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A Conversation With Gary Blackmer, One of America's Performance Management Leaders

Gary Blackmer talks about auditing police, changes in the field and the toughest parts of the job.

(FlickrCC/Oregon Department of Transportation)
For the past 30 years, Oregon’s Gary Blackmer -- a nationally recognized authority on performance management and auditing -- has served in high-level positions at the city, county and state levels. He has been the elected auditor of Portland, Ore., as well as Multnomah County, and most recently served as director of Oregon’s audits division, a position within the secretary of state’s office.

When we heard he was retiring from his position as Oregon state auditor at the end of this year, we decided it was a good time to ask him some questions about his experiences as an auditor and what he’s learned. 

The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

If you could talk to your younger self, what advice would you give?

Stick to the standards and principles of auditing -- independence and objectivity. Independence and objectivity will carry you through the stormiest interactions. If people know you’re talking from facts and you’re independent, they’ll trust you.

What kind of stormy interactions did you experience in your early career?

Early on in Portland, we audited the police bureau, and the police chief fought us tooth and nail. He was asking for 200 more police officers in his budget. We did an audit that indicated his current workforce could be used much more wisely. He yelled at us, and he tried to suppress the audit. He sent over staff to examine all our work to find errors. I was always worried, but my boss at the time, Dick Tracy, was so cool and calm through the whole thing. It was a huge learning experience and ultimately, the mayor sided with us and fired the police chief.

Can you think of any lessons you learned that would help young auditors starting out today?

One of the problems with that police audit was that we were caught off guard because we were dealing with a liaison and communicating our findings to that person -- not to the chief. The liaison wasn’t communicating back to him. That was a fundamental lesson I learned -- that bad news does not always travel up an organization.

Aside from conflict with agencies you’re auditing, what are some other difficult parts about being an auditor?

One of the sad things about being an auditor is you’re always trying to learn from the past to prevent bad things from happening in the future and you’re helping organizations to be more vigilant and take steps to prevent future problems. If you’re really good at your job, fewer bad things happen. But no one gets credit for that. There’s no news story when a bad thing is averted.

What have been the biggest changes in the auditing profession since you started out?

The profession has grown immensely. When I started, the government audit standards were really thin, and while the notion of performance auditing [evaluating the effectiveness and efficiency of a program] was always there, it hadn’t really been formalized. It has really grown. It’s no longer just going into an organization with a specific and narrow objective but scoping out where the biggest problems are. When we audit an organization today, we develop a really broad understanding of what’s working and what’s not working.

One of the things we’ve done more of recently is work environment surveys. We ask the employees what’s working or not. Do you have a clear understanding of expectations? Do you get feedback on what you are doing well and what you could be doing better? What are the supports you need? 

When we go into an organization, we bring agency heads a little bit of reality that they haven’t seen before. Some agency heads fool themselves -- there’s an illusion that everything is going fine. 

Since you’ve just spent 30 years looking at management problems in a wide variety of agencies, what do you think is the best advice you could give to governmental organizations?

People at the top of the organization need to talk to their frontline staff. The mission of the organization is carried out by the people who actually interact with the public. If you don’t talk with the frontlines, bad news gets watered down or filtered out. That’s the biggest lesson I’d share with managers. You need to understand what’s really going on. 

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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