About the Author
Mr. Daniel Whyte is an Acting Executive Director in the Performance Audit Services Group at the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO). Mr. Whyte is a part of the COVID-19 performance audit team and his most recent work includes a performance audit on the Management of the Australian Public Service’s Workforce Response to COVID-19.
Since joining the ANAO in 2016, Mr. Whyte has worked on a diverse range of audits, from assessing entities’ management of personnel security to reviewing arrangements for monitoring and reporting on Closing the Gap in Indigenous Disadvantage.
Since its emergence in late 2019, coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has become a global pandemic that is impacting on human health and national economies. As of late October 2021, Australia had recorded roughly 150,000 cases of COVID-19 and sadly over 1,500 deaths.
From January 2020 the Australian Government introduced a range of policy measures in response to COVID-19 that included:
- travel restrictions and international border controls;
- delivery of substantial economic stimulus, including financial support for affected individuals, businesses and communities;
- support for essential services; and
- procurement and deployment of critical medical supplies (including the national COVID-19 vaccine rollout).
With the release of the 2021–22 Budget on 11 May 2021, the Australian Government reported that it had committed $20 billion to COVID-19 health support measures and $291 billion to economic response measures.2
The purpose of the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) is to support accountability and transparency in the Australian Government sector through independent reporting to the Parliament, and thereby contribute to improved public sector performance.3 This article discusses three ways in which the ANAO has adapted its audit approach during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure it continues to achieve this purpose, with a focus on:
- targeting audit activity to key emerging risks;
- promptly communicating audit insights to the sector; and
- adapting audit practices to meet a dynamic environment.
The article also reflects on lessons from the ANAO’s pandemic response for auditing in a post-pandemic environment.
Targeting audit activity to key emerging risks
The COVID-19 pandemic and the Australian Government’s response to it has significantly impacted the risk environment faced by the Australian public sector. Noting this change in the risk environment, the ANAO developed a COVID-19 multi-year performance audit strategy that focuses on the Australian Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.4
Phase one of the strategy was completed in 2020–21 and involved five performance audits related to:
- social services and tax entities’ management of risks related to the rapid implementation of economic response measures;5
- movement of public sector staff to priority COVID-19 work6; and
- management of the National Medical Stockpile.7
The findings from the audits conducted under phase one were generally positive, providing assurance to the Australian Parliament that early response measures were underpinned by largely effective administration.
Phase two of the strategy is currently underway and is examining the design, implementation and governance of key COVID-19 response measures, including:
- international travel restrictions, human biosecurity practices for air travel and the return of overseas Australians;
- key economic response measures (such as wage subsidy payments and support to the aviation sector); and
- Australia’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout.8
Phase three will review the outcomes of Australian Government’s COVID-19 response. It is intended that this will include a post-pandemic assessment of: the achievement of outcomes through the COVID-19 response measures, recovery plans and programs; the identification and dissemination of lessons learned; and the readiness of government systems and processes to respond to future crises.
In addition to performance audits, from April 2020 to October 2020 the ANAO conducted monthly assurance reviews of the Advance to the Finance Minister (AFM). The AFM is a provision in the annual Appropriation Acts that enables the Minister for Finance to provide additional urgently needed appropriation to agencies for expenditure in the current year. In 2020 the Minister for Finance was advanced in excess of $50 billion to support urgent COVID activity, such as the purchase of personal protective equipment and medical equipment. The ANAO’s assurance reviews provided the Australian Parliament with timely assurance and transparency of the Australian Government’s pandemic response.9
In transitioning to post-pandemic economic recovery, the risk environment faced by the Australian public sector will continue to change. Consequently, the ANAO is closely monitoring the sector to ensure its performance audit program and other assurance activities continue to be targeted to key emerging risks.
Promptly communicating audit insights to the sector
In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ANAO recognised the need to promptly communicate key insights from its audit work program to the Australian public sector.
On 16 April 2020 the ANAO published an edition of audit insights on Rapid Implementation of Australian Government Initiatives, focussing on lessons learned from past performance audits that examined the rapid implementation of Australian Government initiatives. This edition of audit insights outlines the following key learnings, which were identified as having wider applicability to the national COVID-19 pandemic response:
- identify challenges and risks to rapid implementation;
- engage with stakeholders;
- establish fit for purpose governance and planning arrangements;
- identify and mobilise necessary skills, resources and systems to support rapid implementation;
- document and apply approved assessment process and requirements;
- maintain focus on objectives;
- maintain appropriate records;
- maintain active budget oversight and financial management; and
- adopt an active management posture.10
The Rapid Implementation of Australian Government Initiatives audit insights edition was the ANAO’s most downloaded product during the pandemic and assisted Australian public sector entities in their initial response to COVID-19.
After completing phase one of the COVID-19 multi-year audit strategy in May 2021, the ANAO published an audit insights edition on Emergency Management — Insights from the Australian Government’s COVID-19 Response. This edition of audit insights provides key messages for all Australian Government entities from the five performance audits conducted under phase one of the strategy, discussing the importance of planning, good governance and sound risk management in managing an emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic.11
As the ANAO progresses its multi-year audit strategy, it will continue to publish lessons learned from COVID-19 audits. Lessons identified in audit insights editions are future oriented with the intention of informing post-pandemic economic recovery activities and preparedness for future crises.
Adapting audit practices to meet a dynamic environment
Transformation of IT has been a key focus for the ANAO in recent years, with the aims of:
- enabling access to, and analysis of, audit information securely from anywhere; and
- simplifying business processes by automating where appropriate.
In early 2019 the ANAO rolled out new laptops and wireless peripherals to staff to facilitate a mobile and collaborative workforce and provide flexible, modern equipment that better supports the changing audit environment and workplace demands.
These new IT capabilities enabled the ANAO to respond quickly to the COVID-19 pandemic and support most staff to work from home from late March 2020 in line with public health requirements. While ANAO staff have been restricted in their ability to physically access entities’ premises due to travel restrictions and lock downs, remote access has allowed audit teams to undertake their audit work without the need to be onsite.
The ANAO’s adaptive response to the pandemic and investment in IT transformation has set it up well to transition to auditing in the post-pandemic environment. It is expected that the benefits of remote access and mobile, collaborative and flexible IT platforms will continue to be realised through more efficient and effective audit practices.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact on human health and national economies and has significantly increased the risk environment faced by the Australian public sector. This change in risk environment has directly impacted on the work undertaken by the ANAO across its performance and financial audit program, as well as other assurance activities. By flexibly adjusting its performance audit program, communicating key insights to the sector and adapting to new modes of audit delivery, the ANAO has maintained its focus on reporting on the interests and priorities of Parliament and contributing to improvements in public administration. The ANAO intends to leverage off this adaptive, responsive and risk-based auditing approach as the Australia public sector’s focus shifts from pandemic response to post-pandemic economic recovery.
1. Department of Health, Coronavirus (COVID-19) case numbers and statistics [Intranet], 21 October 2021, available from https://www.health.gov.au/news/health-alerts/novel-coronavirus-2019-ncov-health-alert/coronavirus-covid-19-case -numbers-and-statistics [accessed 21 October 2021].
2. Commonwealth of Australia, Recovery and response support, Budget 2021–22 factsheet, no date, available from https://budget.gov.au/2021–22/content/factsheets/download/factsheet_recovery_response.pdf [accessed 21 October 2021].
3. ANAO, ANAO Corporate Plan 2021–22, 6 July 2021, available from https://www.anao.gov.au/work/corporate/anao-corporate-plan-2021-22 [accessed 21 October 2021].
4. ANAO, COVID-19 [Internet], available from https://www.anao.gov.au/work-program/covid-19 [accessed 21 October 2021].
5. Auditor-General Report No. 23 of 2020-21 Services Australia COVID-19 Measures and Enterprise Risk Management, available at: https://www.anao.gov.au/work/performance-audit/services-australia-covid-19-measures-and-enterprise-risk- management; and Auditor General Report No. 24 of 2020-21 The Australian Taxation Office’s Management of Risks Related to the Rapid Implementation of COVID-19 Economic Response Measures, available at: https://www.anao.gov.au/work/performance-audit/the-australian-taxation-office-management-risks-related-to-the- rapid-implementation-covid-19
6. Auditor-General Report No. 20 of 2020-21 Management of the Australian Public Service’s Workforce Response to COVID-19, available at: https://www.anao.gov.au/work/performance-audit/management-the-australian-public-service-workforce- response-to-covid-19
7. Auditor-General Report No. 22 of 2020-21 Planning and Governance of COVID-19 Procurements to Increase the National Medical Stockpile, available at: https://www.anao.gov.au/work/performance-audit/planning-and-governance-covid-19-procurements-to-increase-the -national-medical-stockpile; and Auditor-General Report No. 39 of 2020-21 COVID-19 Procurements and Deployments of the National Medical Stockpile, available at: https://www.anao.gov.au/work/performance-audit/covid-19-procurements-and-deployments-the-national-medical- stockpile
8. Links to phase two audits in progress and potential audits are on ANAO’s COVID-19 website, available from https://www.anao.gov.au/work-program/covid-19 [accessed 21 October 2021].
9. Links to the assurance reviews of the AFM are on ANAO’s COVID-19 website, available from https://www.anao.gov.au/work-program/covid-19 [accessed 21 October 2021].
10. ANAO, Rapid Implementation of Australian Government Initiatives, Audit Insights, 16 April 2020, available from https://www.anao.gov.au/work/audit-insights/rapid-implementation-australian-government-initiatives [accessed 21 October 2021].
11. ANAO, Emergency Management — Insights from the Australian Government’s COVID-19 Response, Audit Insights, 28 May 2021, available from https://www.anao.gov.au/work/audit-insights/emergency-management-insights-the-australian-government- covid-19-response [accessed 21 October 2021].