Argentina Citizen Participation in the Audit Process

Branch of Government:
Supreme Audit Institution

Open Budget Survey / Public Participation in the Budget Process Score (Out of 100): 2015: 27 – 2017: 13

Stage in Fiscal Policy Cycle

Audit

Summary

Argentina´s General Audit Office (AGN in Spanish) organizes participatory planning workshops[1] every year on different themes (such as environment, transport, health, among others). These thematic meetings are a mechanism for citizen consultation through which the AGN incorporates proposals from civil society for its annual audit planning. In addition, through these thematic workshops SAI representatives from technical units’ highlight audit findings, and expect citizen input on the issues and topic under audit.

This practice illustrates the principles of openness, timeliness, depth, sustainability, complementarity, and respect for self-expression.

The institutional relevance and general impact of Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs)’s work is significantly increased if the preferences and interests of the ultimate beneficiaries are actively considered in the design and performance of their work. For this to happen in practice, it is very important that SAIs have in place adequate mechanisms to seek feedback from citizens on their auditing plans to better reflect citizen priorities. INTOSAI[2] standards on transparency and accountability emphasize the importance of setting up formal mechanisms by which the public can make suggestions and lodge complaints about alleged irregularities in public bodies that could serve as the basis for future audits (ISSAI 20 and 21, principle 9 and others).

Principle 9 of the Principles of transparency and accountability  (ISSAI 20) establishes that SAIs:

-make use of external and independent advice to enhance the quality and credibility of their work.

– comply with the International Standards of Supreme Audit Institutions and strive for continued learning by using guidance or expertise from external parties. […]

– make use of external experts to provide independent, expert advice, including on technical matters relating to audits. SAIs publicly report the results of peer reviews and independent external assessments.

– may benefit from joint or parallel audits.

– By enhancing the quality of their work, SAIs could contribute to the improvement of professional capacity in financial management.”

Furthermore, in ISSAI 21, INTOSAI points out as a good practice that: “Some SAIs maintain formal mechanisms through which the public can communicate specific complaints and suggestions regarding the audits.”

Unlike complaints from the public, which are generally individual—even anonymous—and can be made at any time through different channels (such as Hotline or Website), AGN’s participatory planning mechanisms consist of institutionalizing the process of participation through public hearings and meetings where civil society organizations are called—before the AGN’s annual plan is drafted—to suggest programs or entities to be audited. AGN’s participation unit organizes two sets of meetings each year: 1) Annual Participatory Planning Meeting, and 2) Thematic Workshops.

Annual Participatory Planning Meetings

Since 2003, AGN has been organizing these Participatory Planning meetings on an annual basis, where civil society organizations (CSOs) make proposals on institutions and programs to be audited for possible inclusion in the AGN’s Annual Work Plan for the following year. Such general participatory meetings with civil society organizations have been held since in 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2010. However, in 2005, 2008 and 2009, there was a delay in finalizing the operational plan from AGN’s side, and they could not organize a participatory planning meeting due to lack of time. After 2010, meetings have been held almost every year. These meetings are well attended from the civil society side; for example, during the 2017 meeting, 38 proposals were received by AGN on various topics.

Thematic Workshops

Building on the success of participatory planning workshops, since 2013, AGN has started off with another slightly different model. Acknowledging that CSOs specialized in particular topics (like health, education, public transport, and environment) can make a more focused contribution towards the audit planning process, the AGN decided to organize thematic workshops and invite CSOs working on that specific sector/topic during the workshop to seek their feedback and proposals on the action plan for the following year.

The first thematic workshop was organized in May 2013, on environment auditing. The initiative was promoted by the area of Citizen Participation and was strongly backed by the President of the Collegiate Board, together with cooperation from the Department in charge of environment audits.  This year’s thematic workshop was held in March 2017, and was around mobile phone services.

Basic Facts

The participatory planning interventions are led by the Supreme Audit Institution in Argentina (Argentina´s General Audit Office, AGN in Spanish). This takes place at the national level, at the auditing stage of the budget cycle.

Why

The expertise and knowledge of CSOs and other external actors of certain issues and problems in the field are highly valuable in identifying areas where oversight is needed. These meetings are a non-binding consultative mechanism which broadly has two dimensions: to exchange information and experiences, and to receive the proposals of Civil Society. Specifically, the following objectives are achieved through these meetings:

  • AGN gets increased feedback from specialized CSOs and experts during fieldwork and data collection
  • AGN disseminates the findings and recommendations of audit reports among public who are specialist in those specific areas
  • AGN generates ownership of audit results by beneficiary CSOs that likely would monitor and demand for compliance of recommendations
  • The actual planning process and targeting/sampling for the next year’s audit plan in a specific sector gets improved.[3]

Authorizing Environment

Although the program has been in operation since 2003, in April 2014 the College of General Auditors formally approved the Participatory Planning Procedure (as described in next section), which becomes a sign of support and institutionalization towards this practice, which is to be implemented annually.[4] The approved Procedure document details the steps, as well as the format to be used by organizations to make their proposals.

Who and How

Organizing participatory planning meetings entails a process that follows the steps described below:

  1. Invitation to participate: Around August every year, the AGN invites civil society organizations by mail and e-mail for a meeting to be held at the offices of the AGN, one month before the AGN is expected to submit the Annual Plan to the Joint Parliamentary Audit Committee [Comisión Parlamentaria Mixta Revisora de Cuentas CPMRC], a congressional body to which it provides assistance.
  1. Briefing Meeting: During this initial briefing meeting AGN officials present the various types of audits conducted by the AGN and the different technical criteria used to select organizations to be audited. An information brochure, a disk containing information on the AGN’s internal structure and the audits conducted during the previous year, and a form that seeks to ascertain the organization’s area of interest, the areas that in its view should be audited, and the reasons, are distributed to the participating organizations. At the briefing, participants are requested to submit a form (pre-designed by the AGN) detailing their proposal for which government programs should be audited within a stipulated deadline.
  1. Processing and analysis of the proposals: Following submission of the proposals, the Department of Planning and the specific Committees responsible for each proposal within AGN determine the merit of the proposals, bearing in mind the constraints facing the AGN in terms of competence and implementation capacity.
  1. Feedback Meeting: By late September, the organizations that had submitted proposals are invited to a meeting for assessments and feedback. The AGN responds in writing to the proposals submitted.
  2. Post-meeting promotion: After the meeting, the AGN publishes a press release on its website, which, after a brief overview of the history of the participatory planning process at the AGN, provides a detailed account of the briefing, which also presents the work accomplished at these previous meetings, a summary of the proposals presented by the organizations, and the AGN’s internal structure. [See for example, that of 2016 –in Spanish–: https://www.agn.gov.ar/participacionciudadana/node/120]

Organizing thematic workshops entails a process that follows the steps described below:

  1. AGN identifies relevant thematic area/sector: The AGN decides on the sectors they need feedback/ideas from CSOs. Criteria may include sectors of high budget allocation or public investment, issues that are of public concern, among others. Currently, the following departments within AGN take part in the thematic workshops: the Legal and Institutional Secretariat (SLeI), the Management of Special Projects and Planning (GPyPE), Substantive Management (GGSS), Planning Supervision Commission and Special Projects and Investment Account and the College of General Auditors (CAG).
  1. Creating a database: AGN identifies which think tanks, policy research organizations or CSOs are working on the specific topic. 
  1. Preparing a Dissemination Package: The AGN identifies what information should be produced and distributed during the thematic workshop. The package generally consists of audit reports that have been issued in the previous years on the specific sector, audits facts and figures explaining the results of such audit exercises, and information about follow-up, as well as basic facts like the mandate and functions of the AGN.
  1. AGN defines the purpose of the workshop: AGN unit involved in this engagement practice decides on the objective and expected outcomes of the event. Mostly, they request CSO to: a) submit evidence of a program working well or not, b) provide documents or reports that the organization has developed that might be useful for the auditors, or c) discuss the most suitable data collection process for auditors. 
  1. Invitation to participate: AGN´s Unit on Citizen Participation sends emails to potential participants to take part in the workshop, explaining its purpose. Along with the invitation, the AGN also attaches a schedule of the meeting, which usually lasts a whole day (from 10:00 to 16:00). Some days before the event, the SAI contacts the organizations to confirm their attendance.
  1. The workshop: At the beginning, the SAI representatives introduce themselves, they state the purpose of the workshop, and briefly explain AGN’s mandate and scope of work. The audit team or head of the department describes into the findings from previous years´ audit reports regarding the specific topic. Then, they invite CSOs to provide insights based on their work on the sector. Towards the end of the meeting, stakeholders debate the main issues, problems of the sector, critical programs and entities that should be audited, among other points. The AGN takes note of these inputs, and decides on the next steps (e.g whether to contact them to provide information or reports during fieldwork, or request cooperation in the follow-up of audit recommendation).
  1. Analysis of Proposals: The AGN analyzes audit evidence/information received during the thematic meetings and evaluates whether they will be considered by the audit unit in charge of the specific exercise. They also consider whether the suggestions or ideas received during the workshop can be of considered for the forthcoming Annual Audit Plan. Similarly, the AGN discusses internally if they can benefit from collaborating with any of these CSOs during the fieldwork.
  2. Follow-up: the AGN publishes a press release[5] on its website, with a brief overview of the workshop. They send an e-mail to the participants, informing how their contributions had any impact within the SAI and audit planning.

A number of departments and actors within the AGN are directly involved in coordinating and organizing these participatory planning meetings and thematic workshops, performing particular functions and assuming specific responsibilities. They are listed below:

  • Office of the Head of the AGN: highest governing body of the institution, with responsibility for making the decision to convene and determine the date of the participatory planning meeting.
  • Office of the Legal Secretary and Office of the Deputy Legal Secretary: responsible for organizing and coordinating the participatory planning meeting.
  • Press and Communications Department: department tasked with promoting the participation of civil society organizations and disseminating information on the results of the participatory planning process.
  • Institutional Relations Department: responsible for preparing and issuing invitations to the organizations.
  • Executive Planning Office – Operational Planning Department: tasked with processing and crosschecking the data and proposals submitted by the organizations, with a view to determining which AGN offices have competence in the areas proposed for audit. Civil society organizations are key actors in the participatory planning process. While they do not assume specific responsibilities, their participation is critical to the implementation of the practice.

Results and Impact

Over the years, AGN’s engagement with external stakeholders has been driven by the expected potential benefits of enhancing the effectiveness of their own work as well as their desire to demonstrate ongoing relevance to citizens and other stakeholders, promote greater transparency in the public sector, and facilitate public participation and better government accountability.

  • In 2003[6], the AGN planned a comprehensive audit of the railway system. In this context, the Disability Department of the CTA proposed to take advantage of this opportunity to audit accessibility in transportation, that is, to see how the service was being provided to passengers with disabilities. In this context, other civil society organizations – among them Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia (ACIJ) – approached the AGN expressing their concern about the lack of compliance with Law No. 22,431 regarding the integral access and use of the public transport system by People with disabilities. In 2004, when this audit National Commission for Transport Regulation (CNRT) and Trenes de Buenos Aires (TBA) was audited, the report reflected the non-compliance of Law 22,431 by public service concessionaires, and recommendations were made to alleviate the problem. From that experience, the AGN started a process for other organizations to submit proposals on agencies or programs to be audited.
  • During the 2005 annual participatory planning meeting, the La Boca Neighborhood Association requested that the degree of pollution of the Matanza-Riachuelo Basin be audited. This proposal triggered the audit of the pollution level at Matanza-Riachuelo Basin. The AGN audit report[7] noted, for example, that the Executing Committee created in the 1990s to conduct to clean-up the basin achieved closed to nothing. “Although the Committee was never constituted as a basin authority and lacked the functions to carry out its task, it was intended to carry out an environmental sanitation program valued in more than $ 800 million, and with an IDB loan which, together with the Argentine contributions, meant a budget of 500 million dollars.” The report finds that “the execution of the IDB loan was very low” The direct funds provided by the international agency only reached $ 7,762,790, out of the original 250 million US dollars; most of those funds was spent on consultancy and waterworks, and, in 2002, 150 million were redirected to Social Development.[8] Based on this report, in 2008, the Supreme Court of Justice of Argentina summoned the defendants to present a plan to clean up the watershed and companies to report on the precautions taken to stop the pollution of the area.

In 2010, the Center for the Development of Sustainable Fisheries (CeDePesca) submitted a report to the AGN on the fisheries sector. The findings from the report were used in various environmental audits. This collaboration allowed the AGN to improve a sector report, identifying a series of shortcomings and irregularities, related to catch ceilings, weak inspections, permits, quantity controls of fishing declared in different ports, among others, and highlighting the need to increase the transparency of operators in this sector.

Lessons Learned

  • Evidence shows providing complete and detailed information from AGN side allows organizations to develop useful proposals that fall within the scope of audits conducted by the AGN.
  • It has also been noticed that the means and forms for CSOs to submit proposals must be simple and educational. In this sense, including questions pertaining to the organization’s area of interest and the reason for which the CSO is submitting the proposals streamlines communication, and provides additional tools for the AGN’s expert professionals to accurately translate them into technical terms, and make the process more efficient.
  • The possibility of submitting proposals by e-mail provides organizations with another channel for communication with the AGN, and it facilitates the systematic processing of the information submitted.

Principles of Public Participation in Fiscal Policy

The principles best illustrated by the mechanism are:

This practice illustrates the principles of openness, timeliness, depth, sustainability, complementarity, and respect for self-expression.

Openness: The process is open, information is provided about the purpose and scope of the public engagement.

Timeliness  – the public engagement takes place at a time during the AGN’s planning cycle so that the inputs can influence the Annual Plan.

Depth: The process is transparent since the citizens are provided with sufficient information at an initial briefing meeting –such as the AGN structure and the audits conducted during the previous year–in order to suggest audit proposals. There is a subsequent feedback meeting for each organization that submitted a proposal, and the AGN also responds in writing.

Sustainability: This is a long-term and ongoing process, it has taken on an institutionalized format, through the formal approval of the Participatory Planning Procedure, by the College of General Auditors Moreover, during the past 10 years, the AGN has sustained a productive relationship with participating CSO and groups, which has helped to build mutual trust.

Complementarity: the public engagement is in addition to and complements the other inputs into the development of the AGN’s Annual Plan, while the AGN retains the decision rights over determining its audit plan according to its mandate.

Respect for self-expression: This mechanism allows CSOs to express their interests freely within the framework of these meetings and workshops.

Country Context

a. Type of government: Argentina has a federal system. It is a presidential and democratic republic. The President of Argentina is both head of state and head of government. Executive power is exercised by the President. The Legislative power is exercised by the National Congress, which is composed of two chambers: of representatives/deputies and of senators. The Judiciary is independent from the Executive and from the Legislature. Argentina is divided into 23 districts called Provinces and one autonomous district, which hosts the national capital. The government of each province has three branches (Executive, Legislative and Judicial). The Executive branch is led by a Governor. The Legislative Branch may be organized as a unicameral or a bicameral system (that is, either one or two chambers or houses).

b. Civic space— The Freedom House Freedom in the World Report 2017 categorizes Argentina as “free”. [9] According to the Report, today, freedoms of assembly and association are generally respected. Moreover, civic organizations, particularly those focused on human rights, are “robust and play a major role in society”. [10] Many of these human rights organizations emerged during the military dictatorship which started in 1976, and were composed of members directly affected, such as mothers or grandmothers of the disappeared, or individuals that supported their labor through research and advocacy. The democratization process brought about a greater socialization of information, and space for the generation of critical public opinion and new voices that have been incorporated in the realm of public decision making. [11] Today, in the realm of public participation, there is a set of what are considered to be the “big” organizations, given the breadth of issues in which they are involved, in particular related to transparency and government control and accountability that include the Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia (ACIJ), the Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS), the Centro de Implementación de Políticas Públicas para la Equidad y el Crecimiento (CIPPEC); and Poder Ciudadano, among others. These organizations have maintained a long-standing relation with the participatory processes at the AGN.[12]

c. 2015 Open Budget Survey Scores[13]– Argentina’s score of 59 out of 100 is substantially higher than the global average score of 45. Since 2012, the Government of Argentina has increased the availability of budget information by: a) Publishing the Pre-Budget Statement. B) Improving the comprehensiveness of the Executive’s Budget Proposal. C) Improving the comprehensiveness of the Year-End Report. Argentina’s score of 27 out of 100 for public participation indicates that the provision of opportunities for the public to engage in the budget process is weak. This is slightly higher than the global average score of 25. The legislature provides limited oversight during the planning stage of the budget cycle and no oversight during the implementation stage of the budget cycle. The supreme audit institution provides adequate budget oversight. Under the law, it has full discretion to undertake audits as it sees fit. Moreover, the head of the supreme audit institution cannot be removed without legislative or judicial approval, which bolsters its independence. Finally, the supreme audit institution is provided with sufficient resources to fulfill its mandate but has a limited quality assurance system in place.

d. Corruption Perception Index: As per the Global Corruption Index 2016 released by Transparency International, Argentina ranks 95 out of 176 countries. The score of Argentina is 36 out of 100.