Auditing Performance

In the ongoing debate over which came first, government opacity or citizen apathy, there are two basic schools of thought: One side argues that citizens...
by | October 1, 2006 AT 1:00 AM

In the ongoing debate over which came first, government opacity or citizen apathy, there are two basic schools of thought: One side argues that citizens have checked out because they've been so effectively blocked by government from weighing in on issues, both large and small. The other camp argues that citizens themselves are to blame; that they're too distracted, too busy and too self-absorbed to get involved.

Whatever the case, Washington State has decided to make the first move in a one-of-a-kind experiment that seeks to bring citizens back into the decision-making fold.

The opportunity has arrived in the form of a voter initiative passed last fall that grants state auditor Brian Sonntag both sweeping new performance audit powers and a dedicated revenue stream with which to pursue those audits -- about $10 million per year from state sales taxes.

Sonntag, for his part, says he's committed to aggressively courting citizens by involving them at key junctures throughout the auditing process, whether it's choosing which entities and operations to audit, deciding specifically what to investigate in those audits or determining whether or not anything actually changed for the better in the wake of the audits.

The commitment of resources alone is astonishing, says Relmond P. Van Daniker, executive director of the Association of Government Accountants, vastly outstripping the coffers of any other state auditing operation in the country. But it's Sonntag's citizen-driven approach to the audits that will be watched most closely, Van Daniker believes. "It's an interesting project," he says. "I think the lessons that are going to be gleaned would stand a lot of other jurisdictions quite well."

A 50-Year Audit Cycle

The ballot initiative -- I 900 -- was yet another in a string of successful measures backed by renowned (and frequently reviled) radio talk show host and gadfly Tim Eyman. But unlike past Eyman-backed initiatives -- which have typically been focused on simply starving government of revenues -- this one was aimed at creating more open government, and it actually had the endorsement of key government officials, both in the executive and legislative branches.

"It's the only Eyman initiative that I've ever supported," says state Representative Mark Miloscia, an eight-year veteran of the legislature. "And it reflects what I've been telling my colleagues for years: that citizens of our state want government to improve and that the use of independent audits is a way to do that."

In fact, supporters of I 900 contend that the initiative was the direct result of what has been a relatively anemic approach to performance auditing in Washington. Sonntag -- who holds an elective office -- says he has been advocating for a more sweeping push on performance audits for more than a decade, and for most of that time, he's been roundly ignored, particularly by the state legislature, which has exerted substantial control over both his mandate and his budget.

In part, the legislature's lack of enthusiasm hinged on the fact that it has its own audit oversight function through a joint legislative audit committee (called "JLARCs" in the legislative auditing business), an institution best known statewide for its lack of effectiveness. "The joint legislative audit committee's methodology is to talk to the wrong people and ask them the wrong question," cracks one close observer of the oversight body in Olympia.

Miloscia confirms the characterization. "I used to be on the JLARC," he says, with obvious disdain. First, he notes, the choice of audit targets is always highly political, and therefore of dubious value from the outset. Second, "they're on a 50-year audit cycle." That is, the JLARC's less-than-ambitious goal is to audit all of state government every 50 years. It's not a system that exactly inspires citizen confidence, he says.

And so between an auditor without fangs and a legislative oversight committee without heart, Washington government-reform advocates argued that the state has been something less than a model of accountability. And it was clearly a place ready for an I 900-style reform.

The measure provides the state auditor with a dedicated source of funding -- 0.16 percent of state sales and use tax revenues annually. It also states that the scope of audits won't be limited, but will include investigating the following: cost savings; best practices; services that can be reduced or eliminated; services that can be transferred to the private sector; gaps or overlaps in programs and services; the feasibility of pooling information technology systems; opportunities to change or eliminate departmental roles or functions; statutory or regulatory changes that may be necessary for the department to properly carry out its function; and analyzing departmental performance data, performance measures and self-assessment systems.

Ambitious Lineup

Given that the purpose of performance audits is to build overall confidence in government operations, Sonntag argues that getting citizens more involved makes perfect sense. "Civic engagement is the biggest piece of what we're trying to accomplish," says Sonntag. "We're going out and not just communicating to citizens what we're doing but listening to them through structured mechanisms like polls, focus groups and town meetings. Government just doesn't do a very good job of listening to voters and taxpayers."

One of the first things that Sonntag did in the wake of the initiative vote was to ask citizens what areas of government and performance they were most concerned about. Health and education both surfaced as priorities. Meanwhile, apparently caught up in the performance-audit excitement (and perhaps realizing that the 57 percent vote in favor of I 900 was a clear and direct repudiation of the legislature's previously listless approach to audits), legislators weighed in with an additional $4 million for performance audits of the state transportation department.

As a result, Sonntag's audit lineup already reads as the most ambitious in the country. His shop is in the middle of audits of WSDOT inventory and project management, along with its overall administration and overhead. He's looking at the state ferry system and K-12 education, and is in the process of lining up audits in the area of economic vitality and natural resources, and overall government efficiency and effectiveness.

In addition to audits inspired by direct citizen input and legislative fiat, others have come in over the transom, such as the audit requested recently by Governor Christine Gregoire. She wanted Sonntag to take a close, hard look at the state health department's professional licensing program. Problems had come to light after numerous citizen complaints led to a Seattle Times series, "License to Harm." The series highlighted lax oversight and enforcement practices of the licensing arm of the state health department in the wake of allegations of both incompetence and criminal behavior on the part of health care professionals, including doctors and psychologists.

All audits, including the health department audit, will include structured efforts at getting direct citizen input into what ought to be investigated and toward what end, says Linda Long, director of performance auditing for the state.

Input and Influence

Of course, the whole issue of trying to involve citizens more closely in governance has a complicated and vexing history. "It certainly is a chicken-and-egg thing," says statewide pollster Stuart Elway, who is helping the state with the citizen-input side of the audits. "As people feel government drifting away, they become less motivated to participate, and it becomes sort of a downward spiral."

Bringing citizens back into the governing fold is not necessarily a popular notion, either. Elway notes that the fact that he pays citizens to participate in some of his town meetings "rubs some politicians the wrong way. They wonder why we should be paying citizens to participate." Others argue that whenever a small group of citizens is convened to scrutinize government, the problem of self-selection rears its head: Is the group really a representative cross-section of citizens or just a gaggle of activists who come with predisposed points of view?

Moreover, the process of pulling citizens together to participate in any sort of structured overview of government can be very expensive, Elway acknowledges. (He currently is working on a town meeting template that local governments can implement at a lower cost than those he has been doing so far for the state.)

But Sonntag says he is convinced that the key to breaking the cycle of mutual cynicism and mistrust between government and constituents is for government to make the first move, even at the risk of inviting in some citizens who might not be completely objective. "The more open and accessible government is, the more the barriers start to break down," he says, "and then citizens will be more comfortable about becoming involved and not start off with a chip on their shoulder thinking that everything we do is a secret."

All the audits that have been launched in the wake of I 900 are currently either ongoing or still being negotiated (the auditor's office is contracting out a good deal of the audit work), so the proposition that citizen input is a key component to effective performance audits has yet to be proven.

But once audit reports start flowing out of her office, Long says, the influence of citizens ought to be easy to assess. Each audit report will include a description of the methodology used to get citizen input and how it shaped the audit report's recommendations. Long's office also plans to reconvene citizens after audit findings have been drafted to see whether citizens think the audits hit the mark.

One thing is for certain, though: With the largest budget of any state auditor and a clear mandate for action, the expectations being placed on Sonntag's office are at an all-time high.

As audit findings start to hit the streets, citizens, politicians and talk-show hosts (certainly one in particular) are going to be watching to see whether the new style of audit lives up to its promise, whether that promise is as sweeping and noble as bolstering citizen confidence in government, or as ambitious and challenging as improving K-12 education, or as specific and delicate as removing incompetent physicians who are practicing in the state.

When asked how he'll know if I 900 is working or not, Representative Miloscia says, "That's an interesting question. If the state auditor comes up with sound recommendations and the reports are fair and balanced and the governor ignores them, then we're back to where we started. But the signs so far are that the auditor and governor are working well together."

Meanwhile, Miloscia acknowledges that some recommendations coming out of Sonntag's shop may drop into the legislature's lap, too. And he is eloquent on the subject of Olympia as a potential sinkhole for positive initiatives, even ones that are bolstered by a performance audit report. Which is where the citizen-input piece of the equation might prove to be especially helpful. "I know how the legislature tends to respond," Miloscia says, "and that's why we need that constituency for change that Brian is trying to build up."

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.