I understand that the political hoopla over yesterday’s scathing King County performance audit report is inevitable, with executive candidates falling all over themselves calling for government reform, but honestly, I’m not really sure what to make of it.
I don’t doubt that there are problems in county government, that there are some bad managers and messed up or missing procedures that need to be replaced or fixed. That’s true of all large bureaucracies, public and private sector, and that’s why we do performance audits in the first place.
But quite frankly, I’ve lost faith in State Auditor Brian Sonntag’s office to conduct and report performance audits fairly, honestly, and most of all, efficaciously.
As I’ve explained before, a performance audit is not a financial audit, does not come close to adhering to the same sort of strict, unwavering standards, and is neither objective nor irrefutable, even when done well. The primary goal of a financial audit is to keep the books honest and accurate by providing an outside, independent verification of an organization’s financial records, and as such, it is mostly an objective exercise in math. The primary goal of a performance audit is to uncover inefficiencies in procedures and/or execution, and to make recommendations on how to improve an organization’s operations. Performance audits are, by their nature, more subjective and less definitive.
Indeed, for a performance audit to be maximally effective it requires the active cooperation and participation of those being audited; when conducted well, a performance audit is meant to be a collaborative process. Unfortunately, by repeatedly using performance audits as a punitive political weapon—an opportunity to very publicly attack and humiliate state and local government officials—Sonntag has transformed his audits into an adversarial process that puts targeted agencies on the defensive, and thus works against the stated goal of increasing government efficiency.
Oh, Sonntag’s office proudly trumpets the millions of dollars the auditors claim that taxpayers might save if their recommendations were implemented, but how much taxpayers have saved, well, we have no idea. No idea which recommendations officials grudgingly implement after Sonntag’s orchestrated media thrashing, and no idea how effective these recommendations actually are.
I’m not refuting all or even some of the findings in the KC performance audit report; auditors appear to have uncovered some egregious and/or stupid practices. But I put the emphasis on “appear” because honestly, I don’t know that the report can be taken at face value, especially coming from an Auditor with a history of targeting his resources at agencies and programs he dislikes, and who has already compromised his impartiality by endorsing Susan Hutchison, the only Republican in the executive race, and the candidate with the least experience at running anything… other than her mouth.
Like I said, I understand all the hoopla and headlines. Journalists are famously skeptical of government agencies and officials. As they should be. It’s their job, and they wouldn’t be doing it properly if they didn’t jump all over a report like this.
But what really bugs the hell out of me about the coverage of this and previous Sonntag orchestrated hatchet jobs, is the complete and utter unquestioning credulity in which our media approaches the least audited agency in the state… the Auditor’s office itself.