Finance

Focusing on Accountability

By the time Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell left office in 2000 -- riding a bribery and tax-evasion scandal out the door and into federal prison --...
by | May 31, 2008
 

By the time Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell left office in 2000 -- riding a bribery and tax-evasion scandal out the door and into federal prison -- it was safe to say that the city didn't have a reputation for high performance. In addition to his ethical lapses, Campbell left Atlanta in fiscal disarray.

Among his administrative failings was his ironclad opposition to funding a key position -- city auditor -- that had been created on his watch through a citizen-led city charter committee. He didn't just overlook the job opening. From 1996 -- when the citizen charter committee mandated the auditor position -- to 2000, when Campbell left office in disgrace, he had managed to fend off all attempts to fill the post. It wasn't until Shirley Franklin, a reform candidate, was swept into the mayoral office in 2001, that an auditor was finally hired.

In adding an auditor to the organizational chart, Atlanta joined dozens of other jurisdictions hoping that such an office would help bring about more open, accountable and performance-driven government. The auditor, it was thought, would be responsible for looking into Atlanta's fiscal affairs, as well as how the city managed a host of jobs, from running its sewer and water department to building its budgets.

Hiring an auditor is a key step for a city in trouble, say advocates for performance auditing, such as Mark Funkhouser, formerly the auditor for Kansas City, Missouri, and now its mayor. Funkhouser's prescription for improved governance includes a strong dose of performance auditing -- not the kind of bean counting that has gone on in the past but bold, high-level audits that probe the broader questions of government performance and accountability. "Auditors have to raise their sights," says Funkhouser. "They have to look at the jurisdiction as a whole and aim for relevance."

Taking the High Road

That was what Leslie Ward had in mind when Atlanta's city council asked her to take on the job as the first city auditor. Ward inherited a small staff of auditors from the city's finance department that, as a group, had been focused more on accounting for dollars than on the broad issues of higher-level government performance. And so one of Ward's initial jobs was simply to get the new office up to speed -- to retrain some staff and add others so that the city auditor's office could fulfill the overarching role of looking at how government operates.

It didn't take long for her office to aim high. Among her first audits was looking at the city's contracting and procurement process in the wake of the Campbell administration's meltdown. Most recently, she's done an audit of the city's budget process -- discovering that city officials are playing a bit too fast and loose with rosy revenue projections.

Six years into the job, Ward is credited with helping set a new standard for openness and performance in Atlanta. Among her biggest backers are members of the city council, including Howard Shook, head of the council's finance committee. "She plays a very important role," he says. "It is very comforting to us to get an independent opinion on the performance of some program or other, especially around budget time."

Still, there are important ways in which the city is not using Ward's office as well as it could. It has not, for instance, asked Ward and her staff to help guide its budding performance-measurement effort known as AtlStat, which is a mayoral initiative. So far, the auditor's input has been minimal. "We sometimes look at the relevant measures as part of a performance audit," Ward says. "We've recommended measures for a couple of functions that we've audited."

But advocates of performance auditing argue that it makes sense to have an auditor fully involved in developing measures for "stat" programs right from the start. That way, auditors are familiar with the measures and are in a position to make suggestions related to whether those measures are relevant and whether they can be audited.

The fact that Ward hasn't been brought in on AtlStat in a big way suggests that the executive branch in Atlanta still harbors a sentiment toward auditors that is not uncommon among managers. That is, auditors are not seen as partners in good government but rather as pesky "gotcha" artists whose main job is to make headlines by nailing public officials for deficiencies real and perceived.

A Question of Trust

Mike Lawson, who oversees the International City/County Management Association's comparative measurement project, suggests that anyone who believes auditors when they say they're there just to lend a hand in forging more responsive government should take a look in the dictionary under "auditor."

"It really depends on what you expect out of your performance-measurement system," he says, "and it also goes to how you view human behavior, especially the behavior of civil servants."

Lawson thinks that a strong manager leading good people is perfectly capable of encouraging strong, results-focused and open government on his own. Indeed, just having an auditor suggests a fundamental lack of trust in the competence or motives of public officials, Lawson argues. Auditors, he adds, "come to their jobs from the standpoint that all civil servants are short, brutish and lazy."

Worse, he says, they actually can stifle good performance by, in effect, rewarding civil servants who stay in line and don't try to do things differently. "If the threat of a stick is there," he says, "then the goal of the job ceases to be to provide better service. Your job becomes laying low and not taking risks."

He's far from alone in holding a negative view of the effect auditors have on the governmental process. According to members of the Association of Local Government Auditors, city managers in places such as Richmond, California; Eugene, Oregon; and Vancouver, Washington, have successfully fought efforts to create auditor offices.

Even auditing advocates agree that auditors who spend time chasing after low-level actors for nickels and dimes aren't just causing petty friction between themselves and those they're overseeing. They're missing the whole point of the job. "Auditors who are trying to do things like improve controls on credit cards," Funkhouser says, "are pointy-headed little banes of our existence."

It's not that an auditor's role shouldn't be antagonistic at times, notes Paul Epstein, who runs a management consulting firm that is working on a national project to help public-sector auditors improve government performance. But auditors should pick their fights. "When you talk about how to inspire state and local government to become more performance- and results-oriented, there are lots of ways to do that," Epstein says, "An auditor can be a good force for that, but they still sometimes need to get people's attention."

A Delicate Balance

Steve Morgan, the veteran auditor for Austin, Texas, says he has seen a shift in the role of auditors since the Enron and WorldCom meltdowns. In the 1990s, he spent a lot of time in a consulting role. One audit evaluated the city of Austin's performance-management system. "Those were very client-friendly audits," he says, "where we helped budget offices improve their systems."

In the wake of Enron, "our priorities changed from improvement and accountability to accountability and improvement," he says, adding that having accountability as the top priority "is a tougher pill for managers to swallow." For example, one of Morgan's more recent audits looked at employee safety citywide. Not every department came off looking good. "Some agencies," Morgan says, "were really costing us a lot of money in terms of workmen's compensation."

Gary Blackmer, the longtime and elected auditor in Portland, Oregon, has been doing the "accountability-improvement" balancing act for years. He realizes there are days when some government official or another might not be happy to see him stop by. But he views himself more as an investigator than a prosecutor. "Auditors are good at troubleshooting, and a good city manager needs to have someone doing that. If the auditor isn't in 'gotcha' mode, then he can help in working toward improved operations."

The extent to which an auditor is able to walk the line between improving operations, on the one hand, and the more traditional role of crusading against waste, fraud and abuse, on the other, depends on a couple of things. First, how the auditor himself views his role. And second, how city officials choose to view and use their auditing shop.

For example, just a few months ago, Lawrence, Kansas, hired its first-ever auditor. David Corliss, the city manager, could have bridled at what some would perceive as a vote of no confidence by the city's elected leadership in his management skills. Instead, he took a positive stance and announced that he was looking forward to working with the new auditor, Michael Eglinski, who used to work with Funkhouser in Kansas City. "It is a good step in a progressive, high-functioning, high-performing organization," Corliss says, "to have someone who reports directly to the elected board and who looks at performance and can make constructive critical comments to improve the organization. It helps sharpen the whole operation."

Corliss adds that he's making that assessment on the assumption that Eglinski, as a seasoned and well-respected performance auditor, isn't going to spend time trying to discover whether "Corliss really did eat two cheeseburgers on the city's dime," but rather will be looking at issues such as "are we spending the right amount of money on cement and cops."

As Atlanta's auditor, Leslie Ward has been dragged into some classic auditor-versus-executive investigations. One of the recent ones: looking into credit card use in the mayor's office. That's just the sort of bean-counter audit that veterans such as Funkhouser think are a waste of time and distract auditors from spurring governments to better performance.

In the main, though, Ward says she has aimed for audits that help improve some of the fundamental citywide systems. One target on the horizon could be AtlStat. So far, that program has proved to be a very internal and closed process. According to Councilman Shook and others, not even the city council has been briefed on the "stat" effort, which is potentially the most powerful vehicle the city has for illustrating its commitment to both results and transparency.

At some point -- given the time and resources -- Ward and her posse will begin taking a specific look at how agencies have responded to the AtlStat process. The enlightened agencies will embrace the help. The others, as Shook puts it, "might be less than excited to see her coming down the hallway."

These articles are part of a continuing series on public performance measurement focusing on citizen involvement. Support has been provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Although the foundation may assist some of the programs described in these articles, it had no control or influence over the editorial content, and no one at Sloan read the material prior to publication. All reporting and editing was done independently by Governing staff.

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