23 July 2019

In search of a seamless relationship between Operational Management, Risk Management and Internal Audit.

I continue to be amazed by the too frequent disconnect between Internal Audit, Risk Management, and Operational Management. The artificial, though regulator sanctified, “second line” and “third line” functions are too often used to justify two (complementary) functions seeking complete independence from each other, independence that can undermine the effective identification and management of risks.

Operational Management (OM) is responsible for delivering the objectives of the organisation, and specifically the objectives of their function(s). Risk Management (RM) provides support to OM by providing the framework for identifying and helping OM determine and implement the most appropriate management strategies to cover the risks to the accomplishment of the objectives. Internal Audit (IA), by focusing limited resources on the areas of highest risk, confirms that key controls are in place and that they are functioning effectively to ensure that risks to the achievement of objectives are managed within the risk appetite of the business.

Within that previous paragraph, there are a number of important words and concepts, too frequently considered separately, when they should be viewed as part of a seamless set of processes and responsibilities. Sadly too often the three are not seen as part of that seamless delivery, with the second two being detached from OM and from each other.

Operational Management is responsible for delivery of results, and as such is provided with resources (budget) that are almost always limited in relation to the provision of any “extras”. Managers face annual budget challenges, and not infrequently are asked to make “savings”. Sometimes this can (sacrilege) include reducing headcount or increasing the level of output expected without increasing resources. Frequently it is the control environment that suffers when this happens. 

Risk Management can help OM to identify and consider the risks that they face, and can assist OM in identifying the controls that would be needed to manage the risks to the level acceptable within the business’s risk appetite. It remains, however, OM’s responsibility to implement the controls and to ensure the controls are functioning. RM can, and should, provide ongoing monitoring at an observation level of the risks and controls across the business.

(There is, of course, also the critical role that RM plays in the identification and mitigation of Emerging Risks and External Risks, but for our purposes here, we are looking only at the internal relationships and management of risks.)

RM confirms with OM that the control environment is functioning, as confirmed by OM and reviewed selectively by RM. The assessment of the current status of any risk is the responsibility of OM who own the risk and who is responsible for managing the risk. RM can suggest alternative views on the effectiveness of the management or the risks, both to OM and to senior management and the Board, but ultimately OM is responsible for the risks and controls. Furthermore, OM is responsible for determining how the provided resources will be applied for the achievement of objectives.

In this the assessment of the effectiveness of the control environment if firstly the responsibility of OM, and unless there is a fundamental disagreement with RM, it is OM's prerogative as to how resources should be applied. This includes the development and implementation of controls. While RM (and IA) can recommend, as it is OM that ultimately carries the responsibility, it is OM's decision. Escalation is appropriate only when there is a fundamental disagreement between RM (and IA) and OM.

Of course, it is appropriate that the Board be provided with additional comfort that the control environment is effective. Sadly the conflicting priorities of OM can lead to misreporting or inaccurate reporting of the effectiveness of the control environment. Likewise, limited RM resources can provide a general level of comfort that risks are identified, and that controls appropriate to the risk appetite have been implemented. 

This means that, while RM can and does support the implementation and operation of a framework for identifying and managing risks, it may be outside RM's resources to perform "deep-dives" into all areas of risk.

I am reminded of a bank that told their regulator that they treated all customers as "high risk" customers for due diligence purposed. The regulator's response was that if all customers were "high risk", then no customers were, and the real "high risk" customers would slip past the due diligence process. The bank was required to segment its customers and implement a higher level of due diligence than they had been performing.

IA’s role is to fill the gaps and to provide additional assurance that key controls in high-risk areas are functioning as per asserted by OM and that such controls are functioning with the risk appetite. So, IA’s role is the provision a “deep-dive” assessments of high-risk areas, to ensure that the key risks have been identified, that appropriate responses have been considered and agreed, and that controls have been put in place that brings management of the risks within risk appetite.

To summarise then:

  1. OM is responsible for delivering business objectives,
  2. OM applies limited resources to accomplish this,
  3. RM assists OM in identifying and assessing risks to the accomplishment of objectives,
  4. OM provides RM (and others) with regular reporting to confirm that objectives will be achieved within the acceptable risk appetite,
  5. RM confirms that risk across the enterprise is being managed within risk appetite, as reported by OM and as reviewed by RM,
  6. IA provides detailed “deep dive” assessments of the effectiveness of controls in the highest risk areas of the business, or where there may be limited confidence that risks are being managed within risk appetite,
  7. OM, RM and IA jointly provide assurance to the Board that there can be a reasonable expectation that business objectives will be accomplished with risk appetite.

A quick word about risk appetite: the risk appetite of the enterprise is set by the Board (with the assistance of senior management and RM) and it is the responsibility of OM to deliver objectives within that risk appetite. 

This means that RM should continuously confirm that OM understands the risk appetite as it applies to their areas and objectives, and should confirm that there is an effective control environment commensurate with the level of risk and the enterprise’s risk appetite. OM does not set the risk appetite; neither does RM or IA.

Being practical, this influences the reporting to the Board on risk and the effectiveness of the system of internal controls. Some practical suggestions that come from this:

  1. All IA findings should include discussion of the risks that have been identified,
  2. There is an IA finding only if the control environment is failing (or is expected to fail) to manage identified risks within risk appetite,
  3. All actions agreed by OM should be reflected against the risks as recorded and managed through the risk register,
  4. All IA findings and actions should be recorded against their associated risks, or new risks should be added to the risk register where there is no corresponding risk,
  5. OM and RM then need to update their review processes to ensure that the identified risk and mitigation is actually functioning.
  6. Where IA has requested confirmation of the implementation of new or updated controls, this should be provided.
  7. Annual review and approval of the updated risk appetite should then drive a review by OM and RM of the risk and control environment and will inform the IA review cycle by potentially changing the perceived highest risk areas.

These steps will lead to a more seamless integration of OM, RM and IA, and will improve both relationships at the operational level, and provider greater confidence to the Board that the control environment if well established, operating and being effectively monitored. 

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