The Olympics has been quite surprising to me for a number of reasons. First, nothing (yet) major has gone wrong. Yes the security has required a contingency plan (but it was there in place to be used), yes some seats are empty (again not unexpected, nor not easily solved) and yes, the UK has not won every medal going so far. Overall though, a major project seems to have gone so far without a major hitch.
I remember attending, a few years ago, a lecture by the then head of audit of the London Olympic organising committee. At that point you could see it was a project on track, but under pressure. Now I empathised with their position. It is challenging for internal audit to add value to project work, because to provide a robust opinion requires a good understanding of a lot of factors, information, evidence, opinions and the real killer – context. It is difficult to call from an assurance perspective (as indeed project delivery is difficult to call). This is all the more difficult because projects are fast-moving. By the time the audit has formed a view, the detail and context of the project has moved on. For internal audit then you have a few options. To audit the framework of project delivery, that is, will the project’s structures, governance and oversight enable it to deliver under normal circumstances. To audit the project at milestone points – has the project to date achieved x% of the intended 100%? To audit the outcome – has the project delivered against the original initiation document and business case? or to dipstick audit elements of it whilst ongoing. So have the internal auditors for LOCOG got it right? – well it appears so. Are the current issues within the risk appetite overall? I suspect yes.
The other interesting thing is the sheer Britishness of the approach. The opening ceremony has been near universally recognised as successful, in particular in its recognition of Britishness. I see a very British and distinct model of internal audit developing, and it draws on the underlying themes from the opening ceremony. First the British have a sense of putting the here and now in a much longer context of continuity. We, as a nation, have a common, continuous history, with stable and well-founded institutions at their heart. The BBC for example. Its coverage of the games has been world class to date. Yet the British have a sense of pragmatism and making things work with humour. There is no sense of being rule-bound where this is unhelpful or unnecessary. Her Majesty the Queen’s appearance with Daniel Craig as the fictional James Bond was a masterstroke of being popular, even populist, whilst retaining dignity. It is a very British thing to laugh and poke fun at our institutions and they themselves, yet to hold utmost respect for them.
So I think it is with British internal audit. Yes we like order, rules, principles and organised activity. We are not yet rule bound beyond the point of pragmatism. Internal audit in the British sense I hope will not yield to the rules-based, mechanical and non-strategic approach that typifies, to some extent, our international colleagues.
British internal audit is rules-conscious but not rules-bound. We have a sense of principles-based pragmatism that makes sense of an ever changing and complex world around us. This will require internal audit to avoid the thirst for ever more ‘guidance’ and to retain a pragmatic, thinking, contingent approach to our work. After all our management colleagues have to deal with the imperfect – why should we not face the challenges full square with them?