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The Mechanics of Government
By Gary Blackmer

Auditors are the mechanics of government. While we don’t make the repairs ourselves, we diagnose the problems and recommend solutions. I know the metaphor oversimplifies our work and our working environment, but let’s take it for a spin.
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What are the specifications for a well-tuned government machine? Well, they are extensive because the machinery is complicated. We expect the machine to successfully address many kinds of problems, from people with addictions to traffic engineering. Auditors don’t question the decisions of specially trained professionals, but we do get at the fundamentals of service delivery.

An obvious fundamental, we expect the machine to be thrifty with its resources. Auditors look for unnecessary costs and spending. We might look to the costs in other governments for comparison.

The government should also deliver its services in a timely manner. Because the machinery is responding to existing problems, there is some urgency that it delivers solutions. Analyzing the time sequence of decisions and actions can identify unnecessary delays.

More complex expectations involve the quality of services. Are the prescribed services based upon the best research and evidence? Does the machinery consistently deliver the prescribed services? Is the machinery able to adjust its services to the variety of situations it encounters? Does it deliver the right services to the right people?

Government programs are established to address particular needs, regardless of a person’s race, religion, cultural background, age, or gender. It can be difficult for auditors to develop objective evidence of bias, but it should not be overlooked. Geographic bias may occur when park locations, housing assistance, or transportation improvements cause disadvantage in neighborhoods where minorities may be concentrated.

Just as the government should not disadvantage certain individuals, it should not favor others. Government serves the public interest. That is a generalized concept of the greatest good for the greatest number of people, now and in the long-term. Auditors can look for favoritism in purchasing or hiring processes, although decisions driven by special interest lobbying may be hard to prove. Auditors can identify the distribution of tax burden, or an overdependency upon debt.

But this government machinery is really made up of organizations, trained and equipped to perform the work. Unlike the circuitry or steel of machinery, designed to accomplish one specific activity, people and outside forces complicate its performance. I’ve written before about the “managing for results” questions that auditors can consider to diagnose poor functioning.

Does the organization have a clearly stated mission and objectives and expectations? Have those been communicated to its workforce? Are the resources adequate to accomplish the workload? Or does an excessive workload diminish the quality of services? Has the organization provided adequate written procedures, training, and equipment to its workforce? Is the organization tracking its performance and using the results to adjust its planning, budgeting and management practices for improvement?

These are key to a well-managed organization, and many problems can be traced to lapses in one or more of these components. Auditors can also conduct customer surveys to get at the different dimensions of results, including qualitative measures.

We now come to the weakest part of the machinery: humans. All the written procedures, all the training, and all the supervision will never completely prevent the problems that humans contribute in an organization. I say this without sadness or contempt because, as they say, we are all human. Even in your own audit office you can probably recall past problems that were rooted in miscommunication, inattention, poor judgment, forgetfulness, interpersonal conflict, misplaced priorities—and you can probably add a few more causes.

Auditors must discern these human mistakes from a systemic weakness in the delivery of services. Occasionally a problem gets more attention and action than it deserves. Your government probably has developed a few procedures and enacted some rules that, behind all the effort, is one shamed but unnamed employee. Auditors can certainly direct their attention to more common and significant problems.

So, what can auditors examine to produce a better workforce? I think the foundation, again, is ensuring employees are committed to the public interest in a much broader sense. Whatever the employee does must benefit the public. Fundamentally, employees must be honest, ethical, transparent, accountable. We use the phrase “tone at the top” but tone at the “bottom” or front lines should be obvious when auditors interview because it often gets magnified. When the boss dials bad attitude up to 6, employees will often dial it to 8. That’s the sad perversity of leadership.

What does your government teach about honesty, ethics, transparency, and accountability? Portland, for a time, had a half-day new employee orientation and invited me to speak for a half-hour about the Auditor’s Office. I spoke about our various functions (many more than just auditing) but also urged them to contact us if they had concerns about how services were provided in their bureaus.

In one session I asked them to raise their hands if they had never worked in government before. I was shocked to see at least three-fourths of the participants raise their hand. They were starting with no understanding of public service.
I changed my presentation entirely. I told them:

Portland’s most valuable resource is the people you’ll be working with. Then I challenged them: Are you good enough to work here? I told them that research on job satisfaction was determined by these key factors:

  • friendly working environment;
  • interesting work;
  • a sense of achievement;
  • training and development opportunities;
  • job security;
  • good communication;
  • good management; and of course,
  • adequate pay.

If they worked to make their job better it would benefit the workplace and their own satisfaction. If they had a growing concern, they should contact my office — except for the pay part. I also noted that the listed factors were in descending order and that pay was of less importance than all the others for job satisfaction.

I ended by handing out a single page summary of the city’s Code of Ethics. I emphasized that as new employees, they were now city officials because the Code’s definition of a city official is “any elected official, employee, appointee to a board or commission, or citizen volunteer authorized to act on behalf of the City of Portland, Oregon.” The Code has only four sections, which echo our audit standards:

  • Trust. The purpose of City government is to serve the public. City officials treat their office as a public trust.
  • Objectivity. City officials' decisions are based on the merits of the issues. Judgment is independent and objective.
  • Accountability. Open government allows citizens to make informed judgments and to hold officials accountable.
  • Leadership. Ethical leadership sets a good example and treats all citizens with respect.

Each section had 8 to 10 statements. Here are the first three under Trust:

  1. The City's powers and resources are used for the benefit of the public rather than any official's personal benefit.
  2. City officials promote public respect by avoiding even the appearance of impropriety.
  3. Policymakers place long-term benefit to the public as a whole above all other considerations, including the concerns of important individuals and special interests. However, the public interest includes protecting the rights of under-represented minorities.

This Code of Ethics was developed by the previous auditor and is generally designed to be aspirational. The city attorneys wanted language they could charge someone with violating, but sometimes rules are less important than ideals.

If your government does not have a simple, comprehensive code of ethics, an audit could identify best practices, which can be a worthwhile long-term response after a scandal is uncovered, much more proactive than an investigation, in my opinion.

Beyond promoting ethics, auditors can examine dysfunctional organizations in an audit. The chemistry in organizations can sink the morale of the employees, or it can generate delightful enthusiasm and camaraderie. Each person adds or detracts from the organization. And there is no question which chemistry will better serve the public. Leadership with a light touch is necessary but not sufficient to sustain a positive atmosphere.

A leader’s biggest challenge is to build or rebuild a well-functioning organization, which can take several years. Work environment surveys can identify weaknesses related to expectation-setting, training, communications, performance feedback, collaboration, bias, and other factors that can guide an audit’s recommendations for management. The Portland and Oregon auditor’s offices conducted these surveys as parts of audits.

We are in a profession that has the distinct opportunity to observe, from organization to organization, the variations in chemistry, sources of problems, and consequences to the public. Because there are so many “moving parts” in government machinery that can be broken, an auditor’s cautious, incremental and professional methods are the best means of achieving real improvements.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gary Blackmer has been conducting audits for 30 years and recently retired from his position as Director of the Oregon Audits Division. The Division conducts performance, financial, and information technology audits, monitors financial audits of local governments, and responds to hotline allegations. Previously, Blackmer served 10 years as the elected Portland City Auditor, eight years as elected Multnomah County Auditor, a management auditor, and analyst for a variety of state and local agencies. Blackmer is a past-Chair of the Pacific Northwest Intergovernmental Audit Forum, and past-President of the Association of Local Government Auditors. He received the ALGA Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015.