Writing audits in a post-journalism reality

I believe that our audits will become even more important in the future, though we face our own dangers. Honest brokers of the facts are becoming an endangered species.

Many professions are being questioned as to their objectivity and independence. Businesses often pay faculty researchers, which casts more doubt on their conclusions. Physicians are rewarded by drug companies to promote their products. Scientific conclusions are becoming politicized.

The internet held promise, with its wealth of information, that the public would be better informed. The knowledge is there to find, but it’s diluted by an ocean of distractions, most of them fatuous, sensational, or commercial.

Saddest of all, this ocean has overwhelmed and drowned newspapers, a long-standing and dependable source of information for the public. Newspapers weren’t always objective impartial observers of communities and their public agencies, but the journalism profession grew and we became accustomed to its role in holding government accountable.

Of course, there’s still a large audience for national news and smaller ones for state news, but local news is disappearing. National newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post will survive all this, but many newspapers in other cities are becoming thinner, non-daily, or simply shutting down.

Television long ago abandoned local government news unless, of course, it is a sensational story. (“If it bleeds, it leads.”) I remember hearing a reporter indicate that the only reason they were covering a story about city hall’s website was because the news outlet got money to cover technology stories from a software company.

Local news is still in a period of contraction and may take years to recover. The loss makes the role of auditors even more important, but it also weakens our impact and puts us at risk.

Good journalists and auditors share common values. The presence of performance auditing in Oregon grew out of strong advocacy by newspapers. Editorial boards put pressure on local government elected officials to allow this scope of auditing to occur and, later, educated voters on the importance of locking the function in charters.

Editorial: Local Auditors Statewide
June 6, 1988 | The Oregonian, (Portland, OR)

The role of auditor ought not be limited to an internal debate in one county. Thus the argument that is taking shape in Washington County should trigger a broader debate on a statewide policy for independent audits of the performance of local government. To head such an inquiry, the governor or legislative leaders could turn to an obvious candidate, Jewel Lansing, who served as auditor of both the city of Portland and Multnomah County. In those capacities, she did more than anyone else to define the function.

Alan Percell worked for her before Washington County joined Portland and Multnomah County as the only other local jurisdiction to have an elected auditor. Eight years later he still struggles to gain governmental acceptance, although outside of the elected councils and their bureaucracies it is a function popular with voters.
That may be the nature of the beast. The auditor is a critic, a watchdog. He provides a window of accountability that voters ought to like. But other officials are not likely to appreciate the harsh glare of the auditor’s spotlight.

Nonetheless, the independent review of performance is valuable to assure integrity and efficiency in government. It would be worthwhile to consider how the service could be provided for the other counties and cities of the state. Some, such as Lane County, have contracted with private accounting firms with some success. The device works best when there is a clear line between the administration and the policy-making body so that the contracted audit truly is independent. The Metropolitan Service District is preparing a request for proposals to be submitted to audit its internal functions. Most governments, even the larger ones like Clackamas County, do not have an auditor, although they may elect the county treasurer and surveyor.

If there is doubt about the line between the auditor and the audited, there is no assurance of independence like an election that makes the auditor accountable only to the voters.
The proposed review in Washington County should settle questions about the merits of the auditor, whether the office should continue and, if so, how it should be staffed and financed.

Similar questions ought to be examined on a statewide basis.

Newspapers were happy to cover our performance audit stories because they are built to communicate problems and solutions. Reporters wrote audit stories that educated the public about our work and results. Auditors and reporters were fellow travelers of government transparency and accountability.

Here is one concern: without coverage of our audits there is less awareness of our audit results and less value in transparency—auditing becomes a transparent window that nobody looks through. Further, will agencies be as concerned about what the auditors might find if they know that nobody will hear about it?

I return to Mark Funkhouser’s comment, “To a politician, something isn’t real unless it’s in the newspaper.” Now we need to ask, if we have no newspapers, will reality perish?

Here is another concern: without coverage of our audits there is less pressure on public officials to act on our recommendations.

Editorial writers mustered the full force of public pressure and turned our well-reasoned recommendations into strongly worded admonitions. They demanded that agencies or elected officials take the necessary actions to fix problems.  Politicians also know that defying an editorial board’s recommendation could jeopardize future endorsements for their own political career.

The most worrisome threat for auditors: audit budgets could be more easily cut without risk of public backlash. If an auditor falls in the forest and nobody hears… With fewer stories about our work, and fewer readers of the stories that do get published, our value is less obvious to the public.

The most worrisome threat for us all: the public is losing its connection to and understanding of government. Pollsters in our community told the story of a focus group whose members couldn’t name one city service they used that morning. Streets have always been here, water flows without effort from taps, toilets flush away the unwanted with no trouble. It seems that reality has disappeared for that group of citizens. Those services came at a price paid by previous generations, and continued efforts are needed to maintain what we have. The public is forgetting that.

The voters have too large of a role in governing for these trends to end well.

If we can sustain ourselves, auditors remain trusted generators of reliable information. We need to extend our range to preserve accountability and our effectiveness. Here are some key strategies for succeeding:

Reach out to the public: We need to deliver our results to the public without relying so much upon journalists. We can’t just depend upon someone finding our website. We need to push our results with mailing lists and social media; even word of mouth can help.

Write for the public: We don’t, so we should stop claiming we do. Simple, clear, and compelling narrative comes from a different place than our evidence gathering and reasoning. We must put audits together in a way that the public wants to read.

Serve the public: Our audit topics need to matter to the public. Back-office findings don’t relate to the public like a finding about the delivery of services. We must also be extra vigilant to ensure that government integrity is sustained, even without the sunshine of journalists. Auditors are agents of good government, and the public needs to understand that.

Above all, maintain our credibility: We must follow Standards to preserve the public’s trust. There could be rough times ahead because auditors will be fighting against the current of the internet. Auditing is a profession built on the notion that there is no substitute for the facts. Our audit results may become the target of opinions, beliefs, bad logic, and faulty inferences which “substantiate” the author’s contrary views. Our basic response should be, “The evidence supports our findings.”

In the most dystopian view, the world will look like the internet—a sea of opinions and superstitions swirling around a few small uncharted islands of truth. Auditors need to inhabit the highest ground of veracity and be a landmark for all.

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