Why Government Watchdogs Are Worried

Budget cuts and political retaliation, they say, are endangering their jobs and their ability to uncover information.
September 2017
Elaine Howle, California's auditor, says resistance to efforts to audit performance has been "chilling." (AP)
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

You can hardly bring up the subject of government without hearing people tell you how inefficient and unproductive their states or localities are. We’re not going to debate that point (again), though regular readers of this column have a notion that we believe in the power of states and localities to do a great deal of good. But we do find it ironic that many of the news articles that lead people to a negative impression are based on information provided by governments in the first place, much of it through audits and reports.

Performance audits and reports are among the most helpful and thorough sources for information -- both positive and negative -- about how well state and local agencies are being run. At a time when many cities, counties and states feel that they are under siege by the frustrations of an untrusting citizenry, it shouldn’t be a surprise that one of the primary concerns for auditors’ offices is their own independence.

They have every reason to be worried. Based on our own personal observations (there’s no hard data to be found), resistance to the efforts of performance auditors seems more prevalent than ever. When auditors’ budgets are held hostage by legislatures or city councils, auditors have diminished capacity to choose the topics to be reviewed.

In addition to budgetary challenges, a number of auditors’ offices complain about the resistance they are receiving from the agencies with whom they must work in order to do their jobs. It’s a major challenge, for example, when auditors can’t get the data they request in a timely manner. Similarly, in order to gather the information they need to audit a department in a fair and effective way, auditors must speak with staffers. But increasingly managers want to be present at these conversations, a situation Elaine Howle, auditor of California, describes as “chilling.” Over the last couple of years, she says, “we’ve had to fight these battles more and more.” Howle recently found her office entangled in a much publicized battle with the state’s university system, which auditors found to be repeatedly uncooperative.

“Some tension between my office and those we oversee is natural and means the office is doing its job,” Rebecca Otto, Minnesota’s auditor, wrote in an email. “However, natural tension can lead to political retribution.” The capacity of Otto’s office to do its job well was diminished just a couple of years ago when the Minnesota Legislature added a last-minute provision to an omnibus finance bill. The law gave counties the ability to choose their own auditors and bypass the clearly independent oversight of the state office. Otto has twice appealed this decision and is now bringing her case to the state Supreme Court.

The Association of Local Government Auditors (ALGA) deals with these concerns all the time. When performance auditors rile mayors and department heads with negative audits, retaliation can come in the form of budget cuts, slow action on personnel requests or even suggestions that auditor functions be eliminated. David Jones, Seattle city auditor and chair of ALGA’s advocacy committee, says, “We frequently find that local government auditors are under attack.”

ALGA President Tina Adams admits this “causes me to lose sleep.” She says that auditors have to be independent, both in appearance and in fact. “If the public does not perceive that an auditor has integrity and is objective, or if they think the auditor has been compromised in some way,” she says, “it can erode the confidence they have in the organization.”

One community in which the auditor’s role has been a hot topic lately is Lawrence, Kan., which has a population of 90,000 and is home of the University of Kansas. In an article in the Lawrence Journal-World, City Manager Tom Markus claimed that a city auditor was not needed to evaluate the city’s performance and that there are other ways to do this. He also made it clear that cutting the audit office would not jeopardize the annual financial audit, which is contracted out to a financial audit firm.

The future of the Lawrence auditor’s position is still uncertain. The former auditor, Michael Eglinski, left the embattled office a couple of months ago to take another audit job, even as the city council considered its position. “I hope that at some point in the future they will add funding and fill the position,” Eglinski says. “I think the function supports the governing body’s ability to provide oversight and strengthens the performance and credibility of the entire organization.”

As you might expect, not all the news from the “Land of Audit” has been bad. On May 16, 86 percent of voters in Portland, Ore., approved a measure that provides the auditor’s office with more control over its budgeting, human resources and contracting. The office will be getting a new staff attorney, who will operate independently of the city attorney. That’s as it should be, says Portland Auditor Mary Hull Caballero. “People need information they can rely on that is produced at a very high quality.”