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Auditors and Us
By Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene

We know that this essay is being read by many men and women who are involved in performance auditing. With that in mind we don’t think we can get into any trouble with the following statement: In almost 30 years of reporting and writing about state and local government, we’ve often found those reports and the people who create them–whether auditors or others who do this kind of work, like some controllers–are among the best sources available in the world we’ve been covering for much of our adult lives.
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We’re constantly in search of new ideas for columns in Governing and the Council of State Government’s Capitol Ideas, as well as story ideas for the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Stateline and elsewhere. We’re also, to borrow Ray Bradbury’s description of Walt Disney, “jackdaws in the fields of the Lord,” searching out new and interesting ideas that can be used by a variety of other clients. We read everything we can get our hands on, and have regular conversations with officials at all levels of states and localities.

With such a big world at our fingertips, it’s startling how often we rely on audit reports as central to our understanding of a topic. Among other things, these documents are generally intellectually honest, unbiased, apolitical, and data based. That’s exactly what we aspire for in our own work. 

For example, when someone mentioned to us that there were important issues at the local level in terms of property management, we had a rough time finding national studies about the subject. But audit shops in Tampa Bay, San Diego, Portland and others had all delved deeply into the area. Their reports led us to know that we were onto a good topic and one that had the potential to have dramatic impact on the smooth functioning of local governments.

The Portland report attracted our attention immediately. We’ve always found Portland to be a well-managed city. But the audit indicated that the city had not disposed of surplus properties, lacked a comprehensive inventory, and had no comprehensive strategic plan for property management.

In other instances, simply staying on top of the many audits that come out each month leads us to an issue that we would never have considered in the first place. That was true when we wrote an article in Governing about animal control offices, a subject that had provoked audits in Austin, Palo Alto, New York City, and DeKalb County, Georgia. The common theme we discovered in reading through them was the question of whether the primary goal of animal shelters was protecting people or protecting the animals themselves.

We also learned from these audits that, no matter what the goal, departments often can’t achieve them for lack of resources. As we wrote, “Austin shelters have a goal that 90 percent of their animals will live. In other words, the city anticipates that 9 out of 10 creatures that enter its shelters will stay on their own 4 legs indefinitely. But according to the audit, ‘animal services do not have sufficient facilities and resources allocated to meet the goal.’”1 

We’d be unfair to leave anyone with the impression that we rely strictly on the audit reports themselves. In fact, it’s common practice for us to reach out to the men and women who research and write those documents in order to get a fuller perspective of the challenges and proposed solutions to the problem about which we’re writing. 

Here’s a totally unscientific finding from our years foraging the fields of these reports: the men and women who are involved in their creation are the single most generous government employees in terms of sharing their time and their information, understanding our deadlines, and having the capacity to help us develop the kinds of concrete examples that we hope will make our writing come to life. What’s more, they are far more willing than many other government employees to provide fully accurate details – and to tell us when they don’t know the complete truth.

Back in the mid-1990s, we were honored to be asked by ALGA to speak at one of its national conferences in Scottsdale, Arizona. At dinner that night, we joined a couple of dozen auditors at a long table in an excellent barbecue restaurant. When the bill came, a couple of the auditors figured out everyone’s share. All the parties at the table chipped in. And, ultimately, it turned out that an extra three dollars had been collected. What was to be done? The three single dollars wended their way up and down the table, with no one willing to acknowledge that they had overpaid. The group wound up adding it to the tip. But any collection of professionals who are that careful with three dollars simply have to be trusted when it comes to thousands – or millions. 


NOTES

1 Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene, “Do Animal Shelters Serve People or Pups?” Governing, October 2015.


ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene (B&G) are nationally recognized authorities on state and local governments. They are principals of Barrett and Greene, Inc., an organization devoted to researching, analyzing, and writing about these entities. They are columnists for Governing magazine; senior fellows at the Council of State Governments; fellows at the National Academy of Public Administrators; senior fellows at the Governing Institute; special project consultants at the Volcker Alliance; and more. B&G's Governing columns frequently rely on the audit community. You can receive them for free, bi-weekly, by subscribing at: www.governing.com/subscribe/newsletters/management.