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Reaching Out to Managers, Elected Officials, and Citizens Makes Auditors Effective Agents of Change and Accountability

As audit organizations featured on this website have shown, auditors can be a major influence in creating or improving a government’s performance management systems. While some audit executives may see their role purely as auditing management’s systems after they are implemented or changed, others have taken a more active role, both to encourage systems change and to contribute the special skills of their audit staff to help ensure more effective, accountable systems are developed.  They can also help make performance-based systems more effective and accountable by helping decision makers become more effective users of performance information. To be most effective in playing these more active roles, auditors must reach out to managers, elected officials, and citizens as allies in achieving systemic change,

Systemic Change Requires Sustained Outreach by Auditors

Experienced auditors try to establish a good relationship with managers of organizations they audit. To influence long-term change in performance-based systems, a more sustained relationship with management is needed beyond each audit. Auditors can also build a constituency for change by creating relationships with elected officials and citizens, who can demand better performance information and encourage management to improve performance management systems.

To influence systemic changes, auditors often need to step out of their traditional roles and become advocates for change.  Of course, government auditors’ reporting relationships may determine the extent to which they focus their advocacy internally (to management) or externally (e.g., to elected officials and citizens). A number of auditors featured at this website have shown the value of encouraging management to improve performance management systems, and others have practiced external advocacy, generally to elected officials. Some auditors have done both. 

Sometimes, what auditors learn in the course of their auditing practice can help them make a case to legislative bodies of the need for systemic improvement.  For example, the Austin, Texas, City Auditor observed a pattern of weak performance measurement in audit findings from 1985–92, leading the auditor’s office to draft and propose, and the City Council to pass, a resolution encouraging city agencies to measure and report performance.  Similarly, the Kansas City, Missouri, City Auditor, prepared an analysis of audit recommendations from 1988-2001 for the City Council that included “Measure and Report on Performance” as a recurring theme that needed attention.  And in Florida, from 1997–2001, the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) analyzed the results of its reviews of state agency efforts to implement the Program Performance Based Budgeting System (PB2) and issued a series of “PB2 Summary Reports” each year to inform the legislature of progress in implementing the system and how particular performance management initiatives were faring, and to recommend system improvements.

Auditors have also found a variety of ways to reach out and encourage managers who are receptive to change.  Auditors may encourage management to develop, implement, or improve performance management systems by, for example, providing information on operational benefits that can be achieved by using such systems, briefing or providing guidance reports to management on best practices in performance management, or providing guidance on initial system planning and design.  For example, in Canada, the Alberta Auditor General, and in the United States, the Texas State Auditor, have both provided substantial guidance on-line for agency managers to use to improve performance management, such as the Guide to Performance Measures Management (PDF) available on the Texas State Auditor website.  The Texas State Auditor’s Office also conducts classes on performance measurement through its External Education Services department.

Beyond Encouraging Management to Assisting Management

When a government wants to improve performance management systems, auditors can bring their many skills into play to provide valuable assistance to management in making systemic changes. Auditors can advise, consult, or assist management in designing, purchasing, or improving performance management systems and enable the government to manage for results.  Auditors have knowledge and skills that many program managers lack, such as their understanding of materiality, quantitative techniques, and internal controls, which can be vital to developing systems that produce timely, relevant, reliable performance information.  For example, auditors have sometimes been members of system design teams along with management, as the Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, Auditor has done.  Auditors have also trained agency staff and partnered with management to help agencies implement performance management systems, including systems for performance budgeting, business planning, and managing for results, as the Austin, Texas, City Auditor has done.  The Austin City Auditor’s Office found that working with management in an active role when new systems and measurement approaches were being implemented citywide was preferable to auditing the performance measures after they were developed and having to recommend after measurement had already started that the measures be changed.  Now, when auditing a program or activity, there is a reasonable assurance that the measures being audited are, at least, relevant.  Even in governments that already have a strong performance management systems in place can benefit from auditors assisting management in improving those systems, as when the Phoenix, Arizona, City Auditor (PDF) worked with all city departments to help them make their performance measures more results-oriented, and later improved the City Manager Executive Report.

Helping Elected Officials and Citizens Get the Most From Performance Information

Elected policy officials, not just managers, must become effective users of performance data to complete a cycle of results-focused government.  And performance accountability is not complete unless performance information is readily accessible to citizens in user-friendly form, and they have opportunities to become users of the information in government policy processes.  Auditors can play key roles in assisting elected officials and citizens as users of performance information, to help make performance-based policy and accountability a reality.

While preparing and issuing public performance reports is usually seen as a management function, when no one else is doing it, auditors have stepped in to take the lead in reporting performance as have the city auditors of Kansas City, Missouri, Palo Alto, California, and Portland, Oregon.  In Prince William County, Virginia, an auditor who reports to management prepares the county’s performance reports.  In 2006, the performance reports from the Palo Alto and Portland city auditors won Certificates of Achievement in Service Efforts & Accomplishments Reporting from the Association of Government Accountants.  The Palo Alto City Auditor has also reported how citizens have been using information from the annual performance reports in public hearings to help influence decisions.

Beyond simply reporting performance, auditors can help the public and elected officials use performance information to assist decision making. For example, auditors may educate external stakeholders in using performance information for decision-making and accountability, advise them in how the information may be relevant to specific decisions, provide user-friendly access to data beyond agency performance measures such as quality-of-life outcome data, or provide in-depth analyses of such data and its relationship to public service performance.  Good examples are the Portland City Auditor’s assistance to the public-private Portland-Multnomah Progress Board which focuses on policy of life issues, and Florida OPPAGA’s “Florida Monitor” website and its Florida Monitor Weekly e-mail newsletter for legislators and citizens interested in Florida public policy issues, that anyone with an e-mail address can receive for free.

Ensuring that Performance Management is Aligned with Citizens’ Priorities

Some governments have engaged citizens in focus groups, planning processes, and other means to assure that the government’s goals, objectives, and performance measures are not just aligned with each other, but are also consistent with citizen priorities.  Government auditors can engage citizens to ensure the relevance of performance information to priority citizen concerns, as the Kansas City, Missouri, and Multnomah County, Oregon (PDF), auditors did before they determined what they would report in annual performance reports.  Similarly, the Phoenix City Auditor Department (PDF) has conducted focus groups and citizen meetings to help make agency performance measures more relevant and help management select a list of “organizational indicators” of broad public interest that are reported regularly on-line and in print as a report card on city services.

Finally, as citizen engagement becomes more prominent in government performance management and policy processes, it becomes especially important to ensure the engagement is effective and representative of the community.  Auditors can assess citizen engagementto make sure the processes in place are both effective and representative.

Outreach and Auditor Independence

Auditors can engage in internal and external outreach, advocacy, and assistance without compromising their independence. At issue is not whether auditors can play these roles, but how they perform specific practices when playing these roles to be sure they uphold a high standard of auditor independence.  Independence issues are important for auditors to consider whenever they take on new roles.  Auditors have professional guidance they can consult, such as the guidance in the 2007 edition of Government Auditing Standards on “Organizational Independence When Performing Nonaudit Services,” to help auditors determine what kinds of steps—or “safeguards”—they need to take, if any, to protect their independence when performing specific practices related to these roles.

Overall, Outreach Increases the Difference Auditors Can Make

Many government auditors may not view the practices described above as part of their traditional role.  But as other government auditors have shown, reaching out to encourage and assist management, elected officials, and citizens is an important part of making government more performance-focused.  As many of the examples cited above demonstrate, these practices leverage auditors’ special skills so they will make a bigger difference in improving the effectiveness and accountability of government.