Task Force charts foresight territory for the ECA

At the end of 2017, the ECA decided to create a foresight task force to propose measures to make the ECA more future-proof. Why was this task force created? What does foresight in audit mean? Who is behind the Foresight Task Force and what have they accomplished so far? Andreas Bolkart works in the Directorate of the Presidency and heads the secretariat of the Task Force. Which makes him the ideal candidate to shed some light on the background, set-up and activities of the Foresight Task Force.

By Andreas Bolkart, Directorate of the Presidency

Establishing the Task Force

The story of the Foresight Task Force began in September 2017, at last years’ ECA seminar, the annual ‘away days.’ At that seminar, the ECA Members shared the feeling that while the then recently adopted 2018‐2020 strategy of the ECA provided a strong impetus for improving and extending the range of products and communicating better about them, the ECA could still do more to develop its forward thinking capacity. The Members saw the need to improve the ECA’s ability to identify long-term policy problems and to make use of this information when formulating its strategic and operational priorities.

The 2017 seminar concluded that the ECA needed to reflect on establishing a strategic capability, almost like an internal think tank,-thinking structure in order to make the ECA future proof. To follow up on the conclusions of the seminar, a Task Force composed of five ECA Members ( Ildiko Gáll-Pelcz, Mihails Kozlovs, Leo Brincat and João Figueiredo, chaired by Juhan Parts) was set up. The Task Force is supported by the Directorate of the Presidency.

The Task Force started its journey in January 2018 with a clearly spelled-out mandate from the ECA College: identify future thematic areas of interest for EU citizens and policy makers and assess the need for a permanent future foresight capacity in the ECA.

The Task Force decided to first explore the future-proofing and foresight theory and methodology. It did so by studying a wealth of literature and by reaching out to the vibrant community of foresight professionals in audit firms, European and international institutions, academia and SAIs. Some of these consultations were conducted as part of study visits to partner organisations such as the United States Government Accountability Office, the United Kingdom National Audit Office and private audit firms. As a result, the Task Force established a firm grip on understanding the foresight toolbox and along the way made dozens of valuable connections with foresight experts.

Pilot trend watch

The Task Force quickly realised that a frequent starting point, and indeed the backbone of any foresight activity, is analysing trends and drivers of the future. To get ready for future challenges one has to scan the environment of the organization to detect indicators and drivers that give clues about the future. When doing this, it is vital to truly look beyond the current, imminent challenges in our environment and project the organization in the future.

Therefore, the Foresight Task Force undertook a pilot trend analysis for the ECA based on more than 40 internationally recognised trend studies and consultations with more than 60 experts. The resulting study, in its preliminary version, has been presented internally at the 2018 ECA seminar (see page 32). This study is meant to be a living document that will form the basis of future ECA foresight work. So far the study has not been published, but a visual overview in form of a metro map is reproduced on the next picture.

Technology wake-up-call in audit

The trend analysis pointed in particular to the opportunities provided by new technologies for the future of audit, in particular of financial and compliance audit. The Task Force held several consultations with private audit firms and concluded that there are many developments, which are analysed and reported to the ECA College for possible options.

The accelerated development of digital technologies and artificial intelligence has opened up huge possibilities to improve the quality, efficiency and relevance of assurance audits. High-level commitments by Commission and Member States to create a European-wide e-government may create additional opportunities. Innovation in these areas could lead to large resource savings. The use of these new methods depends largely on access to and connections between auditee data sets. Guaranteeing full access to these systems will thus be key. The Task Force also consulted, particularly for the trend watch, with ECA senior officials and experts in the Audit Chambers. In addition, it consulted support services like information technology.

ECA events centred on foresight

Foresight was also the main theme at the 2018 ECA seminar on 20/21 September that was organised by the Foresight Task Force, with the help of experts from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Participants discovered what future-proofing and foresight is, how other organisations introduced it and how they use it fulfil their core mission. The seminar also explored options for the ECA to use foresight in its core business and discuss the implications of such an approach on audit and support processes. This event was organised around a set of thought provoking speeches by external guests, which allowed the ECA Members to have a very productive discussion on the way forward with foresight in the ECA.

The Task Force was also asked to prepare the Management Seminar on 6 December 2018. This seminar will provide an opportunity to discuss the foresight topic with the middle management level.

Foresight principles

As regards ECA’s future foresight work, a few basic principles clearly emerged for the Task Force:

  • Foresight and future-proofing are umbrella terms for methodologies and approaches that take volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity as their starting point, explore possible and probable futures, including a preferred one, and generate insights and ‘cross-sights’ that enable transformative decision making today.
  • Foresight is about the core business process. For Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs) that means it is not an intellectual side-event but impacts the strategic orientation, the selection of future audits and reviews, methodology and reporting as well as the development of future capacity and knowledge. Consequently, foresight is used at key decision-making points on strategy, work planning, audit methods and reports.
  • Foresight is an organisational mind-set — a way of doing things — that affects everybody in the organisation albeit in varying intensity. That means that it has to be introduced gradually but thoroughly through leadership from the top and will require time to take effect. While it might be driven from a core team, it has to be clear for everybody else what it means for them and for the organisation as a whole.
  • Finally, foresight is about leveraging external resources and partners. SAIs are generalist organisations that depend on external expertise and should be very sensitive to outside signals, in particular when it comes to future developments.

How will the ECA become future proof?

By the end of the year, the Task Force will submit a proposal to the ECA College on how to build foresight into the core business processes in order to become more future-ready. The proposal will build on the experience of other organisations recollected by the Task Force as well as the input received at the ECA seminar. Thinking about the future is of course not entirely new to the ECA. The Task Force will therefore analyse current strategy, planning, audit and support processes to see where elements of foresight could usefully enhance our practice. If the proposals are approved by the ECA College, the ECA will continue its foresight journey in 2019.

This article was first published on the October 2018 of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors.

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