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On 25 September 2015, the 193 countries of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted the
2030 Development Agenda. The agenda contains 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169
associated targets. Governments pledged to end poverty and hunger, promote people’s well-being
and protect the environment by 2030. Promising that “no-one will be left behind”, governments also
agreed to provide security, access to justice, and effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions.
The SDGs embody the most ambitious and comprehensive development agenda in the history of the
United Nations. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called it “a universal, transformative and
integrated agenda that heralds an historic turning point for our world.” The International
Organisation of Supreme Audit Institutions (INTOSAI) has welcomed Agenda 2030 and will support its
Public sector auditing as carried out by Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs) can make an important
difference to the lives of citizens. In International Standards of Supreme Audit Institutions (ISSAI) 12
(The Value and Benefits of SAIs) SAIs have recognized the increasing need to demonstrate the value
and benefits that SAIs provide. By auditing the national implementation of the SDGs SAIs can make a
decisive contribution to the success of the 2030 Agenda, and thereby help improve the lives of
citizens around the world.2
There are four principal roles for SAIs to contribute to the SDGs:
Assessing and supporting the implementation of SDG 16 which relates in part to transparent,
efficient, and accountable institutions; and SDG 17 which concerns partnerships and means for
Assessing the preparedness of national governments to implement, monitor, and report on
progress of the SDGs, and subsequently to audit their operation and the reliability of the data
Undertaking performance audits that examine the economy, efficiency, and effectiveness of key
government programmes that contribute to specific aspects of the SDGs;
Being models of transparency and accountability in their own operations, including auditing and
Most SAIs already carry out work that is directly relevant to one or more of these approaches.
Through their financial and compliance audits SAIs contribute to good financial management, and
thus to transparent, efficient, and accountable institutions (SDG 16). By auditing the quality of
revenue and spending (performance audits) SAIs contribute to effective, economical and efficient
implementation of SDGs in areas such as education, health, or disaster prevention. And by working to
improve the quality of their operations SAIs can set an example in terms of transparency and
This paper has been prepared with the support of Mr. Gijs de Vries
INTOSAI, Abu Dhabi Declaration (2016)
accountability. SAIs are therefore well-placed to integrate audits of the SDGs into their existing
To maximize their impact SAIs will need to include SDG-related audits into their multi-annual and
annual audit plans.
In some cases, additional training or support may be required. It is therefore important for the
leadership of each SAI to develop a strategic view on how to audit the SDGs. This note explores some
potential building blocks of such a strategic approach.
1. Contributing to the implementation of SDG 16 and SDG 17
SDG 16 contains four targets that are especially important to SAIs:
SDG 16(4): By 2030, significantly reduce illicit financial and arms flows, strengthen the recovery
and return of stolen assets and combat all forms of organized crime;
SDG 16(5): Substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all their forms;
SDG 16(6): Develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels;
SDG 17(1): Strengthen domestic resource mobilization, including through international support
to developing countries, to improve domestic capacity for tax and other revenue collection.
Without proper accounting practices, adequate systems of internal control, and professional internal
audit, efforts to combat corruption in public finances are unlikely to succeed. An important
responsibility of SAIs is to audit how national ministries, regional administrations, and state-owned
enterprises perform in these areas of public financial management. Their recommendations can
provide a major impetus to strengthening integrity in public finances.
In many countries tax revenues represent only a small percentage of gross-domestic product. This
can be a particular problem in resource-dependent economies. By auditing the performance of
national tax and customs authorities SAIs can help governments to raise the revenues needed to
meet the SDGs.
2. Auditing the preparedness of national governments to implement the SDGs
Some national governments have already adopted detailed implementation plans. Other
governments are still in the early stages of planning. By auditing national preparedness SAIs can help
their governments to set priorities, assign responsibilities, and earmark public funding. Such audits
will provide valuable information to the national parliament. They will also be useful to demonstrate
the value of the SAI to citizens.
High level political commitment is essential for any country to meet the SDGs. Governments must
also select priority targets, agree implementing policies, allocate responsibilities and budgets, plan
for monitoring and reporting, and raise public awareness. National statistical agencies must be able
to provide the relevant data. Each of these elements can be audited.
a) Political commitment. Has the government set national priorities, baselines, measurable targets,
and a timetable to implement the relevant goals and targets?
b) Implementation plans. Are coherent implementation plans being developed? Have the SDG-
related policies been integrated with other national development plans? Who is in charge of
c) Responsibilities and budgets. Have political responsibilities and resources been allocated for each
of the priority targets? Are budgets realistic? Will additional funds be required?
d) Monitoring and reporting. Are arrangements in place for monitoring and reporting on progress in
reaching the SDGs? Will the reports be made public, and is parliament ready to debate them?
e) Awareness-raising. Does the government encourage public awareness of the SDGs and does it
stimulate dialogue with all relevant stakeholders, including the private sector, academia, and civil
f) Reliable data. Is the national statistical agency able to collect and publish complete, credible,
relevant, accurate and timely data?3
Some countries have already reported to the UN about their progress in meeting the SDGs. Other
countries are expected to do so in 2018 or 2019. SAIs could also audit these voluntary national
reviews for clarity, accuracy, completeness, and inclusiveness – did the government, for example,
consult relevant stakeholders?
See also INTOSAI Development Initiative (IDI), Auditing preparedness for implementation of sustainable development
3. Performance audits of SDG-relevant national policies and practices
Once the government has decided which SDGs and targets it will implement as a matter of priority,
the SAI can audit if implementation is reflective of sound financial management (economic, efficient,
effective). The SAI could carry out an audit, for example, of the way the government is implementing
SDG 4(4): “By 2030, substantially increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills,
including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship.” SAIs
may wish to ensure that all future performance audits will include one or more SDG-relevant audit
In selecting audit topics the SAI could take account of issues that resonate with the population.
Worldwide, citizens have indicated four priorities: a good education; better healthcare; better job
opportunities; and an honest and responsive government4
Another way SAIs can demonstrate their value to the lives of citizens by auditing the SDGs would be
to initiate dialogue with relevant stakeholders in civil society. In an audit of spending on primary
education, for example, surveys or focus groups could be used to solicit the views of parents and
teachers. Such citizen perspectives can enrich the audit, without affecting the SAI’s freedom to draw
its own conclusions. SAIs that already work in this way have found that citizens tend to respond
positively to such outreach by the SAI.
4. Being a model of transparency and accountability
Sound public finances are fundamental to citizens’ trust in public institutions. SAIs can play a key role
in promoting effective, transparent, and accountable public institutions. To live up to this
responsibility SAIs must themselves be models of transparency and accountability.
ISSAI 20 (Principles of Transparency and Accountability) sets out the relevant conditions. For
example, SAIs are required (a) to make public their mandate, responsibilities, mission and
strategy; (b) to adopt standards, processes and methods that are objective and transparent; (c)
to apply high standards of integrity and ethics for staff at all levels; and (d) to communicate timely
and widely on their activities and audit results through the media, websites and by other means. SAIs
must also operate systems of risk-based auditing and of quality control that reflect the relevant
INTOSAI standards (including ISSAI 40)5
Good relations with the parliament and with civil society enable SAIs to contribute effectively to
the national system of transparency and accountability. Through their work on the SDGs, SAIs
United Nations (2015), MyWorld 2030 Final Report, We the Peoples – Celebrating 7 million voices
See also the SAI Performance Measurement Framework (2016).
can strengthen their relations with the parliament and promote better public understanding of
By selecting audit topics that reflect the concerns of citizens and that take account of the
priorities of parliament SAIs can demonstrate their contribution to the general interest. Effective and
appropriate communication and follow-up mechanisms are important in achieving this.
Many SAIs already maintain regular contacts with the national parliament, including by presenting
their audit findings and recommendations before parliamentary committees, and by soliciting the
input of parliament before adopting their national audit plan.
SAIs need to have effective engagement with government and auditees to make sure they are
relevant to citizens. By initiating a dialogue about the SDGs, SAIs could further reinforce mutual
understanding and cooperation.
To be models of accountability and transparency SAIs must be independent, and be seen to act
independently. Core principles of SAI independence are the following:
The existence of an appropriate and effective constitutional/statutory/legal framework and the
de facto application of the provisions of this framework.
The independence of heads of SAIs and members of collegial institutions, including security of
tenure and legal immunity in the normal discharge of their duties.
A sufficiently broad mandate and full discretion in the discharge of SAI functions.
Unrestricted access to information.
The right and the possibility to report on their work.
The freedom to decide the content and timing of audit reports and to publish them.
The existence of effective follow-up mechanisms on SAI recommendations.
Financial and managerial/administrative autonomy and the availability of appropriate human,
material and monetary resources.6
Many SAIs face restrictions on their independence, particularly in regard to finance and follow-up
mechanismes. By adopting Agenda 2030 and the SDGs governments have pledged to implement SDG
16, including the obligation to develop “effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all
levels.” Restrictions on a SAI’s independence are incompatible with SDG 16. Agenda 2030 therefore
provides SAIs with a strategic opportunity to open or re-open a dialogue with the government and
call attention to the need to remove any remaining restrictions on their independence. Good
relations with opinion leaders in parliament, civil society, and the media will help SAIs attain this
ISSAI 10 – The Mexico Declaration on SAI Independence.