Feature story from the Netherlands: Interactive audits as future: chances for better products and engaging processes

07.12.2021

Interactivity can help audits to improve their impact by making a difference in the lives of citizens ISSAI-12. In this article we will argue how interactivity can add a new dimension to auditing, and why it is necessary to experiment with interactivity to stay relevant in the changing environment. The Design Audit Studio from the Netherlands Court of Audit experiments with interactivity in products and processes. Here, we would like to share our first lessons from our interactivity experiments.

Interactive products

For many auditors the publication of an audit report feels like the end of an intensive period. Actually, it is just the start. At the Netherlands Court of Audit (NCA), we experiment with interactivity in our publications, like the Corona Account dashboard (only in Dutch) and the First Aid for Forecasts tool (only in Dutch).

The Corona Account dashboard is made by the NCA’s data hub team, the Design Audit Studio (DAS) was involved in user testing this interactive product. The dashboard aims to give Parliament and journalists insights in the financial expenditure regarding Covid-19 measurements. Users of the dashboard can choose what data they want to see and download the open data for their own purposes.

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Another interactive publication is the so-called ‘First Aid for Forecasts’ tool. This tool is published next to the audit report and unlocks forecasting knowledge for MPs and their staff. The design is an interactive PDF, which guides the user in a few steps towards helpful questions that MPs can use during debates on government’s budgets.

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Interactive meetings

Next to these interactive products, the DAS also experiments with interactive meetings during the audit. When designing interactive meetings, we focus on action, inclusion and sharing. It is important that our designs are inviting all participants, like the chip-in method. For this method, we used printed tablecloths during our meeting with 10 agencies (each responsible for a Dutch key data register). Every participant was invited to write down their insights and intentions to improve the cooperation between the 10 agencies (following our recommendation) on the tablecloths.

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Another meeting, with the Dutch Ombudsman, was focused on knowledge-sharing. Due to Covid-19, the session was online and we used the visual collaboration tool Miro. We planned small groups, a facilitator for each group and some extra time to get to know the Miro tool just enough for everyone to keep up with the session.

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Interactive processes

Next to interactive products and meetings, the DAS experiments with interactive processes. Those processes benefit from visual collaboration. During the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, the DAS started to look for digital solutions to continue the visual collaborations that until then took place at the office, e.g. in brown paper sessions or sketching sessions. The online tool Miro exceeded our expectations. Not only did Miro offer various templates, which we adjusted to our own preferences and NCA’s corporate style, that supported collaborations for different purposes, the output can also be exported with a few mouse clicks. Visual collaborations already helped teams to get new insights and on the same page. And Miro helped the DAS to work more efficiently and more creative during the pandemic.

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Another example is our first design sprint. This method knows its origin at Google Ventures (Knapp) and can be used to come up with relevant products and/or services in a limited timeframe. During the design sprint the auditors and designers involved had to create a prototype, which we tested on stakeholders. This interactive process helps to explore the problem and solutions (diverge), and helps to make choices (converge). What we discovered was that auditors love to diverge, but need some help to converge, which might be our next challenge. 

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Lessons

Through our experiments, we collected some lessons that can help to design interactive products, meetings or processes.

  • Interactivity does not only involves a technical side, but also a ‘human’ side. “The keywords of ‘people and prototypes’ are needed most when you want to design something that has no precedent, where innovation is the only possibility.” – Bill Moggridge (2007: 726)
  • The essence of interactivity is connection. And only by connecting, you can reach out to people, learn about their needs, address their needs, and make them care. And when people care, they are motivated to act and learn. But don’t underestimate the time it takes to really connect and stay connected.
  • Starting point when one aims for interactivity is to think user-centered: Who is the user? What do they need to make them care? How can we include everyone? What do we want them to know and, moreover, do with that knowledge? Take into account differences in (digital) capabilities and personalities (introverts versus extraverts).
  • Prototyping and testing are useful techniques to connect, learn and check whether or not the product, meeting or process works and what should be improved.
  • Not every stage in the audit process is suitable for interactivity. There has to be an equal connection or relationship. When the auditor judges and the auditee is being judged, there is no equality. But that leaves many possibilities to add interactivity to audits, see the examples above.

To benefit from interactivity in audits, SAIs can learn from the world of design. Designers work user-centered. To get a better understanding of design, it helps to know the four orders of design by Richard Buchanon (2015:14):

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These four orders of design are interdependent. When designing, to some level all orders will be touched. As you can see in this visual, interactivity aims for the connecting of people through activities, services and processes. Since early 2000s interactivity design “quickly developed beyond the flat-land of the computer screen to address problems of designing a wide variety of human interactions with their surrounding environments.” Richard Buchanan (2015: 11). So, keep in mind that digitalization is not a goal in our work, yet a welcoming mean.

To conclude

Jan van Schalkwyk, executive of the Auditor-General of South-Africa, said: ‘We are not auditors, but we change culture using the tool of audit to do this.” This shows a different way of looking at audit work, and this perspective helps to open-up to new approaches like interactive audits. Because in order to stay relevant and be able to address complex societal problems, SAIs have to consider new methods and interventions like interactive products, meetings and processes, while these “problems cannot be managed using traditional […] tools” (Malcolm & van der Bijl, 2016: 1). When it’s up to us, interactive audits ARE the future!

By the Design Audit Studio (das@rekenkamer.nl)

We are very curious if there other SAIs experimenting with interactivity, so please reach out to us and share experiences!

Reading tips (and sources)

Buchanan, R. (2015). Worlds in the making: design, management, and the reform of organizational culture. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, 1(1), 5-21.

Knapp, J., Zeratsky, J., & Kowitz, B. (2016). Sprint: How to solve big problems and test new ideas in just five days. Simon and Schuster.

Malcolm, B., & van der Bijl-Brouwer, M. (2016). Developing a systemic design practice to support an Australian government regulatory agency.

Moggridge, B., & Atkinson, B. (2007). Designing interactions (Vol. 17). Cambridge, MA: MIT press.

Learn how to use visuals in audits in our e-learning, available in 5 languages (accessible after registration): http://www.afrosai-e.org.za/ go to e-learning and choose innovative audit skills

More about innovation in audits at the NCA: https://english.rekenkamer.nl/about-the-netherlands-court-of-audit/what-we-do/innovation-in-audit

Meijer-Wassenaar, L.C.M, & van Est, D. (2019). The adaptation of design thinking in auditing. In Conference Proceedings of the Academy for Design Innovation Management (Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 1055-1067).

Meijer-Wassenaar, L.C.M. (2019). Visual stories that transform audit speak into engaging, understandable reports. International Journal of Government Auditing, 46(1), 26-27.

Meijer-Wassenaar, L. C. M. (2018). Discover and tell visual stories in audits: using visual design and information design at the Netherlands Court of Audit.