You Won the Election. Now Go Meet Your Auditor.

Auditors can flush out government's fat rabbits and lurking demons. But they can do a lot more than that: They can help you govern effectively.
by , | November 8, 2012

When Emanuel Cleaver was elected mayor of Kansas City in 1991, it was his prerogative to create the city-council committee structure and appoint the committees' members. He created a new committee called Rules and Audit and assigned four brand-new council members to it, with George Blackwood as chair. The power committees on the council were the Finance Committee and the Plans and Zoning Committee. Rules and Audit was seen as a bit of a backwater, with its purview combining a number of the seemingly less important aspects of city government.

I was the city auditor at the time, and in Kansas City the auditor serves at the pleasure of the mayor and council. So once they had been sworn in, I paid a visit to Blackwood. I introduced myself and said that, in essence, as city auditor I worked for him. He was a little taken aback and asked, "Well, that's great, but what do you do?" I told him I did performance auditing. "What is that?" he asked. I gave a brief description of the nature of our office's work, and he scheduled an executive session of the committee to discuss my work and to set expectations regarding my performance. Once the doors were closed, I told the committee members, "Audit is an instrument of power." I'll never forget the response of Ron Finley, a council member from a district in the inner city. He sat up, leaned forward, and said, "I heard that!"

I recall this story because, while a gazillion words are being written about the presidential election, thousands of men and women have just been elected as mayors, city council members, county executives and county commissioners. A good many of those people, hopefully the vast majority, ran because they wanted to be part of the process of improving their communities. They want to govern well, make sound policy decisions and see that those decisions are efficiently and effectively implemented. The auditor can help them do that.

When he was comptroller general of the United States and therefore head of the Government Accountability Office, David M. Walker described GAO's mission as that of giving "government decision-makers, and the public as well, the professional, objective, fact-based, nonpartisan, nonideological, fair, balanced, and reliable information they need to make timely and informed decisions." That's a pretty fair description of the work of an auditor, and the key word in that description is "information." Many people have a vague but narrow view of auditing as something akin to accounting. It is actually much broader. At their best, audit organizations can provide a wide variety of insight, oversight and foresight functions.

A newly elected local-government official should call the auditor in and ask the following sorts of questions:

• "Whom do you work for?" Some local government auditors are internal auditors working for management--for example, an elected executive or a professional manager such as a city administrator--and some work for the legislative body, independent of management. In many cases, the skills required and the work performed are similar. but obviously the priorities of the auditor may differ depending the structure of the office. Every jurisdiction of any size needs an independent auditor as a check on management.

• "What auditing standards do you follow?" This question is critical because it gives you a gauge of how professional the audit office is. An internal-audit function may follow the "Red Book" standards of the Institute of Internal Auditors. An independent audit function will follow the "Yellow Book," the governmental auditing standards issued by the federal government. Every audit office should follow some form of standards; unfortunately, many do not.

• "What do I need to know that I don't know?" Every jurisdiction has "fat rabbits" and "lurking demons." Fat rabbits are opportunities to improve or save money that have been overlooked by elected officials because the people who know that things could be different hope no one will notice how fat and happy they are. Lurking demons are problems that are under the surface but that will inevitably rise up and bite the jurisdiction.

• "Here are my priorities. What audit work have you've done that is relevant to them? What do you see as our biggest challenges? And how has your audit work addressed these challenges?"

George Blackwood used to say that before he met me he didn't know performance auditing from dog poop, but that he learned that it's both good government and good politics. He should know. During his first term, he made Rules and Audit arguably the most powerful committee on the city council. In his second term, he got the mayor to put the audit function under the Finance Committee and appoint him as chair. And Blackwood had a significant positive impact on the financial position of the city through such measures as building up reserve funds and pressuring staff to substantially reduce weaknesses in the city's financial reporting.

Auditing is about trying to determine what reality is and what to do about that reality. That is also the essence of governing in a representative democracy. A newly elected council member or mayor should be as able to articulate what the auditor brings to the table as he or she can articulate what the police chief brings to the table.

Mark Funkhouser  |  Director, GOVERNING Institute
mfunkhouser@governing.com  | 
Mark Funkhouser  |  Director, GOVERNING Institute
mfunkhouser@governing.com  | 

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