A Crucial Player in Effective Governance

To see how much impact an auditor can have in improving the way government is run, look no further than California's Elaine Howle.
by , | November 15, 2012 AT 1:59 PM

Over the past 18 years, Governing has honored about 160 public servants as Public Officials of the Year, among them governors, mayors, city managers, state legislators, county commissioners, city planners and information-technology directors. But at this year's Public Officials of the Year event tonight in Washington, D.C., I'll be introducing only the second state auditor we've honored.

California's Elaine M. Howle represents the best of what government auditing can do to support effective governance. Ryan Holeywell's profile of Howle captures the essence of what she has accomplished. "For 12 years and through three governors and six legislative sessions," Holeywell writes, "Howle has worked tirelessly to root out wasteful spending and failing programs, and to find ways to make government run better."

The work of auditors like Elaine Howle, those who excel at making government run better, is defined by three characteristics: credibility, relevance and visibility.

An auditor whom no one believes is worthless. In search of credibility, auditors have built mountains of policies and procedures around referencing and cross-referencing and fact-checking and double-checking. When I first became an auditor, I was astounded at the levels of review that a draft audit report had to go through. And it seems like every time government auditing standards are revised, another layer of procedures is added. These rules are important, but there is a downside: The drive to be right can turn into the fear of being wrong to the point that the auditor ends up reporting with dead certainty on trivia. That can render audit work irrelevant.

California Auditor Elaine Howle  
California Auditor Elaine Howle
But relevance is essential. Good auditors will tell you that their job is "to speak truth to power." I would finish that phrase with "about things that matter." This requires auditors to have courage and confidence in the quality of their work. Major issues are by definition controversial. For every huge challenge, there are going to be people who vehemently disagree not only on possible solutions but on the nature and scope of the problem--and sometimes on whether the problem even exists.

Confidence is a two-way street, and that's where visibility comes in. An invisible auditor cannot inspire confidence among the other players in the governance process. And work that is absolutely correct in addressing major issues is worthless if no one knows it exists. Auditors are incredibly conflicted about this point, but to me it is absolutely clear. I'm not talking about grandstanding or self-promotion, but the head auditor must vigorously defend the audit organization and promote adoption of its recommendations.

A key element of this is building relationships with well regarded good-government groups. They can leverage the work of the auditor in ways that he or she cannot, and they can engage in the political debate in ways the auditor cannot.

In 2008, for example, California Common Cause was the architect of a ballot initiative that has transformed the way political redistricting is done in the state. The initiative specified that Howle's office would screen and assemble the group of citizens for the new redistricting commission. Howle's office embraced its new responsibility, writes Holeywell. As Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause and architect of the ballot initiative, put it, "They were very diligent and thorough about this whole process. It ended up being the thing that increased people's confidence in the commission."

Credibility, relevance and visibility: Each of these is tricky to do, and yet the good auditor must pull off all three of them simultaneously, and the performance must be sustained and consistent. In a huge state with an incredibly complex political scene, Elaine Howle has been hitting that trifecta for years.

This column has been corrected to indicate that Elaine Howle is the second state auditor to be honored as a Governing Public Official of the Year rather than the first.