When you make the decision to seek third-party assurance for your sustainability reporting, you have a range of options on how to proceed. There are various standards, but no single accepted and prescriptive approach for assurance and verification. So how can you know the best way to proceed? Despite the lack of a single, accepted approach, there are a few important elements of an effective approach that organizations can use to achieve their assurance and verification goals.
Define your Objectives. Clearly defining your goals for assurance will help you determine the scope, including the level of assurance and the boundaries of both the reporting and external review. If you have specific stakeholders to satisfy for all or part of your reported information, be sure to discuss this with your assurance provider before starting the process. For example, if you plan to submit your assurance letter to the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) as evidence of verification of your greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions data, the assurance must be conducted in accordance with an acceptable standard, as defined by CDP. If your stakeholders are interested in a particular aspect of your reporting, then you may want to consider an in-depth assurance of this subject area.
Plan Ahead. An assurance plan will define what, when and where various assurance activities will take place. Developing a detailed plan that can be worked on with your assurance provider, will help ensure that you allow sufficient time to complete the process before your reporting deadline. Coordinating schedules with the assurer, site contacts, data and text owners, managers and others involved in the process is an essential part of your planning. Many companies have found it useful to conduct site visits early in the process rather than waiting for an entire year’s data to be submitted. Since the assurer is examining processes as well as data, a full year of data is not typically needed for a thorough review at the site level.
Use a Collaborative Approach. Your assurer will want to fully understand the processes used for gathering data and other information, from the site level through to final consolidation and reporting. Open communication helps ensure that issues are discussed as they arise to allow time for appropriate corrections to be made. Generally, the more open the reporter is with the assurer, the more they get out of the process. Likewise the assurer also should encourage an open channel of communication for this purpose.
Learn from the Process. Effective third-party assurance will ultimately result in increased credibility, greater reliability of the information contained in the report and increased efficiencies in the reporting processes. The assurance statement provides your stakeholders with information on the process and the conclusions of the assurance. A more detailed management report combined with interaction with your assurer throughout the process will often provide further insight on continuing to improve your sustainability reporting process.
Based on your experience with third-party verifications what other advice do you have for ensuring an effective assurance process?