It is interesting how, when working on different things, ideas and thoughts collide. In this case my research and my professional work.

Internal audit independence and objectivity are two areas that are of constant  interest to me. As the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) defines them: ‘independence = independence is the freedom from conditions that threaten the ability of the internal audit activity to carry out internal audit responsibilities in an unbiased manner.’ ‘Objectivity = Internal auditors must have an impartial, unbiased attitude and avoid any conflict of interest.’

In research I have been looking at a social science research methodology called ethnography. Ethnography is a type of research, derived from anthropology, where the researcher describes a culture through being immersed in it. It emerged from living with social groups to understand their societies. The researcher describes the culture of the organisation or society through understanding the viewpoint of the researched people, yet remains independent of it. The research method is designed to understand events, practices and other phenomena in the context of the culture and practices of the individuals within them. In particular it is the meaning ascribed to the those phenomena by those involved. In effect ethnography is the ‘systematic description of the single contemporary culture often through fieldwork’. The interesting element of this research methodology is the reflexive nature of the research write up, that is the person writing about the research can recognise the social and cultural forces at work shaping the individual.

So it struck me that being an internal auditor is much like being an ethnographic researcher; part of group yet detached from it. Able to look systematically and holistically at the organisations, its phenomena, and culture and to challenge and write up about it. It is the auditor’s ‘agency’; that is freedom to act independent of the structure and organisations in which they work, that is important to enable this. A good ethnography recognises phenomena and the meaning given to them by the organisation.

This tension between being close enough to understand the cultural and organisational meaning of events, yet detached from it with enough agency to both see and act independently of those structures, is the unique property of internal audit. I like to simplify this statement into close enough to understand, yet far enough to challenge that understanding.

Perhaps a good internal auditor is not unbiased. Perhaps a good internal auditor is just as connected to the organisational and societal structures as any other member of the organisation, just as biased. Surely the key point is the auditor’s ability to recognise this, step outside of it, and then to analyse, write and report reflexively. The internal auditor’s key ability is therefore to have social agency.

This all confirms my view that independence is in fact a state of mind, not a state of condition. We are all bound to society, structures, culture, current viewpoints. The auditor is able to recognise and see this though. Do you have agency?