Delving into governance audits without the right expertise, timeline, and scope can hurt the internal audit function. Depending on its depth of expertise, internal audit may want to bring in third-party subject-matter specialists to provide additional credibility, experience, and an industry sector perspective that is benchmarked against leading practices. Working closely with outside subject-matter experts also provides an excellent knowledge transfer opportunity that can assist internal audit in future reviews.
Governance and Risk
A look at the corporate governance risk framework is a helpful way to understand the structure for an audit (see "The Corporate Governance Risk Framework" below right). Internal auditors should ask several questions about the organization's corporate governance framework. Auditors at highly regulated organizations already may be hearing these questions from regulators. However, any organization would benefit from exploring whether its governance model:
- Guides strategic direction and day-to-day control.
- Outlines the rules and procedures for making decisions.
- Specifies and distributes rights and responsibilities, including decision-making authority, among the organization's various stakeholders.
- Provides structure and accountability through which the organization can achieve its objectives and monitor how it performs.
- Maintains the integrity of the organization's structure and accountability.
- Influences the appropriate tone and risk culture.
Risk culture merits special emphasis because it is at the heart of corporate governance. If internal auditors fail to consider the organization's risk culture, they may miss the subtle indicators of ineffective governance. For example, a company may have a well-designed governance structure but ineffective governance because its risk culture discourages managers from escalating risk issues for fear of the consequences.
Finally, the organization needs to decide where it wants to be in the corporate governance maturity model. Does it want to be a leader in one or more areas, or is average sufficient? A corporate governance audit can benchmark where the organization stands on categories ranging from board governance to strategic planning to tone at the top to risk management and corporate compliance. For each of these areas (and more), auditors can chart whether the organization is lagging, average, or leading against peers.
Structuring the Audit
There is not one ideal way to assess the state of corporate governance. An example of an approach that is well-suited to an organization embarking on this process for the first time is to execute a two-phase assessment comprising an initial advisory phase and an audit phase.
Advisory Phase In the first phase, the goal is to establish a baseline by focusing on the entire governance framework. The assessment relies heavily on interviews with a selection of board members, senior executives, and others in the organization. The questions should focus on a broad range of governance topics, including corporate strategy, board oversight and committee structure, management committee structure, tone at the top and culture, the state of the compliance program, and the state of the risk management program. At the highest level, these interviews should provide a view of their understanding of the organization's governance processes and how those processes are aligned with corporate objectives.
Auditors also should review supporting documentation, such as bylaws, board committee charters, policies, and organizational charts, to create a holistic picture of the organization's culture and processes. They then should analyze information developed through the interviews and document review processes and assess it against a maturity scale. Audit recommendations should assist the organization to ultimately move farther along that scale.
A corporate governance assessment will require the audit team to make qualitative judgments about the design of the governance structure. Internal audit will need to determine how formal the corporate governance elements should be compared to leading practices in the industry and at peer companies. Performing the initial work as an advisory review allows for a freer two-way exchange of ideas and observations ahead of the formal audit.
During the advisory phase, internal audit should communicate the results of its interviews and assessment to management as recommendations instead of formal issues. The absence of an opinion positions the internal auditor as a business advisor, which promotes candid discussions and more informed recommendations.
At the end of the advisory phase, suitable time is needed to allow the organization to implement corrective actions in response to recommendations resulting from the first phase. The amount of time depends on the extent of remediation required and often will be more than a year to allow for policies to be developed or enhanced and implemented.
Audit Phase With an established framework in place, the company can conduct a formal audit to assess the effectiveness of governance processes. Here, the scope is narrower and builds on the previous review work. As during the first phase, interviewing board members and executives is a key component. In-depth testing of key risk areas also is important. Examples of key risk areas include delegation of authority, board and management committee charters, risk appetite, and the compliance testing program. The outcome is an analysis of targeted issues, leading practice recommendations for improvements, and a formal audit opinion.
Internal auditors should keep in mind that they are auditing the leadership of the organization. Presenting corporate governance audit findings to the CEO or board members is the ultimate "seat at the table" for CAEs. They must ensure their facts are thoroughly vetted and benchmarking against leading practices is well supported. Anything short of that could damage internal audit's credibility.
This two-phase method is just one approach to auditing corporate governance. Organizations with a well-honed governance structure may prefer to start directly with the audit phase. The key is to tailor an approach for the organization, considering issues such as the maturity of its structures, availability of resources, and leadership and regulatory expectations.
The value proposition for a corporate governance assessment is significant. Working closely with the board and senior management, internal auditors have an opportunity to drive change. This is a high-risk, high-reward effort, though. A thoughtful, measured approach and stakeholder buy-in are critical at every stage — from planning through report issuance.