Politics and Governance

Thank Goodness for Auditors!

Let’s play a word association game. What do you think about when I write the word ‘auditor’? Did you immediately think about the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)? If so, you are not alone. According to my extremely unscientific polling (also known as casual conversation with family and friends), many people associate the word ‘audit’ with the IRS.

This makes sense. After all, the history of auditing is closely tied to financial audits. But while auditing financial documents remains an important part of the auditing profession, it is by no means the only activity government auditors undertake. [1] In fact, here at the Office of the City Auditor in Austin, we do few, if any, financial audits. But the work we do is still important – indeed, it may very well become even more important as the City of Austin continues to grow and expand.

Most of our work is grouped into two main categories: performance audits and investigations. In performance audits, city auditors examine municipal departments to make sure they are doing what they are supposed to be doing, in accordance with applicable policies, regulations, and best practices. In investigations, city auditors collect and investigate allegations of potential fraud and abuse.

As a taxpayer, you can think of us as your watchdog, sniffing out waste, fraud, and abuse and drawing attention to opportunities for city departments to improve their performance. You use us to watch those other guys. [2]

To do this, auditors undertake an extensive assessment of the programs, departments, and allegations they are examining. They review hundreds of pages of city code, policies and procedures, standards, and other documentation. They interview numerous stakeholders. They analyze departmental data and records. They roll up their sleeves and go out into the field to inspect their audit subjects firsthand. And then they summarize these long hours of work into meticulously sourced reports.

Through these reports, the Office of the City Auditor informs both the Austin City Council and the public about their municipal government’s efficiency and effectiveness.

This role will only grow in importance as Austin completes its transition from mid-range city to one of the largest cities in the United States. Already, Austin is poised to become one of the top 10 biggest cities in the country and is projected to have over a million residents within about a decade’s time.

As a result, the city has already had to start dealing with some ‘big city’ problems, such as traffic congestion, transportation infrastructure, affordability, and public education issues. It will have to continue to do so in the future. And when it does, the Office of the City Auditor will be there to make sure it does so efficiently and effectively.

[1] Government auditors come in many different forms. In addition to focusing on different audit areas, they may have different organizational structures. In my home state of Pennsylvania, for example, voters elect the state auditor. The same is true for the City of Philadelphia, whose current auditor, City Controller Alan Butkovitz, is exploring a mayoral run. In Austin, the City Council appoints the auditor. Even if the job responsibilities remain the same, the organizational differences between these models are sometimes huge. After all, in one case, voters judge the auditor’s performance on Election Day; in the other case, city council members judge the auditor’s performance.

[2] Credit where due: one of my favorite campaign slogans inspired the line “You use us to watch those other guys.” In 2009, Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt ran (and won) with the slogan, “We need this guy to watch those guys.” 

Photo credit: Daniel Mayer. 

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