People like scapegoats, and sometimes audit findings can encourage them to thump someone. Even though the blame may be difficult to assign, there are some elected officials, reporters, and bloggers who want to attack someone—the agency head, the program manager, or “government bureaucrats.”

Sometimes the biggest barrier to solving a problem is the blame game. Blame can be a negative force in effecting change, especially if the blame is misdirected or disproportionate. After tearing down an agency, how can anyone expect it to rise to the challenge of recommendations for smarter decision-making, or convert to more efficient methods, or hew with greater fidelity to best practices?

And yes, there are situations when auditors too would like to denounce an agency head or program manager, and with evidence they can hold an individual accountable. But it’s not the primary job of auditors to lay blame, because it’s more important to recommend strategies that address the problem itself, which may not be an individual. The most important auditor contributions are sound recommendations for better services to the public.

I’ve written about the use of force in our audits and we should always be cognizant of the effect our words can exert—good or bad. An auditor who always plays bully may generate headlines but will have more difficulty producing positive results for the public. The auditor will encounter more closed doors and vague, brief answers to questions. Auditors should set a clear course for agencies to address the audit findings and generally push only as hard as is required to get the recommended changes. Minimum force necessary, as the police leaders (sometimes) say.

To judge the necessary force we must understand the context of an audit finding. And by context, I really mean extending the analysis of cause further than we might otherwise. To understand why a problem arose may prevent similar problems at other agencies. Sometimes context reveals acceptable or unavoidable reasons for the problem. This context is found by asking “Why?”

Without context, we may be portraying agency management as incompetent or ineffectual when they were simply coping with different circumstances, or a situation beyond their control. Context is an important aspect in the next audit story.

Context can prove the opposite as well—such as a manager who fails to heed warnings and then blunders into a serious problem. One audit began “In a series of audits over sixteen years, the agency has been faulted for a continued pattern of fiscal irresponsibility.” That kind of context is important as well, and it spurred change at last.

The most common audit barrier to understanding context is the audit scope. We may not realize all the contributing causes to a problem when we prepare our fieldwork plans. If auditors ask, “How could this have happened?” they may find a trail that leads to other agencies, changing economic conditions, or new laws. If auditors confine themselves to their original work plan and scope, those causes may not be captured. And without a sound understanding of causes, the audit may not produce as practical recommendations.

Context also provides auditors with the opportunity to tell a richer story. Readers often want to know why things go wrong, even if they can’t blame someone for it. An audit that narrows its discussion to procedures and problems will turn off readers—and leaders—who might otherwise learn something from your work. It can be easier to write a story than to patch together a narrative from ideas in workpapers.

Understanding context makes us better auditors as well. Auditors learn from the mistakes of others. We start learning the patterns of organizational problems across audits and develop an eye for trouble. The more practiced we are at spotting those changing outside conditions, organizational symptoms, and root causes, the better we are at producing audits that make constructive and practical recommendations. Even then, we may need to go further.

What if the organization is in chaos with staff and managers overwhelmed by a workload that exceeds its resources?

We espouse the notion of continuous improvement, but what if we find a new manager has just begun cleaning up an organization, instituting better training,  allocating resources in better ways, training supervisors, and using performance data?

What if the organization depends upon an antiquated software program to support its staff and hasn’t been able to persuade leaders to take on the perilous task of replacing it?

I ask audit teams some simple questions—which they can, in turn, ask agency management—to understand context. In the simplest terms, “How did this situation happen?” will often reveal the answer. Sometimes the answers point to outside forces, and sometimes to internal breakdowns. Explaining those in the report will require evidence beyond testimony, of course.

In many cases, those larger root causes, internal or external, can be formulated into four broad categories of questions:

  • Do employees have a clear understanding of the expectations and policies of the organization and are they adequately trained in their duties?
  • Have resources been allocated in a manner that maximizes operations to meet public expectations?
  • Is there adequate supervision, support systems, and procedures to help employees perform at their best?
  • Are performance measures, and operational data being monitored and acted upon to adjust and improve the organization’s results?

You may have recognized this as the framework of managing for results.

Stepping back and asking “Why?” can ensure that you understand the big picture of an audit finding. Often you know the answer, but it’s never been put into the context for the finding. When you add that background and cause information to your audit you’ll tell a more interesting story and produce better recommendations.

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