Picture: iSTOCK
Picture: iSTOCK

At the end of this month the auditor-general (AG) will release the latest annual report comparing and analysing municipal audit outcomes. Last year’s report showed just 13% of municipalities achieved clean audits for 2016/2017, so it may be tempting to conclude this work has failed to yield results.

To the contrary, our research and a recent survey show these reports have increased media and public attention; can influence citizens’ assessment of local government and mayoral performance, and can affect voting behaviour.

Last year, we worked with Citizen Surveys, the SA polling company, to assess the reach and relevance of the AG’s local government audits. Using the SA Citizen Survey, a unique monthly representative survey of public opinion, we fielded a series of questions related to municipal audits in the months that preceded and followed the publication of the AG’s report. The results, released now in full for the first time, reveal several striking facts.

Overall, about one third of respondents claimed to have heard, seen or read about audit-related reports about their local municipality, especially following the release of the AG’s report. This reflects a significant jump in media coverage of these audits immediately following the report’s release each year.

The release of the audit results also affects how respondents assess the performance of their local mayor, in a nuanced way. Where audit results improve, respondents’ assessments of mayoral performance go up, too; where results deteriorate, so do perceptions of the performance of their mayor.

Perhaps most striking is that more than four fifths of respondents interviewed say information about corruption and financial mismanagement in their municipality is “very” or “somewhat” important in deciding which political party they will vote for in a municipal election or by-election.

We also found these perceptions translate into voting behaviour, with voters rewarding and punishing political parties for local audit performance. We combined data on local audit outcomes over a seven-year period with the results of municipal by-elections triggered by the death of local councillors. Since these occur throughout the year, we can compare results from by-elections held after the annual municipal audit report’s release, with those during the rest of the year.

Our findings show that this new audit information matters: where the audit report revealed improved results, the responsible mayor’s party was rewarded with an electoral boost of five percentage points on average. But where the report revealed stagnation or deterioration, electoral performance declined by a similar amount.

The battle against corruption is a long one and the past decade has been particularly grim for governance in SA. But there is hope: accountability is happening, sometimes quietly and in overlooked ways. The AG’s reporting has played a crucial and perhaps not always fully appreciated role in this process. With the latest batch of municipal audits to be released on May 29, politicians better take heed: ignore audits at your peril.

• Wehner and Berliner teach public policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science. The full results of their study are available at: https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/bm62w.