WHEN offices handle public money, said Aristotle, “there must of necessity be another office that examines and audits them.” Today’s equivalent is the “Supreme Audit Institution”, and 192 countries have one. These beancounters-cum-watchdogs check on behalf of legislatures and the public that their governments spend money cleanly and sensibly—and hold them to account when they do not. Though public, they are (or at least are supposed to be) independent of government.
In “The Art of Audit”, Roel Janssen, a veteran Dutch journalist, tells their story through conversations with former top auditors from eight countries. Number-crunching may be number-crunching, but their experiences, and the outfits they run, differ enormously.
America’s 94-year-old Government Accountability Office (GAO) is a bulky, sophisticated machine employing 3,000 people that holds the government’s feet to the fire on behalf of Congress. David Walker’s main achievement, as its head from 1998 to 2008, was to raise the alarm about America’s exploding federal debt. Running Iraq’s audit board from 2004 to 2014, Abdulbasit Turki Saeed worried more about being blown up himself. His predecessor was killed in the job, as were some people on Mr Turki’s team; he had a lucky escape when he discovered a bomb under his car.
Related: Spending issues on Madison’s last maintenance referendum lead to calls for a maibtenance audit.