Providing robust assurance: it’s all in the mind

Carrying out assurance activities requires a certain mind-set. In the professional jargon, this is known as, “professional scepticism”. ISA 200 defines professional scepticism as, “An attitude that includes, a questioning mind, being alert to conditions that may indicate possible misstatement due to error or fraud, and a critical assessment of audit evidence.”

It can also be described as balanced but questioning approach which relies on the facts.

Over the years we have seen however, many examples of assurance activities which are carried out with an unhelpful mind-set. Here are some examples:

A prejudiced approach

We all have prejudices. Based on years of riding my bike amongst traffic, for example, I have a prejudice against people who drive gold coloured cars. In the past, I have had a number of near misses where drivers of these particular vehicles seemed to go out of their way to try and kill me. By contrast, I have a positive prejudice that 99.9% of proper cyclists* are admirable people who are doing their best to save the planet.

When it comes to providing assurance, we have often seen examples of practitioners who bring their prejudices to their work. Some believe either that all contractors are, “at it”, whatever “it” is and carry out assurance reviews from a point of view that there is something to find. (I was once asked by a QS, who was so convinced that there was something going on in his contract, to go and look in the, “whites of their eyes” to see if they were telling untruths!) Others believe, for example, that, “all contractors have fantastic accounting systems, because they would have to, wouldn’t they”. In this latter case practitioners approach assurance with a mind closed to the possibility of problems.

*Ones who ride racing bikes

Demonstrating “value”

Assurance is about providing enhanced confidence. There is value in an assurance report which concludes that everything is fine as it delivers enhanced confidence. Some assurance practitioners however believe that they need to go beyond this and find something to prove their value. We have, for example, seen numerous examples where monies are withheld from Contractors to demonstrate that the assurance provider is being tough, only for those amounts to be quietly allowed at final account. This approach undermines confidence.

Boredom

Traditional approaches to providing assurance on major programmes can create incredibly dull jobs. In cost assurance, this is sometimes known as, “substantiation” and involves some unfortunate having to test typically 10% to 20% of all costs by looking for lots of pieces of paper and matching numbers up. This type of activity provides little assurance and requires much manual effort.

Inevitably the assurance provider becomes bored and potentially looks for short cuts. In achieving the 10% to 20% of all costs, testing one large invoice for £1,000,000 is easier than testing lots of smaller ones, even though the smaller invoices may be riskier. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to maintain “a questioning mind”.

Conclusion

You should be alert for assurance activities being carried out with the wrong mind-set in your organisation. Without the application of professional scepticism, assurance activities can:

• Waste time, effort and money
• Create problems dealing with inappropriate “findings” constructed to make the assurance provider look valuable or tough
• Undermine rather than build confidence
• Miss problems and issues and create false unfounded confidence