament and the independent press. The National Audit Office can play it’s own role in making sure public money is not used for private purpose.

If SAIs are to be open about their work, we must also be open to our auditees, understand their work, their drive, the difficulties they face. Then our recommendations can really help improve public services.

So we have to make sure we are relevant. To society, to our main stakeholders. We need to have well-structured contact with government, with ministries, with parliament. Communication is not everything, as it is sometimes claimed, but it is very important.

In my experience as a former MP in the Netherlands, it is important that a SAI is independent and that MPs can rely on the outcome of its audits. In the Netherlands, MPs say: the Court of Audit is our best friend. They mean: we need its independent judgement to inform our political discussions.

Today, SAIs also need to be innovative. The digitalization and datafication of our society is progressing at a fast pace. Government is producing more and more digital information and databases. That means SAIs have to innovate too. We need to find new trends in an overload of data. What is relevant? And what is not?

Before we can use new technologies, we have to understand them. How does big data transform societies and organisations? How can big data help us? We have to find solutions to these new developments. We need to challenge existing practices and push ourselves further. Graphics, animations and pictures will attract a broader audience to our audit reports. Because a picture says more than a thousand words.

So we have to experiment with our audits. Experiment by involving citizens. Many taxpayers nowadays believe they themselves can check whether public money is being spent wisely. Of course, we have to verify their findings before we can use them, but using more sources than just government documents enriches our outcomes and deepens our authority. Combining different datasets can give surprising insights into new developments in society.

The bottom line for a SAI is that we must always be trustworthy. But we have to earn that trust. Our auditors need to be trustworthy and capable. As leaders of our organisations, we have to enable our personnel to develop and learn new audit techniques. We have to invest in our people, not only in their audit expertise but also in their communication skills.

We must communicate our audit results and our conclusions on how the government is doing its job professionally. Communicate directly with parliament and with government. And communicate directly with the public, using our website, using conventional and new social media. Being transparent wherever possible. And being open about our sources and our analyses.

If we communicate professionally, I am sure we can improve the impact of our work.

Dear audience, let’s share our experiences on this important theme!