Complex problems require examining phenomena from a broader perspective than that of individual administrative sectors. Therefore, Supreme Audit Institutions both in Finland and around the world are focusing more and more attention on policy coherence. The UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) should also be examined in the light of the dynamics between them.
Writers: Vivi Niemenmaa, Kimberley Leach (Principal, Officer of the Auditor General, Canada) and Sari Aroalho
Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs) are increasingly interested in policy coherence. Areas of interest include, for example, forms of support that have opposite impacts and the conflicts, synergies and unforeseen interconnections arising from them. For example, investing in climate change mitigation and subsidizing fossil fuels at the same time undermines the effectiveness of funding. The electrification of transport, in turn, reduces many emissions but not microplastics, a significant source of which is road traffic and vehicle tyres. Recently, Europe has also woken up harshly to the interdependencies between energy policy and security policy.
Although there is much talk about policy coherence, there have not been many tools available for analyzing it. The International Organization for Supreme Audit Institutions (INTOSAI) Working Group on Environmental Audit (WGEA), chaired by the National Audit Office of Finland from 2020 to 2025, has compiled approaches for analyzing policy coherence. The report was prepared by the SAIs of Canada and Finland. It also presents the work of SAI Finland on phenomenon-based budgeting and the Finnish model for stakeholder inclusion in sustainable development.
Policy coherence is also a key to implementing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For example, SAI Canada has audited implementing the SDGs. The Office of the Auditor General of Canada paid attention to the lack of coordination process among the federal government departments and agencies. The audit recommended that the relevant departments identify gaps, trade-offs and synergies among federal policies and programs for sustainable development.
Many tools focus on administrative structures and processes
Many tools examine policy coherence from the organizational perspective. For example, the OECD self-assessment tool helps countries to assess organizational structures and processes, such as whether the UN’s SDGs have been taken into account in budgeting. The assessment model is based on the OECD principles for promoting policy coherence, adopted by the organization in 2019. The principles deal with political commitment and leadership, strategic long-term vision, policy integration, whole-of-government coordination, subnational engagement, stakeholder engagement, policy and financing impacts, and monitoring, reporting and evaluation.
The principles developed by the United Nations Committee of Experts on Public Administration (UN CEPA) also include themes related to administrative processes, such as partnerships across ministries and assessments of draft policy bills. The SAIs of the United States and Brazil, in turn, have developed a model for identifying fragmentation, overlap, duplication or gaps in operation. SAI United States uses the FOD model regularly to assess federal programs.
The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) has also listed criteria for assessing policy coherence. These include cooperation between administrative sectors and assessment of the negative environmental externalities of policies. Various tracking mechanisms have also been developed to analyze budgeting. These mechanisms address funding that has impacts contrary to the environmental objectives, for example by means of the “do no significant harm” principle.
The synergies tool helps to assess cross-impacts
In addition to tools for assessing administrative structures and processes, tools are now also available for identifying interactions between issues. An example of such a tool is the web-based SDG Synergies tool, developed by the Stockholm Environment Institute. The WGEA has tested the tool in its steering group and in a course organized in cooperation with the University of Helsinki.
The 169 targets of the UN SDGs are embedded in the tool. In addition, users can add issues that are nationally, locally or organizationally relevant. The selected issues are examined in relation to each other: how progress on one target will affect progress on another. On one hand, such cross-analysis provides an opportunity to look into the interlinkages and relationships between different issues. On the other hand, it provides a framework for dialogue.
According to both the students and the WGEA steering group members, the best benefit of the tool was the headwork facilitated by it. The results of the analysis provide ideas for further work, such as for selecting a research or audit topic. The aim of the quick testing by the WGEA steering group was to present the tool to the members, and the SDGs selected for the test were environmentally oriented. Despite the overall nature of the testing, the results were interesting. As shown in the figure below, the closest synergies were provided by the goals related to biodiversity (SDG 15) and climate change (SDG 13), whereas the water-related goals (SDG 6 – Clean water and sanitation and SDG 14 – Life below water), for example, were further away.
In addition to the environmental goals, the Helsinki University course selected targets related to poverty, food and energy to the test. Universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy (SDG target 7.1) was found to conflict the most with the other targets. The students found the tool particularly useful for understanding the complexity of the SDGs and especially suitable for identifying conflicts and priorities.
It is likely that the most significant benefit of the tools developed to support policy coherence is that they pinpoint various interconnections and even surprising linkages. They also encourage us to consider the connections between different issues as well as facilitate dialogue. From the perspective of environmental policy, it is not only a question of the dynamics between environmental policy and other policies but also of the interlinkages between issues falling within the scope of environmental policy. For example, all measures aimed at mitigating climate change do not necessarily support safeguarding biodiversity. The WGEA has selected the nexus areas between climate change and biodiversity as one of the themes in its work plan 2023–2025. The objective is to develop audit criteria to better ensure that the achievement of one target does not undermine that of another one.
Read more about the INTOSAI WGEA’S work