The Comptroller and Accountant General of India’s (C&AG’s) address “Social Obligations of Public Auditors” to the Kennedy School has created a mini storm yet again: C&AG chose to take debate about his mandate to what he calls “America’s most elite university”. The question raised is: should public auditors be mere accountants and do arithmetic over government expenditure or should they go beyond their (constitutional) mandate and seek to sensitize public opinions on audit observations? With this new mandate, C&AG hopes to become an active participant in public governance rather than a mere report pusher.
In this new audit model, C&AG advocates broadening his stakeholders beyond the executive, legislature, judiciary and to include civil society, social organizations, media, and the public. The new normal for C&AG includes three initiatives: first, “the fault-finding auditor”, “wiser at hindsight”, will be replaced with positive and balanced reporter. Second, “Noddy” type booklets and pamphlets on audit observations will awaken citizenry to demand better governance from various departments. And finally, participation of social groups in social audit will give better outreach and inclusion of wider groups.
Let me start with some interesting takes on his approach. C&AG declared in the speech that “Today’s youth is discerning, demanding, and believes in respecting institutions. He is not willing to see politicians subvert these institutions. He seeks a new moral and ethical framework for sustainable governance.“ Seriously? Evidence in India seems to suggest otherwise: numbers at anti-corruption rallies are dwindling forcing Anna Hazare to take a short pause. Unless a critical mass of empowered youth leaders is allowed to emerge and they invest in their own future, their engagement on such issues will remain episodic. They are more likely to be disillusioned and disengaged against continuous negative flows of global and local news, thus creating a wedge between their intention and action.
Second, respecting institutions also means that changes are brought in legitimately, following a due process, and not at the whims or the fancies of its leaders, however good these might be. One should never forget that the role of the rebranded US Government Accountability Office was changed over a very long period. And this was done at the behest of the US Congress, through an act in 2004. As early as 1967, US Congress asked the then General Audit Office (GAO) to review federal government’s anti-poverty program. In 1974, GAO’s role was expanded to cover evaluation functions. With these changes, GAO no longer was staffed with accountants alone, but included scientists, economists, and other policy experts. We do not have to follow these steps, but three lessons are worth noting: first, there was an explicit demand for professional and independent support from US Congress to see how government money was spent for the welfare of American people. Second, the change process took over 30 years from the first step in 1967 to the ultimate full recognition and rebranding of General Audit Office to Government Accountability Office. Third, the organization itself changed to meet the rising challenge and now has become a multi-disciplinary expert agency, well respected by the media and the Congress. Some of these steps are inevitable if the role of India’s C&AG is to change to cover broader mandate.
Third, no doubt informed electorate is a key to effective democracy, but informed legislature will necessarily be the important first step towards this end. Even though technology has improved communications a great deal, it is really the Parliament that will have to be the supreme institution of accountability in our democratic society. In fact Justice R M Lodha, in his famous judgment “C&AG is not a munim” reminded all of us that C&AG is a constitutional authority and it is for the Parliament to correct the mandate. Unless C&AG is seen to bring value to the Parliament as a whole, (as was the case for the US Congress), it can snatch a headline or two, but will not deliver the broader mandate of improving governance.
Fourth, creating trust requires credibility: there have been many articles in the Press and in the academic world about the C&AG’s numbers, be that for 2G Scam, or for coal. There are also reports where C&AG seemed to have agreed to suggestions that some of the estimates can be debatable, but having the right number is what I expect from my accountant, more than anything else. Don’t you?
Finally, media and technology enables information dissemination, may even raise social awareness, or assist in crowd sourcing, but certainly, it cannot replace the slow and painful task of institution building. Democratizing accountability sounds great, but will it address our fundamental challenge of development?