The Mechanics of Government

Auditors are the specialty mechanics of government. While we don’t make the repairs ourselves, we diagnose the problems and recommend solutions. I know the metaphor oversimplifies our work, and our working environment, but let’s take it for a spin.

What are the expectations for a well-tuned government machine? Well, they’re extensive because the machinery is complicated. We expect the machine to successfully address many kinds of problems, from people with addictions to traffic engineering. Auditors don’t question the specific decisions of trained professionals, but we do get at the fundamentals of service delivery.

An obvious fundamental: we expect the machine to be thrifty with its resources. Auditors look for unnecessary costs and spending. We might look to the costs in other governments for comparison.

The government should also deliver its services in a timely manner. Because the machinery is responding to existing problems, the mechanic must diagnose problems with urgency. Analyzing the time sequence of decisions and actions can identify unnecessary delays.

More complex expectations involve the quality of services. Are the prescribed services based upon the best research and evidence? Does the machinery consistently deliver the prescribed services? Is the machinery able to adjust its services to the variety of situations it encounters? Does it deliver the right services to the right people?

Government programs are established to address particular needs, regardless of a person’s race, religion, cultural background, age, or gender. It can be difficult for auditors to develop objective evidence of bias, but it should not be overlooked. Geographic bias may occur when park locations, housing assistance, or transportation improvements create disadvantaged neighborhoods where a there might be a higher percentage of people who are minorities.

Just as the government should not disadvantage certain individuals or groups, it should not favor others. Government serves the public interest. That is a generalized concept of the greatest good for the greatest number of people, now and in the long-term. Auditors can look for favoritism in purchasing or hiring processes, although decisions driven by special interest lobbying may be hard to prove. Auditors can identify the distribution of tax burden, or an overdependency upon debt.

But this government machinery is really made up of organizations, trained and equipped to perform the work. Unlike the circuitry or steel of machinery, which is designed to accomplish one specific activity, people and outside forces complicate the performance of the government machinery. I’ve written before about the managing-for-results questions that auditors can consider in order to diagnose poor functioning.

Does the organization have a clearly stated mission, objectives, and expectations? Have those been communicated to its workforce? Are the resources adequate to accomplish the workload? Has the organization provided adequate written procedures, training, and equipment to its workforce? Is the organization tracking its performance and using the results to adjust its planning, budgeting, and management practices for improvement? You may recognize these phrases from our notes on managing for results.

These are key to a well-managed organization, and many problems, can be traced to lapses in one or more of these components. Auditors can also conduct customer surveys to get at the different dimensions of results, including qualitative measures.

We now come to the weakest part of the machinery: humans. All the written procedures and all the training and all the supervision will never completely prevent the problems that humans create in an organization. I say this without sadness or contempt because, as they say, we are all human. Even in your own audit office you can probably recall past problems that were rooted in miscommunication, inattention, poor judgment, forgetfulness, interpersonal conflict, misplaced priorities…and you can probably add a few more causes.

Auditors must discern these human mistakes from a systemic weakness in the delivery of services. Occasionally a problem gets more attention and action than it deserves. Your government probably has developed a few procedures and enacted some rules because of one shamed but unnamed employee. You may have even written audit recommendations that address some rare foible, although auditors should try to direct their attention to patterns of significant problems.

So, what can auditors examine to produce a better workforce? I think the foundation is ensuring that employees are committed to the public interest in a much broader sense. Whatever the employee does must benefit the public. Fundamentally, employees must be honest, ethical, transparent, accountable. We use the phrase “tone at the top” but tone at the bottom or the front lines should be obvious when auditors interview because the tone often gets magnified among those employees. When the boss dials bad attitude up to six, those on the front lines will often dial it to eight. That’s the sad perversity of leadership.

What does your government teach about honesty, ethics, transparency, and accountability? Portland, for a time, had a half-day new employee orientation and invited me to speak for a half hour about the auditor’s office. I spoke about our various functions (many more than just auditing) but also urged them to contact us if they had concerns about how services were provided in their bureaus.

In one session I asked them to raise their hands if they had never worked in government before. I was shocked to see at least three-fourths of the participants raise their hand. They were starting with no understanding of public service.

I changed my presentation entirely. I told them that Portland’s most valuable resource was the people they would be working with. Then I challenged them: Are you good enough to work here? I started telling them that research on employee job satisfaction identified these key factors:

  • friendly working environment
  • interesting work
  • a sense of achievement
  • training and development opportunities
  • job security
  • good communication
  • good management
  • adequate pay

If they saw ways to improve their job, it would benefit the workplace and their own satisfaction. If they had a growing concern related to one of those factors, they should contact my office—except for the pay part. I also noted that the listed factors were in descending order and that pay was of less importance than all the others for job satisfaction.

I ended by handing out a single page summary of Portland’s Code of Ethics[i]. I emphasized that as new employees, they were now city officials because the code’s definition of a city official is “any elected official, employee, appointee to a board or commission, or citizen volunteer authorized to act on behalf of the City of Portland, Oregon.” The code has only four sections, which echo our audit Standards:

  • Trust. The purpose of city government is to serve the public. City officials treat their office as a public trust.
  • Objectivity. City officials’ decisions are based on the merits of the issues. Judgment is independent and objective.
  • Accountability. Open government allows citizens to make informed judgments and to hold officials accountable.
  • Leadership. Ethical leadership sets a good example and treats all citizens with respect.

Each section had eight to ten statements. Here are the first three under Trust:

  • The City’s powers and resources are used for the benefit of the public rather than any official’s personal benefit.
  • City officials promote public respect by avoiding even the appearance of impropriety.
  • Policymakers place long-term benefit to the public as a whole above all other considerations, including the concerns of important individuals and special interests. However, the public interest includes protecting the rights of under-represented minorities.

This code of ethics was developed by the previous auditor and is generally designed to be aspirational despite the city attorney wishes. They wanted language that could be used to charge someone with violations, but minimum expectations are sometimes less important than ideals.

I attended a Pacific Northwest Governmental Audit Forum with a speaker from the local office of the FBI. This agent had arrived from the New Orleans office a couple of years earlier and humble-bragged about busting up government corruption there. Upon his arrival in Portland, he was surprised there was no government corruption task force. When he asked, his boss said there was little corruption and a dedicated unit couldn’t be justified. He doubted that assumption and set out to find it in our governments. He began telling the story of a parking meter manager who was taking favors to benefit a company selling parking meters. He described his efforts examining bank records, travels, and the financial transaction of the company owner. They made an arrest a year and a half later. He concluded that there was indeed more corruption in Portland, and nobody was doing anything about it.

I was provoked by him and his story. I waited my turn to ask a question and described our side of the story. I said that employees of the manager had contacted my office with suspicions about their boss. The Ombudsman investigated the purchases thoroughly, looked at the activities and absences of the manager, but could not find evidence of wrongdoing, except for the wording of the bid request pointed out by the employees. He defended it on technicalities that we couldn’t challenge. We passed the concerns on to the bureau director who initiated another investigation that didn’t get any further. When we learned of their stymied efforts I directed the Ombudsman to contact the FBI and pass on our investigation notes.

I pointed out to the agent and the group that we don’t have access to the investigation tools of the FBI. I also said that the reason this corruption was uncovered was the willingness of the employees to come forward, and their ethical standards are one reason our governments in the Pacific Northwest have less corruption.

If your government does not have a simple, comprehensive code of ethics, an audit could identify best practices. Recommending adoption can be a worthwhile long-term solution after a scandal is uncovered, much more proactive than an investigation, in my opinion.

Beyond promoting ethics, auditors can examine dysfunctional organizations in an audit[ii]. The chemistry in organizations can sink the morale of the employees, or it can generate delightful enthusiasm and camaraderie. Each person adds or detracts from the organization. And there is no question which chemistry will better serve the public. Leadership with a light touch is necessary—but not sufficient—to sustain a positive atmosphere.

A leader’s biggest challenge is to build or rebuild a well-functioning organization, which can take several years. Work environment surveys can gauge satisfaction and identify weaknesses related to expectation-setting, training, communications, performance feedback, collaboration, bias, and other factors that guide an audit’s recommendations for management. The Portland and Oregon auditor’s offices conducted these surveys as parts of audits.

We are in a profession that has the distinct opportunity to observe, from organization to organization, variations in chemistry, sources of problems, and consequences to the public. Because so many moving parts in government machinery can be broken, an auditor’s cautious, incremental, and professional methods are the best means of achieving real improvements.

[i] (Portland) Code of Ethics Pamphlet

[ii] (Oregon 2014) Oregon Emergency Management: Rebuilding the Organization to Strengthen Oregon’s Emergency Management

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