What can the Wales Audit Office learn from the Netherlands Court of Audit’s approach to innovation? Dyfrig Williams visited The Hague to see how they work and to share the work of the Good Practice Exchange.
In May I had the opportunity to visit the Netherlands Court of Audit to learn more about their Doen project (which means ‘Doing’) and their approach to innovation. Their whole approach stems from learning by doing, which is a fantastic mantra to have. Throughout the visit, staff openly shared their successes and failures from very practical change projects. Their safe to fail space mindset is key for providing the space for that learning and improvement.
The month before I had shared the work of the Good Practice Exchange with Mark Smolenaars and Sanne Kouwenhoven from the Netherlands Court of Audit in Cardiff. Myself, Steve Lisle (who is leading on the Cutting Edge Audit project) and Mike Usher (our Sector Lead for Health and Central Government, and who also leads our Investigative Studies work) were fortunate enough to be invited to the Netherlands to share our work with their colleagues, and also to learn more about their approach to innovation, so that we can adapt their approaches to suit our needs.
Looking at audit differently
At the Good Practice Exchange we always say that there is no “one-size fits all” approach. We may have many things in common with the Netherlands Court of Audit (we have about the same number of staff and therefore roughly the same challenges in identifying capacity and scaling up change initiatives), but there are also some differences too (the Dutch public sector includes casinos – I can’t even imagine what that audit looks like!).
When we started looking at their approach to innovation, one of the key things that struck me was that they have a variety of staff that contribute very different things to the organisation. Not only does this avoid a groupthink mentality, but it also brings a lot of different skillsets to their work.
We had a presentation from Linda Meijer, who is an auditor who has become a designer. It was fascinating to hear how her design skills led to her asking different questions of data as she illustrated their findings. This was particularly useful on an audit of products that have the CE mark, which shows that products are safe and can be sold in the European market.
We also discussed how the Netherlands Court of Audit have an Investigative Journalist working for them, which was particularly useful for us at the Wales Audit Office as we have our own Investigative Studies team. Jaco Alberts’ insight was fascinating as he talked about how he applies his expertise to his role.
We also heard about how they shared their expertise through a participatory audit of higher education institutions. They asked members of each student council to check pre-investments and to look at how the institution’s budget framework is working, which meant that they had the opportunity to make the most of the knowledge that is available within institutions. This fascinating approach gave us food for thought as we thought aloud about working to the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, as one of the five ways of working that’s outlined is involvement.
One of the areas that really fascinated me was the Netherlands Court of Audit’s use of data, as I have been leading on the Wales Audit Office’s work on acquiring data as part of our Cutting Edge Audit work. Their involvement of people with different backgrounds even filters into their data work, as we heard how they make the most of data interns.
As with any practice sharing, it was fascinating to hear how the Netherlands Court of Audit are dealing with challenges as well. Roline Kamphuis shared how the organisation have set up communities of practice around R, which they hope will help the organisation to free up the capacity of its data staff. We heard how they currently spend much of their time cleaning data, which means that they can make shared data available for wider use. By cleaning the data effectively at the start of the audit, they make work much easier for staff as it progresses.
They also spoke about why they particularly use R and SPSS, as they have a script that can be used for an audit trail. By developing a pre-programmed script in R, they can ensure that outputs fit house style. Also because R generates word and excel documents, it means that auditors can see easily see and understand the steps that have been taken when working on that data.
Rudi Turksema shared how the Netherlands Court of Audit had run an accountability hack, which meant that they were able to involve external stakeholders in their data work. By working in partnership with a range of organisations, they were able to open up access to a wide variety of datasets on the day. I mentioned that the Good Practice Exchange have supported the NHS Hack Day in Cardiff, but that I wasn’t sure that we had enough capacity as an organisation to run such an event yet. Yet they encouraged us to look at putting a similar event on as it had helped them to share their work and involve a wide range of people. We’ve already seen what happens when you make data open and accessible, as Ben Proctor and the Open Data Institute have already started using Google Fusion Tables to create maps and add value to our first open dataset. This certainly gave me food for thought for how such an event might help us to further develop our use of data and our own data maturity.
I learnt so much from my trip to the Netherlands. It was fascinating to see the parallel journeys that both of our organisations are taking to ensure that audit is fit for purpose in the twenty first century. Thanks to everyone at the Netherlands Court of Audit for your welcome and your hospitality – you’ve certainly helped inform our learning journey and your expertise has been invaluable in helping us to move forward with our own innovation work.