The vastness of our profession has never ceased to amaze me. It is estimated there are more than one million internal auditors in the world. Our colleagues work tirelessly in every sector and industry imaginable to provide assurance on the effectiveness of risk management, control, and governance processes. In the vast majority of instances, our work is appreciated and lauded for the value it brings. However, with an alarming frequency, it seems that some of our colleagues who audit local government operations are waging an uphill battle against formidable political forces.
Government has always been a challenging place to audit. It is often argued that government can only be effective if it "maintains the public trust." If that is true, internal auditors in government play a pivotal role in reinforcing that trust. Their work provides assurance to taxpayers and citizens that resources are deployed effectively and that public officials are good stewards of taxpayer dollars. The transparency mandated by many "sunshine" and other open records laws can present a unique challenge for local government auditors. Imagine that even the results of your draft audit report can be the subject of tomorrow's headlines. It presents an often contentious and combative environment. Although most elected officials welcome the insight that comes from an effective internal audit program, an increasing number appear threatened by the scrutiny that accompanies critical audit results. When they do feel threatened, they lash out at the messenger!
The Collin County, Texas mess. When I first heard about the problems that our colleague in Collin County was facing, I thought it was a joke. Surely, the County Commission would not sue its own auditor to stop him from gaining access to audit the county's computer programs. Yet, as this story in The Collin County Observer indicates, that is exactly what the commissioners did. Fortunately for all of us, a judge ruled against the commission (PDF). You would think the embarrassed commissioners would have gotten the message after spending almost US $300,000 of taxpayer money to impede the County Auditor. Unfortunately, a law has now been introduced (PDF) before the Texas state legislature that would prohibit county auditors from directly accessing or manipulating "real-time data on a computer maintained by a county department or a district clerk, district attorney, county officer, or precinct officer except as authorized by a written agreement between the auditor and the entity responsible for compiling or maintaining the applicable data." And you thought you had a tough job!
Wait — there's more. The Collin County case would be bad enough if it was the only one like it. Unfortunately, it seems to be open season on local auditors. Last month, the Jefferson County (Colorado) Commission fired the County Auditor, saying it would save taxpayers money, and that she really wasn't saving a lot of money anyway. Yet, as this article in The Denver Post reveals, there appears to be more to the story there as well. Since the beginning of the year, at least five instances have been brought to my attention where a local auditor has either resigned in protest or been subject to the kind of political harassment and pressure witnessed in Collin County. I am not sure what is going on, but it is time for it to come to an end. Local auditors are the first line of defense in ensuring public trust in government. Their compensation is normally a fraction of that of their corporate counterparts, yet they persevere in the face of extraordinary challenges. For me, they are the unsung heroes of our profession.