Modernisation and Development at the Court of Auditors of Portugal
The Court of Auditors (COA) is a century-old institution where modernisation and
development are terms that still have a strange ring to some ears. A few years ago, the
COA and state-of-the-art computer technology were in fact incompatible. However
today… well, today even writing about ourselves seems to be a thankless task, not
because we dislike sharing our experiences but because the enthusiasm shown in
narrating our achievements always incurs the risk of sounding pretentious.For this
reason we have produced this simple testimonial of the short but arduous journey we
have been undertaking.
"Greater and more innovative use of CAATs is considered critical to realise
From the modern typewriter...
"Sir! I've got the most modern electric typewriter in the Directorate General! I love
typing with it! Please don't take it away from me!"
This was one of the first reactions to the change, when only 10 years ago, a plan to
introduce modern computer technology into the COA was implemented! This
example does however introduce false generalisations. There was, in fact, already a
patently obvious desire for technological (and organisational) modernisation at the
time. This desire has continued since then, together with an active and generalised
search for, and acceptance of, computerised tools.
The example does, however illustrate another truth. Electric typewriters were a rare
commodity within the Directorate General of the COA at the outset of 1987.
Mainframes, minis, micros, terminals and printers, not to mention word processors,
represented another entirely unknown and uncharted world. And remember that we
are talking about one of the oldest State bodies in Portugal, where in 1987 like today,
hundreds of files and processes are analysed daily.
From a situation of such clamorous technological backwardness in 1987, to one of the
largest computer networks in the public administrative sector in 1997, is certainly a
feat and a wealth of learning experiences which are modestly and briefly described as
...to computerised audits
No, we are not yet equipped either with tools or sufficient know-how to carry out
computerised audits of public accounts. Even less so, to audit the computer systems
which support them. The very methods used by the technicians of the COA Support
Services in the implementation of audits are themselves undergoing development and
are still under experimentation. The use of computer technology has so far been
limited to productivity tools (that is, word processors, spreadsheets etc.) installed in
However, the possibility of computerised audits does loom on the horizon of real
possibilities as a result of the enormous technological infrastructure and noteworthy
human assets with their accumulated knowledge, both computer and audit wise within
There is still a long way to go. But we cannot, nor do we wish to, make the journey
alone. We thus sincerely wish that the Reform of the Financial Administration of the
State currently underway, as well as the computerisation of the budget management
information system which supports it, will provide one of those privileged occasions
for technological modernisation and co-operation among the agents interested in the
A Computer Park without a Computer Centre?
Well, yes! With a Computer Park which will make all the Technological Information
Managers of Public Administration writhe with pure green envy (4 departmental
systems, 3 Unix and 1 Windows NT, 441 microcomputers, 155 laser printers, among
other units, all connected through a local network and exploring data bases with
hundreds of thousands of entries), our centre is not quite a Centre nor a Service. With
one single appointed Management position, but with no appointed Systems nor
Network nor Communications nor Data Base Managers but with 9 senior computer
technicians, 3 systems operators and 13 non-computer personnel (that is, not
integrated into information technology careers but carrying out responsibilities in the
areas of application development and technical support for users). It happens!
Development of Information Systems
3 Senior IT Advisors
1 IT Advisor
3 Assistant IT Technician
1 Assistant IT Technician
1 System Operator
3 Administration Clerks
Technical Support for Users
1 IT Advisor
3 Administration Clerks
Never mind the numbers, it's the team's quality that counts1
The efforts made by the COA over the last 10 years and especially over the last 5
years in the acquisition of computerised equipment for its Park is noteworthy. It is
first and foremost a notable financial effort (involving hundreds of millions of
escudos), but it means above all that there is an accelerated absorption of technology
by an institutional environment, which is itself undergoing a process of change and
Changes which, over the last ten years, have witnessed the substitution, of practically
all of the Judges (a normal process), a new organic law of the Court (that of 1989, the
1997 law published just published on the 26th August...), the eternal wait for a re-
structuring of the Support Services (for over 20 years no changes have been made in
ca-reer structures nor in the legal organisation of departments, but this law is always
almost, almost ready...), the establishment and implementation of the Regional
Departments of the Azores and Madeira...the move and expansion of the Headquarters
of the Court and, above all the consolidation of new control methods, especially for
This means, in fact that there has been an accelerated increase in the capabilities and
autonomy of automatic data processing - an increase which, while notable for
hardware, is still more so for software which is licensed, studied and applied by over
four hundred users.
Software which is not limited to mere micro-computer programs for Windows 95 with
Office 95 and Unix with Oracle, evolving this year to Windows NT and Office 97, but
also covers a whole series of applications within the realm of case monitoring and
data processing of legal information, as well as the management of human, financial
and material resources and the planning and control of activities.
The software has mostly been developed in-house, is tailor-made and subject to an on-
going evolution in compliance with the needs of the users. This represents a source of
technical autonomy for the Court in such a highly sensitive area as that of information
and communication technology.
It must be stressed that it was only as recently as five years ago that information
technology at the COA began to pass the phase of mere micro-information solutions
(isolated PCs), destined for integration into a network of the said solutions, as well as
explore centralised or client/server solutions provided by data bases connected to
UNIX servers which had in the meantime been ac-quired.
Nowadays the IT park has the problem of being almost obsolete in view of the
unstoppable technological progress of equipment and the ever increasing demands of
logistic support. This obsolescence will nevertheless be "naturally" overcome, given
the high level of commitment on the part of all those responsible and the healthy level
of demands from the IT users, which will oblige the computer park to continuously
renovate and expand.
On the other hand, the high level of comput-erisation of work stations (at a rate of
over 80%) has produced an effective computerisation of the Court's information
systems. With all operational or organisational areas using applications or an intensive
use of productivity tools, irrespective of their coverage or responsibility for their
development (computer technicians, users or external suppliers).
We thus have considerable computer resources and computer personnel qualified in
the development of data base applications for different environments, including
CASE tools; we directly manage an enormous and complex computer park; we
respond to many users on a daily basis, in addition to guaranteeing their training in the
field of computers - yet the Diário da República as yet makes no mention of the
existence of an organisational unit responsible for such tasks!
How do we do it? Simply because the pressing needs imposed by the modernisation
and development of the Court of Auditors are superior to those political and legal
omissions for the restructuring of its Support Services? Simply because there is a
strong commitment on the part of those responsible to maximise the Court and its
Directorate General? Simply because we have highly motivated computer technicians
Well, let's see!
Developing Information Technology without computer technicians?
Such tremendous development could certainly not have taken place without the
existence of a minimum organisation of the computer function! In 1986, at the outset
of the studies on computerisation, the Court established a small Organisation and
Computerisation Nucleus, comprising three requested technicians whom, on 12 July
1991, the General Plenary of the Court of Auditors later recognised internally as the
Organisation and Information Technology Service (SOI). Devoid of a formal
organisational structure but with senior computer technicians and systems operators
on the staff and legally approved in 1987, the SOI has progressively been reinforced
in human resources, particularly over the last seven years. During this time it has not
lost one single member, a rare thing indeed, and now boasts 9 senior technicians and 3
While it did not exist as a legally recognised organisational unit, the SOI did not
provide any Senior management position until 1995, (it now has one), nor specific job
categories such as those of Systems or Data Base Management and so these
positions and the ensuing obviously indispensable responsibilities, were informally
taken on by computer technicians who received no benefits in return.
With the additional aggravation that the operating systems and the programs which
were originally installed (the computer network became operational on 2 July 1992)
and developed over the last five years were, until then practically unknown with very
little practical know-how on the part of the computer technicians. Implying the
additional efforts and responsibilities they contributed!
The least one can say about such a team is, and this must be admitted, that they are
User's support by...users
When about six years ago various measures were implemented with an aim of
revitalising the information technology process, one of the questions raised which
most worried those responsible was precisely how to reconcile the need for an
increase in the rate of application development, the number of computerised work
stations and the training and direct support for users of those applications including
the use of word processing programs, spreadsheets and data bases on micro-
computers with the reduced number of computer technicians at that time who carried
out those tasks.
The idea was for SOI to recruit those users who, in addition to some knowledge and
experience of programs in use, showed a strong interest in computer tools and were
highly motivated to continue further professional development in this field.
This experience still continues today and has even been reinforced as it is deemed to
be highly positive. As a result the SOI now has 12 permanent non-computer staff
(considered as a sort of super-users), who, in addition to providing technical support
for other users, also co-operate in the installation and configuration of PCs, printers
and programs, thus substituting or complementing almost totally the work of the
senior technicians in the field of micro-technology. Such is the level of experience
and the know-how they have acquired they also help in configuration and installation
of network adapters, memory, detection of breakdowns, macros and application
From one extreme to the other...
One of the reasons then, why the COA has become computerised at such a speedy rate
is because it was capable of concentrating (centralising) a reasonable number of
human resources exclusively focused on the computerisation development of the
This substantial concentration and effort must be highlighted. The number of SOI
staff members has almost tripled over the last seven years, although some were
already employees of the Support Services (representing a type of "recycling of
household goods") and ten members are employed on temporary contracts.
But in addition to people, who are the main resource, one must also know what to do
with them, how to organise them and how to fit them into the objectives of the
organisation they are part of.
Well, in this case... we have in fact had a mid-term plan in the past, ostentatiously
entitled the Plan for the Organisational Information System of the Court of Auditors
For various reasons, perhaps the same as always everywhere, the said document did
not come to be the guideline for computerisation at that time, but continues to be, in
spite of everything, the framework for the development of the information systems
architecture as originally outlined!
After this no more strategic plans were produced but there have been ideas! Ideas
such as how to integrate the development of information systems. Ideas as to the
priority of the development of applications. Ideas as to the informal organisation of
SOI. Ideas which have been carried out! In fact the projects (and there are many) have
advanced at a hallucinating pace, which although not fast enough for the users (it
never is...) have nevertheless certainly kept all SOI human resources effectively
Information Systems of
the Court of Auditors
Resource Management Systems
Material and Property
Bibliography and Documentation
Procedural Management Systems
All of the Court's Information Systems will be wholly integrated and computerised in essence by the
end of 1998. Most of the development of these systems took place internally. This is in itself a
guarantee for the COA that it is completely autonomous in this area, which allows for fruitful future
interaction between the tools and audits themselves.
A risky conclusion: major elaborate plans may not be necessary for such complex
projects as that of the Court of Auditors, if there are responsible people and highly
committed technicians, who know the organisation of which they are a part and are
capable of developing partial solutions which do not challenge a global solution. That
is, when the maxim of "think global, act local", is applied with some commitment,
method and structure. But is this the best way?
Methods: Don't adopt, adapt them!
What if we don't even adapt them?
We are precisely the people who a few years ago defended the imperative need for
strategical planning of organisations, of systems and technologies for the support of
the said strategies, the adoption of discerning methods for the management and
development of computerisation projects. Nowadays, without defending the contrary,
we find ourselves unable to answer the question as to what methodology we used in
this or that phase of development of everything we have done over the last few years!
We have the sensation that the method used was certainly one that involved an
amalgamation of everything that we had learnt along the way as we were subjected to
the various methodologies, fashions and trends.
Only a few certainties remain from our COA experience: user and management
participation and responsibility from the very outset, in the conception and
development of applications; the quickest possible development of partial prototypes
of the applications so that requirements can be tested; the use of sampling techniques
and methods which lead to quicker palpable results for the user; a certain amount of
care in elaborating the documentation (which is essential when the user begins to
explore the application). To summarise in just a few words - before, during, after and
always the user first!
Suppliers: the bad guys…
or business partners?
Between "inventing the wheel" and outsourcing of IT solutions we opted to
experiment with intermediary options.
Generally speaking all the applications in use at the COA are similar to many
available on the market or within the Administration itself (resource management,
case monitoring, legislation and jurisprudence). However, there are many differences
from one audit department to another (our basic organisational unit) and the concrete
information needs are so dynamic that we were quickly convinced that adaptating,
configuring and updating any already market-available program whatsoever would
never fully meet our needs, besides which it would place us in a situation of
dependence or give us less flexibility (we had in fact some less positive experiences
with the external acquisition of software).
On the other hand, the limited or non-existent experience of relational data bases and
the respective development tools of the computer personnel (in 1992), raised delicate
problems of compatibility between the training needs for all the technicians and the
necessary experience, and the pressing needs of some application development
projects and the personnel already available at the time.
Given that the best way to learn and use the new tools was to use them, the strategy
adopted was that of "inventing the wheel", or rather, applying the know-how obtained
in the basic training provided by suppliers, and developing projects which were of a
concrete interest, even though they might be applications which the market would
probably be able to provide or develop faster, although with less flexibility, in the
This resulted in the accumulation of knowledge and experience to such an extent that
at this moment the COA is endowed with a remarkable technical autonomy in the
development of its own information systems.
But we did not aspire to inventing the wheel completely on our own! And this is
where our suppliers play an irreplaceable role. On one hand they supplied the basic
training, on the other they actively participated in some projects. Not with the intent
of doing it all themselves, but rather side by side with the Court technicians
responsible for the project in question. With only a few days of consultancy, some of
the projects progressed in leaps and bounds, resulting in the production of prototypes
that were then used as a basis for the independent development of applications. The
result was an unparalleled level of know-how and, at the same time, co-responsibility
of the supplier in the quality of the application.
This idea of our suppliers as "business partners" had been a dominant requisite laid
out in the Requirements that served as a basis for the Public Procurement 1/91 (for the
acquisition of a computer network), sharing the responsibility for the success of the
Procedures of change: Changes of procedure
How many times have we heard it said that procedures must be rationalised before
they are computerised? But if we computerise them rapidly, almost as they are, would
it not then be easier to convince the users (better yet, its managers) to re-think certain
procedures and tasks in light of the technical evidence that they can be carried out in a
totally different way?
The COA's experience in this field is rather distorted, in that the subject of
reorganisation and the restructuring of the Support Services have been rather
dependent on other external variables.
It can be said however, that the change in procedures which is underway, far from
being imposed, has been happening almost naturally, either on the suggestion of the
computer personnel with the desire to rationalise situations, or by insistence of the
users themselves when they realise that their own work can be greatly simplified.
The involvement of the users and the respective managers in the development of the
applications thus results in a privileged opportunity to rationalise methods and
procedures, in that it is much preferable for the process of change to originate from
those who are most interested in the change!
The good relations established between the computer technician and the future user
has led to the situation where, what is ready to change, changes, and what isn't ready...
well... (better days will come!)
Of course we are talking about small changes in procedures, not about global and
intentional changes in the organisational culture! In the case of the latter,
technological solutions may prove to be just one more of the problems rather than a
But changes will come... so they will!
The future: everything... has yet to be done!
By the end of 1998 practically 90% of all of the COA's information systems will be
computerised. What then does the future hold? Everything!
The development of new far more integrated versions of existing programs and the
articulation of the various information systems (Legislation, Jurisprudence and
Doctrine, Management Planning and Assessment and Procedural Management, for
Automatic settlement of Management Accounts, the Consolidation of the General
State Account and the Social Security, Expert Systems of legal analysis on
administrative acts, etc.
And what about technical co-operation between all the public and private bodies,
whether in the realm of information technology or the realm of public state audit
(internal and external) or whether still, in the field of production and distribution of
legal information and jurisprudence?
And when will electronic mail and EDI start being officially used at Public
We will certainly not be short of work nor co-operation opportunities... until the next