EU auditors: Mixed results in EU spending programmes during the COVID-19 pandemic

EU auditors: Mixed results in EU spending programmes during the COVID-19 pandemic
Credit: ECA

The European Commission’s reporting on how EU spending programmes perform shows mixed results in different funding areas, according to a new audit report published by the European Court of Auditors on Monday.

According to the report on the performance of the EU budget (status at the end of 2020), the indicators which measure progress towards targets do not focus enough on results and are too much input-oriented.

On the positive side – although the spending programmes examined were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 – in some of the programmes available information shows that there has been progress in their performance.

“The European Parliament and the Council want to know what results are achieved with the EU budget,” said François-Roger Cazala, the ECA member responsible for coordinating the report and a former chief auditor at the French Cour des Comptes (15 November).

“It is positive to observe that lessons learnt from the past implementation of spending programmes are often used to improve the design and the implementation of future spending programmes,” he added.

The main audit question was whether and how the Commission, as well as the Parliament and the Council, have used the lessons learnt from previous budget periods to improve the design and performance of spending programmes for the 2021-2027 period. The auditors focused on lessons learnt that are relevant for programmes’ performance.

Out of 48 spending programmes established for the 2021-2027 period, they focused on five programmes which together represent 60 % of the total budget for the period. In separate chapters on the selected spending programmes, they checked available performance information for plausibility and against its own audit findings in previous special reports.

The European Commission is mainly relying on evaluations and impact assessments to draw lessons learned for the future. Internal audit conclusions are also used. Evaluations are independent assessments of the effectiveness, efficiency, coherence, relevance and EU added value of a policy or a spending programme.

They are often carried out ex-post after the policy or programme has been fully implemented, or mid-term during the implementation period. Impact assessments, which analyse the likely effects of a new policy initiative, are carried out ex-ante before the decision to implement the initiative or start the spending programme.

In for example the area of Cohesion, the auditors examined the performance information under the European Social Fund (ESF). They found that the performance framework increased the availability of such information; however, the focus remained on financial inputs and outputs, rather than on results.

They also noted that ESF-funded activities continue to face difficulties in reaching people who are disconnected from the labour market, such as young people not in education, employment, or training. Some targets, such as the Europe 2020 target for reducing the number of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion in the EU, are unlikely to be met, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another area, Growth and jobs, was also affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Restrictions on travel and in-person learning had severely impacted the programme selected for audit in this area, the Erasmus+ programme.

The auditors concluded that Erasmus+ is a popular programme, especially benefiting individual participants, but that there is room for improvement, for example in reducing the number of IT tools, making the programme guide easier to understand, simplifying the application procedure, and addressing gender equality.

In the area of Natural Resources, the auditors selected the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF). Here as well, the auditors found that the Commission’s performance information for the most part concentrates on the financial contribution of the Fund to the objectives, rather than results. Little information was available on the EMFF’s contribution to environmental objectives.

To assess performance in the area of Global Europe, the auditors analysed the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance II (IPA II), which provides assistance to candidate countries. Among others, the auditors found that progress towards political reforms under the instrument had stalled: indicators relating to political reforms had regressed in relation to their baselines, and none of them were on track to reach their target.

In the area of Security and citizenship, the auditors analysed the performance of Internal Security Fund Borders and Visa, an instrument which provides support for border measures. They concluded that the indicator measuring progress towards the instrument’s overarching objective was too broadly defined, undermining conclusions on the fund’s overall performance.

Q: The EU institutions’ lessons learned are based on their own impact assessments, evaluations and internal audits. How would you describe the performance of these three different types of assessments?

A: “Each of these documents has its own objective,” ECA member Cazala replied. “Evaluations evaluate policies or topics and feed into impact assessments, which is the foundation on which draft legislation is constructed.”

“We found that these documents are well incorporated in the Commissions’ performance framework and that lessons learned were identified and used, though with exceptions.  Overall impact assessments and evaluations were an important part of improving performance of programmes – but they were not always available.”

Q: Which role does ECAs own audits play in the Commission’s lessons learned process?

A: “The recommendations formulated by the Court in its special reports are followed-up by the Commission and we report yearly on the extent of their implementation. Our follow-up work shows that 80% of our recommendations are implemented fully or in most respects by the Commission. Our audit recommendations are used by both Commission and legislators to target improvements in programme performance.”

Q: How do you explain that indicators still are too much input oriented and not enough result-oriented?

A: “It is easier for the Commission to define and measure progress on what it does and spends, rather than the results of this spending. Also, results may in some cases only be available in the medium to long term.”

Q: Which area is the best in the class and can serve as a model – and which area is the opposite?

A: “This is a good question but difficult to answer as we would compare very different programs and management modes. In general, it may be more difficult to obtain relevant performance information under shared management which involves complex programs in many member states/regions.”

“In terms of the Commissions performance framework, the Commission’s “better regulation” approach does help improve the performance of its spending programmes. In terms of the performance of specific programmes which we assessed this year, ERASMUS+ shows good results which indeed is also due to its popularity.”

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times

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