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Quarterly: Summer 2020 - Gary Blackmer

In the Down Cycle

By Gary Blackmer

For the past four or five years a bad trend has worsened, and the signs have grown more ominous.

My auditing career began in 1985 and I experienced professional growth as the profession of performance auditing also grew. The combination was like walking up an ascending escalator.

Jewel Lansing fought hard in the early 1980s to bring performance auditing to the city of Portland and I was lucky to be hired by her not long after she succeeded. Editorials by the newspapers and television stations supported her efforts for this new type of auditing.

Accountability and transparency became fixed expectations at the local and state level, with enlightened governments increasing their investments in performance measures and continuous improvement systems of management. The Yellow Book evolved from a 16-page booklet into a set of standards for credible public reporting of government operations at all levels of government. I saw the number and expertise of government auditors increase, with a strong contribution from ALGA’s conferences, trainings, and advocacy work.

There is an interesting Google website that archived millions of pages of literature up through 2008. You can do word searches on this repository to determine the frequency that a word appears. Below is a chart from Ngram Viewer looking for the term “audit”.

While “audit” is a small percent of all the words, its relative growth is a good representation of the profession’s expansion.

Just like every audit report has its “however” statement; here it comes: However, I don’t know that the trend of the chart will continue. Auditing and accountability are facing serious challenges right now. Many people have become frustrated with facts and experts and reasoning, which undercuts the value of our work. Political leaders at all levels of government have tapped into this turmoil to reshape information to suit their own interests. With the internet, it is easy to use fear and anger to undermine facts, and to offer contrary stories.

I never thought that I would see people turn away from hard truths and embrace weird theories, implausible fictions, biased perspectives, and obvious fabrications. And beyond embracing them all, people enthusiastically promote them. In this environment our audit work can be drowned out by quirky alternate realities.

Meanwhile, scientists, academics, journalists, investigators, government analysts and, yes, we auditors labor to determine facts, draw conclusions, and publish objective reports. Some people collectively dismiss us all, as part of the “deep state” conspiracies that try to discredit their alternate realities. Sometimes the dismissal is harsher, such as the four inspectors general who were removed by the President in the past few weeks. Michael Atkinson, Christi Grimm, Steve Linick, and Glenn Fine are professionals who were doing their jobs.

Inspectors General follow the same Yellow Book standards that we do and, while appointed by the executive, have a legislative avenue that allows them to meet the independence standard. Yet it doesn’t require a deep understanding of our standards to know that getting fired, or the fear of being fired, can undercut an auditor’s independence. This structure for internal auditors has a fundamental weakness that, as we have seen, can jeopardize someone who reports the hard truths.

Make no mistake, auditors are part of that deep state; in fact, we further it. We help ensure government operates in an orderly, equitable, and efficient manner as intended. One could argue that auditors are also fighting the deep state when we identify needed changes in government, but the difference is that our efforts are well-researched recommendations for change. We point out when agencies don’t follow laws, procedures, and evidence-based best practices. We point out management problems and question the validity of theories and anecdotal evidence. The auditor’s alternate reality is incremental improvement.

At the same time, I think auditors are particularly vulnerable at the local level because many of us lack sufficient news coverage. Newspapers have been dying across the country as the internet diverted away advertising dollars and public attention. The coronavirus threatens to extinguish more struggling newspapers in the coming months. (And yes, television stations used to have editorial broadcasters, separate from their news reporters who actually covered local government stories besides crime and car crashes.) The few remaining journalists have little time to conduct in-depth reporting on local issues, or to even cover the release of an audit report.

Newspapers have been in the accountability business as much, if not more, than we are. More, because they also tackle topics that would be outside the realm of auditing such as political scandals, special interest influence, and individual misconduct. Our purpose and professional fates are tied together.

With less coverage of audit reports, public officials can ignore audit recommendations with fewer consequences from the public. Over time, public officials may be emboldened to obstruct and cut the budgets of audit offices if the public places less value in an auditor because they see fewer audits.

Auditors point out the risks and prevention strategies but we get no credit when bad things don’t happen. I’ve always been frustrated by the many people who don’t place sufficient value on prevention. The importance of prevention continues to be a public struggle during this coronavirus contagion. Now, we see some people ignoring the guidance of medical experts for social distancing, willing to gamble with their own health and the health of others. The consequences are not obviously or immediately apparent. The preventive, deterrent power of accountability cannot be measured either.

I know this is a gloomy perspective in these times of contagion, but patience, sticking to our principles, and good auditing can overcome it all. We are in a cycle of competing forces and the down side is temporarily winning. We must endure through the low point of the cycle. The public still wants transparent and effective government, and considers auditing one means to accomplish that. This public questioning of government is part of our national culture. It keeps government more responsive and resilient, which is fundamentally important to our long-term success.

I’m encouraged by the value the public is putting into the factual data about the epidemic, grim as it is. Geographic and daily reporting of measures on hospitalizations and deaths help people understand the risks, and the benefits of following the prevention advice of medical experts. This earned trust can be transferred to an appreciation of experience and expertise in government agencies. For political leaders, trust can be easily lost, and those alternate realities will be undercut by hard facts, and eventually abandoned by the public.

I think the virus is a humbling experience for everyone when we ponder our frailties as humans with our seemingly random susceptibility to the contagion. As we recover as a country with treatments and immunizations, we will also experience greater delight in gatherings, whether they are with friends, in restaurants, music venues, theaters, sports events, or ALGA conferences.

Stay healthy, take care.

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.