Against the backdrop of increasing public investment, there is a rising demand across the globe for enhanced accountability and transparency. This, among others, is to make sure that the investments deliver intended results and make a real difference in the lives of targeted beneficiaries.
Evidence is in abundance that traditional oversight arrangements of public audit institutions fall short of meeting the expectations of the citizens, creating an expectation-gap. In all well-functioning democracies, there are persistent efforts to close this gap. Given the inadequacies of the traditional audit, social audit has emerged as a practiced concept of auditing across the world to meet the growing expectations of the citizens.
While conventional audit focuses on the scrutiny of financial transactions together with relevant records from a compliance point of view, social audit has a much wider scope and goes beyond the domain of conventional audit. It evaluates how a program delivers benefits to the communities at large. Having a larger impact on the society from an ethical point of view, it contributes to reducing the risks of investment and brings about an inclusive approach to evaluate a program using appropriate techniques.
Social audit being a participatory oversight mechanism, a group of selected citizens representing beneficiaries and stakeholders conduct an audit exercise on the use of public resources. They may then report back to the authorities to recommend and take appropriate actions. If the results of the social audits are communicated effectively, they may create a desired impact by ensuring enhanced accountability and transparency – delivering important pointers to the state auditors and consequently, help optimize the use of scarce audit resources.
Social audits may be conducted for public investment programmes that address socio-economic development, development of infrastructure, communication, health, sanitation, water supply, improvement of education, awareness-raising, self-employment education for women, income generating training for the poor, quality enhancement training for young males and females, etc. to evaluate their effectiveness.
Despite its growing popularity and potential to deliver a range of benefits, social audit is not practiced in Bangladesh as part of government audit protocol, which is mainly geared to compliance audit. While there is a need for policy uptake of this new concept, it is important to demonstrate the evidence of its effectiveness by piloting this audit in selected sites before entrenching it in the domain of government audit.
Noting that Bangladesh experiences frequent climate change induced natural disasters like floods, tropical cyclones and storm surges resulting in the loss of life, damage to infrastructure and economic assets, the government of Bangladesh has been implementing different projects to reduce the impacts of these natural disasters in different parts of the country, including those at the grassroots.
Social audit can be an effective tool to improve transparency and accountability of these programs and further strengthen the oversight mechanism. However, it is important that the social auditors acquire an understanding of the scheme operations, familiarity with applicable legislation, relevant rules, and standards and practical experience to exercise professional judgment and turn social audit into an effective tool to assess how these interventions are bringing changes in the lives and livelihoods of the communities.
In the context of Bangladesh, the issue of selecting ideal pilot sites for social audit merits special attention. It is important to note that the social auditors cannot accomplish their tasks unless they take themselves closer to the beneficiaries, get to know directly their feedback on the projects or programs being implemented and see for themselves what is happening on the ground.
Considering these aspects, it is quite obvious that the Union Parishads (UPs), the lowest tier of local government institutions in Bangladesh, should be the ideal pilot sites where the social auditors selected from among the community members living in close proximity with the local stakeholders, can see practically the implementation of programs and get to know the decision making process.
The results of these pilots will better inform the policy makers as to its effectiveness and embed it in the oversight functions. Recent experience of piloting this audit in some selected UPs confirm the fact that UPs are quite receptive to this new intervention and the social auditors also demonstrate their readiness to take up this new task with zeal and enthusiasm. Indeed the experience is quite encouraging but what is important to note is that the practice should continue so that the results become more effective and finer at every successive spell of intervention.
However, the challenge of instilling appropriate skills among the social auditors still remains, and as it stands, cannot be tackled overnight. Iterations of the audit exercise, intensive hands-on training and constant guidance from the seasoned professionals might turn out to be good enablers and help in tackling this challenge.
In addition, experimentation of NGOs with this audit, albeit on a limited scale, will certainly deliver important pointers which may be useful in developing appropriate methodologies of carrying out this exercise together with practical guidelines for the auditors.
Social audit with its unique features marks an important shift in our oversight culture. It should be further developed to strengthen the existing oversight mechanism intended to ensure greater accountability and transparency in public investment programmes.
The author works in the climate change programmme of UNDP Bangladesh.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.