The 2018 ECA seminar: all about making the ECA ‘future proof’

The ECA seminar, the annual ‘away day’ of the ECA leadership, provides a regular forum for reflection about the ECA’s strategy, work and organisation from a long-term perspective. This year’s topic, future-proofing and strategic foresight, was very much in this spirit. The ECA Members discussed how to make the ECA ‘future proof’. Barbara Auer provides insights on the main issues discussed, also on the input by this year’s guest speakers to the discussions.

By Barbara Auer, Directorate of the Presidency

This year’s ECA seminar took place on 20 and 21 September 2018 in Überherrn, Germany. For two days, the ECA Members discussed how the ECA should position itself to be better equipped to face future challenges and to benefit from future opportunities.

The seminar, and the different topics discussed, had been prepared by a ‘Foresight’ Task Force led by ECA Member Juhan Parts, with support from the ECA’s Directorate of the Presidency (see also this article on the Task Force).

The seminar’s first session focused on future-proofing and foresight at other organisations. Two external guest speakers shared their organisation’s experiences and insights with the ECA leadership: Duncan Cass-Beggs, Counsellor for Strategic Foresight to the Secretary General of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and Stephen Sanford, Strategic Planning & Innovation Manager at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Duncan Cass-Beggs recalled that in a world where change happens faster than individuals or governments can keep up with, foresight is more important than ever (se for more details on page19). He defined foresight as thinking systematically about the future to inform decision-making by exploring and preparing for alternative plausible futures. In his keynote speech, he also suggested that the ECA should look into the following three ‘foresight’-related questions:

  • What plausible future changes could impact the ECA — its role, capacities, etc. (i.e. ‘foresight for the ECA’)?
  • How can the ECA build foresight into its own work (e.g. foresight influences audit scope, questions and methods, i.e. ‘foresight in ECA audit work’)?
  • How can the ECA support anticipatory governance practice by EU institutions and governments, i.e. assess if the Commission has considered relevant future scenarios (e.g. ‘auditing for foresight’)?

The second guest speaker, Stephen Sanford, presented how the GAO uses foresight to set priorities and be pro-active in a political context. In his speech he underlined the strong commitment to foresight by the GAO and its leadership. Foresight is operationalised across a number of functions; it is integrated in the core of what GAO does. Stephen Sanford also explained that foresight practice and culture is spread across the organisation through a range of activities that are coordinated by a central strategy team. Taken together, these activities form the GAO ‘foresight ecosystem’, including

  • Environmental trend scanning
  • Leadership decision-making support
  • Planning support (i.e. strategic goals and planning priorities are informed by trend analysis)
  • Audit work support (i.e. foresight influences the approach and reports of audit engagements)
  • Capacity building such as speaker series, fora and trainings
  • Participation in external foresight networks

According to Stephen Sanford, foresight at the GAO is aligned with its core mission: to improve accountability and the performance of the federal budget. His article on page 62 provides more details on the GAO’s approach to foresight.

The second session was a workshop facilitated by Josh Polchar and Julia Staudt (both OECD). The workshop consisted in developing scenarios in small groups. Once these ‘stories of the future’ were developed, participants identified concrete changes the ECA could make to become better prepared to succeed in the future.

The facilitators underlined that scenario planning should not be confused with predictions; rather it aims to ‘train’ leaders to imagine possible, albeit unlikely, disruptions and reflect on how their organisation could react to them.

The third session was centered around a presentation on the topic of digital transformation for audit by Brice Lecoustey, partner at the Luxembourg practice of Ernst & Young (EY). He explained how current technology is already changing the methods and even the meaning of audit. In the past few years EY has made big strides towards automating many audit procedures. This has already changed the audit of routine transactions, and in future will also be extended to non-routine transactions, involving estimates, judgements and even audit scoping and risk assessment. Brice Lecoustey’s article on page 52 provides more details.

The lively discussion after this presentation showed that digital audit is also an urgent matter for the ECA, and the main question to be answered is where to apply it in its audits.

The fourth session focussed on the ECA’s future institutional positioning. The guest speaker, Professor Matthias Rossi from the University of Augsburg, presented his reflections on this topic.

According to Professor Rossi the ECA has a broad mandate under the Treaty which should allow it to play a more active role than in the past. His contribution on page 69 provides further details.

During the final session, a clear consensus emerged amongst the participants: more needed to be done in the areas discussed over the previous two days. In particular, the ECA should embrace strategic foresight across the organisation, but in particular in its strategic and work planning and audit work (methods, scope, reports and recommendations).

Studies such as the ‘ECA trendwatch’ — which had been prepared for the first time for the 2018 ECA seminar — could be an important element of a future ECA foresight system (more details in the article on page 27). However, such analysis would need to be broken down to determine the specific implications for our audit work and our organisation and to support decision-making in strategic and annual planning.

Klaus-Heiner Lehne, ECA President.

Moreover, the ECA could consider setting up advisory bodies with internal and external experts to support future-oriented decision-making. Participation in external foresight community networks could also be envisaged, as long as the ECA’s institutional independence was not compromised.

As Leo Brincat, one of the members of the Task Force, put it: ‘In a world of rapid change and uncertainty, doing nothing would represent the highest risk. Foresight is a collective responsibility; it has to be lived and understood by everybody.’

The ECA seminar is not a forum for taking decisions. President Klaus-Heiner Lehne therefore invited ECA Member Juhan Parts and the other members of the Task Force to submit their proposals, by the end of the year, on how to best introduce foresight at the ECA.

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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Articles from the European Court of Auditors, #EU's external auditor & independent guardian of the EU's finances.

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Articles from the European Court of Auditors, #EU's external auditor & independent guardian of the EU's finances.