Quis custodiet ipsos custodes: Third party auditing and information, between global forestry standards and local forestry management.

Standards and certification have become an ubiquitous part of the world, covering a wide variety of topics. In this research, we propose to “follow the actors”, observing and interviewing forest management certification auditors from their training to the actual audit of management practices.

Attempts to enhance the sustainability of forest management increasingly focus on certification as 1) a guarantee for consumers, allowing them to make informed decisions about the goods they purchase, 2) a guide for forest managers to meet international expectations of good management practices, and 3) a platform for the development of a consensus around what is important in forestry, and how best to pursue it.

While the processes surrounding the formulation of international standards and procedures have been explored by policy scientists, the academic community has largely failed to explore the key event that makes forest management standards and certification meaningful: the third-party field audit. I want to examine the process of auditing in a very grounded manner, examining the interactions between auditors and forest managers. This has a few important benefits from a research perspective. First, I can base my analysis directly on what auditors and managers say and do, not on reports written by others. Second, it is possible to place the interactions in context, resulting in a more rich and complete picture. Third, this approach involves the managers and auditors in formulating the research. Without these benefits, I might easily be asking the wrong questions resulting in meaningless answers.

My research project seeks to answer three guiding questions:

  1. How are current forest management auditing practices performed in the field?
  2. How do auditors and audits perform enact international forest management standards?
  3. How is auditing information constructed, and what are its effects in and on the auditing process?

To answer these questions, I am interested in opportunities to observe audits as they take place in practice. I hope to observe at least 2 major audits (not yearly or surveillance audits) of major certification schemes. Locations are meant to span a variety of geographical locations. During the audit, I would be a silent observer. However, in order to gain insight into how actors explain what is done, I would like to have interviews before, during, and after the audit of both auditors and managers. Needless to say, the information from this work will be kept anonymous unless the interviewee states otherwise, and will abide by national confidentiality laws.

The information obtained during the audits and the interviews will be analysed to grasp what is done and how auditing actions relate to the development of the information that goes into an audit report. Furthermore, I am interested in how actors explain their actions and how they make sense of the auditing process. The analyses will be first sent to the participants, then (attempted to be) published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, finally being used in my PhD thesis.