19 February 1877. It had snowed heavily in Bern that winter and it had been cold since the start of the month. Edmond de Grenus had good reason to be happy, he had been thrust into the heart of the new Federal Palace.
At 37 years of age, he was responsible for a small and newly established entity, the audit office. With his four employees, he would henceforth independently control the accounts of the Federal Administration which was still in its infancy. At the time, the Federal Administration employed 1,093 people and spent CHF 42,625,873 annually.
A trained accountant, a General Staff Colonel, the Bernese man was very proud to head this office. Although an auditor of accounts had been working in the Administration since 1852 but he had been located in the Federal Finance Administration (FFA). For the Federal Council, this separation between the Finance Administration and the audit office was a first step. But this was a concession in response to the wishes of Parliament. With the growth in the federal state, some elected officials were wary of an Administration out of control: they wanted the creation of a Federal Court of Auditors.
13 December 2017. From where I am now at 45 Monbijoustrasse, and in my position as the twelfth Director of the Swiss Federal Audit Office (SFAO), I am contemplating the 140 years which stand between me and Edmond de Grenus.
«This rapprochement towards Parliament has not occured at the expense of the government.»
This short chronology helps us understand how the Federal Administration developed, how it was managed and the financial oversight. The first observation: the world wars have led to a big temporary increase in SFAO personnel to check spending linked to mobilisations. This is also described in the historian Simon Rüttimann’s book on the daily work of our institution during World War I, edited by the SFAO for its 140-year anniversary. The second observation is that one notices throughout the crises, from the Mirage III affair to the INSIEME IT project and the Federal Pension Fund (FPF), that the Audit Office has changed immensely. What can be concluded from this? The process was a typically Swiss one: bit by bit, independence was pieced together, skills were adapted to requirements and procedures were strengthened.
It is not very well known but Parliament was consistent in its wish to create a Court of Auditors. This was to support it in its high-level supervision and compensate for the traditional asymmetry between the numerous specialists in the administration and a militia parliament. History shows that the objective has today been achieved and without a Court of Auditors. The SFAO assists the Federal Assembly, the Finance Delegation (FinDel) has been its main partner for over a century. It takes note of all of its audits and entrusts it regularly with mandates. Recently, the collaboration with the Control Committees was laid down in law and several legislative committees audit the specialists of our institution periodically.
This rapprochement towards Parliament has not occurred at the expense of the government. Since its creation, the SFAO has assisted the Federal Council in its supervision of the Federal Administration. Our inter-departmental position allows us to draw attention to possible duplication or conflicts of interest between the federal offices. It contributes to the use of best practices in the Federal Administration. Finally, with its mandate from the Federal Council, the SFAO has been carefully monitoring the major federal IT projects for five years now.
A unique Swiss feature is that the SFAO is still not known as the Court of Auditors… Never mind! The law guarantees independence and powers which are comparable to those of its bigger foreign cousins, and in certain areas even surpass them.
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