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Practice Guide to Auditing Oversight

What Is Oversight and How Does it Relate to Governance?

Definitions of “oversight” and “governance” vary across public and private sector organizations, but they share many similar elements. This Practice Guide recognizes that oversight is a component (or subset) of good governance and adopts definitions of these terms suited to public sector organizations.

Oversight refers to the actions taken to review and monitor public sector organizations and their policies, plans, programs, and projects, to ensure that they:

  • are achieving expected results;
  • represent good value for money; and
  • are in compliance with applicable policies, laws, regulations, and ethical standards.

Oversight is a critical governance function performed by boards of directors, committees, councils, and external bodies.

Oversight is composed of “over,” meaning above, and “sight,” meaning looking, but not touching. Indeed, those in charge of oversight functions are asked to look at a process, program, or project from above, but not to get involved in its day-to-day management.

In other words, oversight (or watchful care) is a safety net to ensure the following:

  • Due diligence takes place before key decisions are made.
  • Policies and strategies are being implemented as intended.
  • Key risks are identified, monitored, and mitigated.
  • Business processes and systems are working well.
  • Expected results are being achieved.
  • Value for money is obtained.
  • Activities comply with policies, laws, regulations, and ethical standards.
  • Developing areas of concern are being dealt with.
  • Assets are being safeguarded.
  • Continuous improvement is taking place.

In practice, oversight can be conducted through various functions, including:

  • Planning
  • Defining information needs
  • Challenging
  • Advising
  • Approving
  • Deciding
  • Monitoring
  • Reviewing
  • Taking corrective actions

Different oversight bodies will fulfill different oversight functions, in accordance with their specific mandates. Some oversight bodies will play a more active role in guiding management than others, while still staying away from day-to-day management of the organization’s activities.