Opinion Columns & Blogs

Audits improve local government accountability

Governments at all levels are looking to meet the needs of citizens while striving to be efficient and cost effective. There are many tools available to managers, directors and policy makers alike. One important tool that should be used is performance audits.

A performance audit is very different than the routine financial and accountability audits that governments conduct each year. Those audits focus on agency compliance with laws and regulations, and the tracking of public money to make sure taxpayer dollars can be accounted for.

What those types of audits do not do is ask and answer questions about the economy, efficiency, and effectiveness of government programs. For example, is the program achieving measurable results and is it best structured to deliver the best return for taxpayer spending?

Performance audits measure effectiveness, not just compliance, and it is critical that they be part of the tool kit for government accountability.

In the past the independently-elected State Auditor was prohibited by law from conducting performance audits of state and local agencies. This changed in 2005 when 56 percent of statewide voters approved Initiative 900, granting the State Auditor the authority to conduct independent performance audits and creating a dedicated account to fund performance reviews.

While the State Auditor has the authority to conduct performance audits at the local level limited resources and limited time keep the majority of the focus on state programs. This situation is made harder because the legislature regularly diverts money from the dedicated performance audit account to fund programs in the General Fund budget.

This is why it is important for local governments to incorporate a performance audit function into their normal budget review process, to provide accountability and identify opportunities for reforms and best practices. Elected officials in several local governments in Washington are already doing this.

According to the state Municipal Research and Services Center, performance audits are currently part of the normal governance accountability structure for King County, Pierce County, Snohomish County and Clark County, and the cities of Seattle, Tacoma and Vancouver.

Franklin County is also beginning to pursue performance audits and recently hired the firm Clifton Larson Allen to conduct a performance audit of the TRAC (Trade, Recreation and Agricultural Center) facility in Pasco.

Along with utilizing performance audits, another valuable resource for local officials is the State Auditor’s Local Government Performance Center. While not a full-fledged performance audit, the “free of charge” services offered by the State Auditor’s Local Government Performance Center can help local governments develop performance metrics that can then be used as a baseline for future performance audits.

This is exactly the type of assistance that is currently being offered by the State Auditor to Benton County officials, as county leaders build their performance accountability program for the recently voter-approved public safety sales tax ballot measure.

The State Auditor’s Office reports that since the Local Government Performance Center opened in June 2012 “the Center has provided assistance to over 2,300 local government staff and governments are reporting real improvements to their processes and customer service.”

Whether in good or bad budget times, taxpayers demand accountability from their public servants for the money they provide to fund essential core functions of government. One important tool to help elected officials meet this citizen expectation is a performance audit. Ensuring that tax dollars are not only accounted for but are also showing measurable results is critical to building public trust.

The willingness to incorporate meaningful performance audits into a local government’s routine budget structure communicates not only respect for the hard-earned dollars taxpayers provide, but also shows a commitment to ensuring government officials actually deliver important public services in the most economic, efficient and effective way.

Performance audits are effective and build public trust. It is time for them to be made part of the budget toolkit for all local governments in Washington.