Enhancing environmental accountability through public sector regularity auditing: a South African perspective
Contemporary civilisations are living unsustainably, rapidly depleting and degrading the world’s natural capital or resource base through overexploitation, consumption and pollution. Governments act as custodians of the environment and must ensure the protection and sustainable use of environmental resources in order to sustain service delivery that benefits all. To a great extent, governments and organs of state, all over the world, including South Africa (SA), fail miserably in their quest to effectively administer or manage environmental impacts. Ineffective environmental governance often leads to confusion in environmental mandates and responsibilities, poorly structured or defined environmental policies and objectives, and ultimately, weak or ineffective environmental regulatory regimes that fail to act on blatant environmental destruction and regulatory non-compliance. The inclusion of environmental auditing at organs of state can be another effective tool to investigate and reinforce environmental governance, performance and oversight. Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs) all over the world have become more aware of the role which they can play, with some that have already significantly reformed and expanded their traditional financial mandates to include environmental oversight, accountability and governance, through public sector auditing. The focal point of this research was to advance understanding of SAIs’ public sector audit methodology processes, and where best to include environmental issues and risks, so as to enhance environmental accountability. The focus of the study was further devolved to a local, South African SAI context, interrogating the role and how public sector regularity auditing might assist in enhancing environmental accountability. The qualitative research design used a mixed method approach and initially explored the global public sector audit trends and rationale followed by SAIs through extensive literature reviews, a comparative analysis of the International Organisation of Supreme Audit Institution (INTOSAI), the Working Group for Environmental Auditing (WGEA)’s last 5 environmental audit survey results (covering the period 2004 – 2017) and some 21 survey questionnaires distributed to the INTOSAI WGEA Chair, the 6 regional WGEA secretariats and the International Centre for Environmental Audit and Sustainable Development (iCED). After interrogating global trends in the placement (choice of using a mandatory regularity- or voluntary audit approaches) and development of environmental issues and risks within the available public sector audit methodologies, it was narrowed down to a local, South African SAI (Auditor-General of South Africa) perspective, with locally focussed literature reviews, 27 face-to-face interviews and 113 survey questionnaires, conducted and distributed to selected internal and external stakeholders. The data obtained were analysed thematically and the research indicated that the placement of environmental issues and risks within public sector audit methodology processes may differ according to, or be dependent on, a wealth of variables, such as the effectiveness of environmental regulatory regimes, mandates of Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs), available environmental audit resources and ultimately, the use and impact of reporting. Results from both the global and local research methodologies used recognised voluntary performance audits as the preferred placement for environmental issues and risks within SAIs’ available public sector audit methodology processes. There was however also a strong tendency to also consider or follow a comprehensive approach for inclusion within both mandatory (financial and compliance) and voluntary (performance and other priority or special) audits. The study confirms how environmental inclusion and placement within the various public sector audit types, and particularly within mandatory regularity auditing, can enhance environmental accountability, within global and local South African perspectives. A noteworthy recommendation to SAIs includes exploration and capacitation of their regularity audit resource base, as another viable option, for continual assessment and reporting of significant environmental risks within the public sector.
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