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Citizen Audit

When authorities haven’t answered publicly for their responsibilities and appear not to intend to, and their apparent performance is causing concern, citizens can audit the authority with a view to exacting the answering that should be given. The Citizen’s Guide calls it citizen audit and describes it as follows.

Citizen Audit as Last-Resort Strategy in Holding to Account:

When the actions or inaction of an authority cause us major concern, common sense will tell us who has what responsibilities. Those responsibilities will suggest the public answering that the authority should be giving for its intentions, performance standards and results. For every important responsibility there is accountability. Since the actual public answering by an authority is there for all to see, we can decide whether it’s adequate to tell us what’s going on, and we can validate it. If the authority’s answering doesn’t tell us what’s going on, the precautionary principle tells us to try to see for ourselves what the authority is doing or not doing, and why. We will often find that the usual professional or regulator audits being done are not addressing what we are concerned about. The available evidence will tell us what the authority’s apparent performance is for its responsibilities and what its current answering is. This will suggest the public answering we need from the authority.

We can call this approach citizen audit. It is a systematic way of publicly identifying the responsibilities of an authority’s directing minds, their apparent performance and the adequacy of their public reporting, so as to force better public answering from them. Citizen audit is based on the proposition that citizens can learn and assess enough about an authority’s performance and answering to support a public invitation to its directing minds to produce adequate answering. It can be used for any body called an authority, whether it’s an agency of government, a corporate board or an institution or organization of any kind. Citizen audit would be more systematic and in-depth than journalists’ inquiries because journalists have only limited time to cover any one issue and they don’t use an audit structure. But the work of journalists is critical to citizen audit information-gathering.

Citizen audit uses the standard concept of audit, which is the assessment of reporting or observed performance against a standard or criterion and the reporting of the assessment to someone.

Professional audit produces an opinion at a professional level of rigour --for example, whether financial statements are fair and complete. The idea is that people can rely on the validity of the audit opinion and act on it. For their audits, professional auditors have access to information not available to the public. Citizen audit is not at the level of rigour of professional audit. It assesses observed performance and answering based mainly on information available to the public. It is more like the preliminary review stage in a professional audit that identifies risk areas that should be examined in the audit. It is also similar to a parliamentary committee’s work assessing a ministry’s performance. It requires only common sense and fairness, but it must close the accountability escape hatches.

The purpose of citizen audit is to produce enough evidence about an authority’s responsibilities to show what its governing body should be reporting fully and fairly to the public about those responsibilities. If critics say that audit can only be done by professional auditors, it is saying that citizens are not entitled to a right understanding of matters. The purpose is not to authoritatively "find" against an authority that is the subject of the audit, as professional performance audit or a court would. There is no intent of malice in a citizen audit, but there is no deference or euphemism either.

If an authority doesn’t think the citizen audit’s assessment has got it right, it will usually be because the authority hasn’t adequately accounted for its responsibilities. What the authority does report is of course there for all to see. But failure to answer forces citizens to draw inferences from the evidence available. Citizen audit simply suggests a picture that has to be confirmed. If the available evidence used for citizen audit is incomplete, the authorities need only account -- validly -- to set the picture straight. With no answering from authorities, and no audit, we will never get the real picture of what they are deciding in their offices and boardrooms. It is obviously insupportable for authorities to claim that the only allowable audit on the planet is narrow-scope professional audit. Sensible citizens can do citizen audits, just as sensible citizens can serve on juries. If citizen audits appear damning, rigorous audit evidence is apt to show a worse picture.

Citizen audit reports can show our ultimate regulating bodies -- the legislatures -- what any authority’s public answering should be. And if the governing political party in the legislature likes things the way they are, citizen audit can then focus on them and their ministers.

The main steps of citizen audit are:

  1. When a responsibility area of concern arises, we determine who is reasonably responsible for what, in the public interest
  2. We see what the public answering is from the responsible authorities, to assess how much we have to find out about the authorities performance
  3. We keep a running inventory of press clippings, statements on radio and TV and articles in magazines and journals on the responsibilities. When we put these together, we will likely see pattern emerging that may not be discernible from single news items taken one at a time
  4. We connect with people who can supply valid letters, minutes, transcripts and documents shedding light on who is doing what or failing to do what
  5. From the information we have, and from inside information that would withstand challenge, we set out publicly
    • who we think has what reasonable responsibilities
    • the apparent performance of those with the responsibilities
    • who should answer publicly, and for what
    • how the answering should be validated

Appendix 2 of the Citizen’s Guide is an example of a citizen audit report by the Alliance for Public Accountability, condensed from the full audit report which was more rigorous than most such audits would be. It deals with the responsibilities and public accountabilities of two prominent institutions, the University of Toronto and its research hospital, the Hospital for Sick Children, in the Apotex affair. This is the well-known case (but only one of many such cases) of a drug company intimidating a research doctor of stature who produced research evidence on one of the company’s drugs that the company didn’t want disclosed.

The Appendix shows the basic approach in citizen audit. With practice, the audit should normally be reportable in about 20 pages or less, with a back-up briefing binder to support the report. The logical groups to do citizen audits are issue-based public interest organizations and activist groups, large labour organizations or groups specifically formed to bring about adequate public answering for particular responsibilities. Once an organization has done a citizen audit or two, it can help "train the trainers."

Public interest organizations can use citizen audits to demand from authorities the public answering that, when validated, helps to disclose authorities’ intentions. For their part, unions can do the same for authorities’ assertions of their performance standards and their actual performance for workplace safety, health care and equity. In other words, when there is no answering by authorities, unions and others can become direct auditors of performance, using the citizen audit approach. They would report their audits to the public. They have an advantage in that their access to information will likely be greater than an ad hoc citizen group formed to try to cope with a concern.

To sum up, we must now apply the precautionary principle to all major responsibilities of authorities. Getting adequate answering from authorities before the fact is necessary if we want to prevent harm. And if authorities won’t answer, we must relentlessly and publicly lay out their responsibilities, apparent performance and answering inadequacies through means such as citizen audits, until they are hurting so much that they decide to account to a standard, or are made to by legislators feeling the heat.