Activist Auditors Are Making Their Mark

A new crop is redefining the role.
June 2019
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Publisher
Former mayor of Kansas City, Mo.

Back in 1991, a political science professor named Edward M. Wheat published an article that got a lot of people worked into a lather. The article, in Public Administration Review, was met with alarm and consternation starting right from its title: “The Activist Auditor: A New Player in State and Local Politics.” Government auditors weren’t supposed to be “activists” or “players,” and they sure weren’t supposed to be involved in politics. They were supposed to be passive observers and commenters after the fact. (The well-worn joke was that auditors were the ones who came onto the battlefield after the fight and bayoneted the wounded.)

But Wheat’s article was not a prescription. It was a description of something that was already happening, the “dramatic emergence of performance auditing and the activist auditor as central features of American government.” Activist auditing was proactive and holistic, identifying social and policy problems and going beyond traditional mandates. It saw as its clients the public and its representatives, rather than the agency or the manager being audited.

While this might sound arcane, it is actually easy to explain to voters, and they tend to like what they hear. Established political leaders are often less welcoming. That’s how things played out in Atlanta. In 1996, the city’s voters approved the creation of an independent auditor’s office, but then-Mayor Bill Campbell kept the post from being filled. It wasn’t until Shirley Franklin became mayor in 2001 that Atlanta hired Leslie Ward, and the office has been an exemplar for other cities ever since.

Ward had been my deputy when I was serving as the auditor of Kansas City, Mo. When she was hired away to Atlanta, one of her most important early moves was bringing in Amanda Noble, then an audit manager in Kansas City, as her deputy. Over more than 15 years in the job, Ward issued high-impact performance audits that earned her operation the trust of the city council. Two years ago, Ward retired, and Noble was appointed auditor herself. She has continued Ward’s commendable work.

Like many performance auditors, Noble is not an accountant. She has an undergraduate degree in social work and a master’s in public administration. She is smart and analytical, with a strong public-service ethic. She’s also a little introverted. That’s not unusual; performance auditors are generally not showboats. When King County, Wash., Auditor Kymber Waltmunson spoke at an Association of Local Government Auditors conference a couple years back, she looked out at the crowd of 400 and declared it “a critical mass of nerdiness.”

The nerds have certainly been busy in Atlanta. Over the past year, Noble’s office has issued high-profile audits of airport construction contracts, water quality testing, affordable housing initiatives and the use of police body cameras. The airport is undergoing a $6 billion expansion, and Noble’s audit found red flags in contracting, leading the city council to give her office more money to conduct procurement reviews. The performance audit of police body cameras found, among other problems, that officers wearing them captured video for only 33 percent of calls.

Those kinds of audits can threaten political agendas, of course. That’s why, as Wheat wrote, an auditor’s placement in the government structure “will always be problematic.” Atlanta affords strong protection. The auditor has a five-year term, is hired by and reports to a five-member independent committee, and can be removed only for cause by a two-thirds vote of the city council.

Wheat wrote that “we should welcome the emergence of new players” who have “a bias toward disclosure.” His subversive little article continues to resonate, and public officials who want responsive, evidence-based government should be glad of that. Those who already have an activist performance-audit organization should support it. Those who don’t could do worse than to look to Atlanta for a model of how to build one.