Auditing between and among

We interview and observe and analyze our audit areas to identify issues that ultimately turn into findings and audit reports. We make recommendations to address inadequacies, or opportunities to be taken.

Here’s a new way to think about our work. We find what isn’t there. We spot places where more controls are needed, procedures are not being followed, better practices are not used. We see those absences inside the organizations and we can fit that missing piece neatly into the elements of a finding. Instead of mission-directed audits, we could call these omission-directed audits.

But omission-directed audits are easy. Try something really difficult. Try auditing the nothingness between agencies.

Very few problems stay conveniently within the margins of an agency; most straddle the boundaries and missions of multiple agencies within our jurisdiction. Some agencies are intended to address the issues separately. Think, for example, of the parts that make up the criminal justice system: police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, jails, courts, prisons. They are intended to work together, and also for their own distinct purpose, yet are expected to manage decisions and people in many different circumstances through the stages and cycles of the system.

Since issues often have no organizational boundaries, the most beneficial audit will inevitably involve multiple agencies. For example, we don’t know all the causes of crime but we do know that substance abuse increases an individual’s risk of committing crimes. With that connection, the agencies in the criminal justice system now see the value of coordinating with treatment programs. The causes of the problem are bigger than the collection of agencies, and many must become involved.

So here’s a telling question: Has one of your audits ever contained recommendations to multiple agencies? Have you found the disconnects between agencies, the inadequacies of “silos,” the opportunities for better collaborative solutions? If you have, then you know the positive outcomes that are possible, and you also know the challenges of such an audit.

Multiple-department audits can help the public obtain better services, reduce delays and costs, and produce better outcomes. Think about the education system as a system, and the disconnects between middle school and high school and college that can put students at greater risk of failure. Think about the interplay of housing and transportation and economic development, and the missed opportunities when programs are not planned with those considerations. Think about the struggles of families and the mix of social and health service needs. Those are big problems that need fixing, and the independent auditor is in the best position to span them, engage the agencies, and identify solutions.

But even these audits are simple compared with the scope of some problems. In the late 1990s, we looked at “kindergarten readiness” to identify the factors that help children physically, emotionally, and socially enter and succeed in school. We also identified the efforts underway by federal, state, local, and nonprofit agencies to address those factors. It was mind-boggling to think about the range of distinct programs and policies in place, but equally daunting for a parent trying to understand what services are available and how to access them. Actual day-to-day coordination among all the programs could not even be imagined. Leaders intended agencies to adopt the benchmarks that were affected by their mission. With these community improvements as the common goal, this was a way of building agency collaboration. As mentioned earlier, this was a short-lived aspiration.

We conducted an audit of our state housing department to inventory its forty-nine programs and identify similar programs in other state agencies (about seventy-five more). We applied a methodology developed by the GAO to identify overlap, duplication, and fragmented programs to produce the report. That’s just the state level. Of course, multiple federal programs and agencies are involved in housing efforts and identified in GAO’s reviews of overlap, duplication, and fragmentation. Many different programs operate at the local level as well, and some programs rely upon nonprofit contractors to deliver services, which makes a fourth level of programs.

So here is the Everest ascent, the Mars landing, the mother of all audits: how can auditors identify the disconnects among the levels of government agencies and recommend solutions? Big problems by their nature require big solutions, and some are quite worrisome, like climate change. Australians have been researching these kinds of challenges, which they call “wicked problems,” using a phrase from mathematics theory. The GAO took up the challenge, trying to determine whether auditors could use their perspective and skills to tackle this class of broad-scope problems.

Sadly, there is a too much nothingness between federal, state, and local auditors.

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