The Qualities an Auditor Really Needs

Being a CPA isn’t necessarily one of them. Independence, courage and leadership are more important.

Utah's current state auditor, Austin Johnson, is a certified public accountant. He was defeated in the Republican primary, and neither the man who beat him nor any of the other remaining candidates for the job is a CPA. So after the general election, Utah will become one of two dozen or so states that have as their audit-agency head an individual who is not a CPA.

Critics, among them the Salt Lake Tribune, are flummoxed. They say it's like having a non-attorney as attorney general and that being a CPA should be a constitutional requirement for the job of state auditor. "A professional credential does not guarantee that someone will be a good manager or that he will be ethical or fair or independent," the editors of the Tribune wrote. "But accounting is a profession for a reason." Accounting is indeed a profession. But so is auditing, and they are not the same profession.

Accounting is a critical skill, but given the complexity of government operations, it is by no means the only skill that a modern government audit organization requires. Standards for government audits issued by the comptroller general of the United States provide that the staff assigned to perform an audit "must collectively possess adequate professional competence needed to address the audit objectives and perform the work." But the standards in this area go on to note a number of different types of skills that might be needed, including expertise in statistics, information technology and engineering.

The heads of state audit organizations hold a wide variety of certifications beyond the CPA, and some agency heads hold multiple certifications, such as certified fraud examiner, certified government financial manager and certified information systems auditor. These certifications reflect the wide variety of work done by government audit organizations and in some cases the differences between auditing in the corporate world and in government.

Financial audits generally must be signed by a CPA. States where the agency head is not a CPA accomplish this in several ways. In Illinois, for example, Bill Holland was just appointed by the legislature to his third 10-year term as auditor general. He is not a CPA, and Illinois' financial audits are signed jointly by him and by his director of financial and compliance audits, who is a CPA. In Hawaii, Auditor Marion M. Higa, who also is not a CPA, contracts with a public accounting firm to do that state's financial audits.

Barb Hinton, who was Kansas' state auditor for many years and now is deputy director for performance auditing in the Washington State Auditor's Office, is one of the very best in the business and holds no certification. There also are strong and well respected auditors in local government who are not CPAs, such as Milwaukee County's Jerry Heer and Atlanta's Leslie Ward.

Certainly there are very good state auditors who are
CPAs. California's state auditor, Elaine Howle, is outstanding, but it is not her credential that makes her good. It is her courage and innovative leadership.

Ultimately, qualities like those — not a particular certification someone might hold — are what separate the best auditors from the rest. What the citizens of Utah should be looking for in their state auditor is someone who has courage, competence and integrity. After all, the title isn't "state accountant."