While we’re somewhat on the subject, and in the interest of full disclosure, I thought I’d let it be known that I made a public records request this morning regarding the handful of performance audits that Ted Van Dyk seems so jazzed about:
Later this month, state Auditor Brian Sonntag will release such audits of the Washington State Department of Transportation and Sound Transit and, shortly thereafter, of the Port of Seattle. All three audits will precede fall elections and could have important impacts on voter decisions about the Sound Transit-RTID regional transportation package and Port of Seattle Commission races.
The more I re-read that paragraph the more suspicious I got, especially in light of recent rumors and hints that the anti-transit crowd has been leaked information regarding the upcoming reports. Van Dyk seems to think it a great thing that performance audits be timed for release just weeks before crucial votes regarding these agencies, but I can’t help suspect it an overtly political maneuver. It is also potentially the death knell for performance audits as a useful tool in Washington state.
Performance audits are not comparable to financial audits in either scope or purpose. You don’t just bring in a third party to examine the books in search of waste, fraud or abuse, but rather, you observe and analyze the performance of an agency and its procedures for the purpose of recommending changes that could lead to greater efficiencies. While in a worst case scenario a performance audit could conclude that an agency does not fulfill its mission at all, it is mostly meant as a productivity tool, and as such requires the full cooperation of the management and staff being audited if it is to be effective. If instead, performance audits are used as a means to politically punish and embarrass an agency — including, say, influencing elections — then future audits on other agencies will never gain the inside trust and cooperation necessary to conduct them.
Yes, voters deserve to know how well Sound Transit and WSDOT are spending our money before we vote them more of it, but if these audits are perceived to be politically motivated hatchet jobs, their reports won’t be worth the paper they’re written on. And if officials within the auditor’s office or the outside contractors have been improperly communicating with opponents of the Roads & Transit measure, soliciting their input and leaking results, then I can’t see how these so-called “performance audits” can be understood to be genuine performance audits at all, let alone impartial and unbiased.
My hope is that Brian Sonntag’s office has been scrupulous in overseeing these audits and in hiring contractors who are equally scrupulous and unbiased, but the timing of these audits and their reports does give me pause. I’m generally loathe to investigate my sneaking suspicions at taxpayer expense, but I didn’t really see any other choice. My fingers are crossed that my public records request turns up nothing of interest.