Why Audits Tragically Fail

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This topic contains 9 replies, has 7 voices, and was last updated by  Steve Ressler 9 years, 9 months ago.

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  • #108206

    John O’Leary

    Audits should be great tools for improvement and innovation. Sadly, too often they are not, and for a really silly reason.

    We all know that audits aren’t fun. But whether a compliance audit or (even better) a performance audit, having an outsider examine your organization can highlight areas for improvement:

    Done right, an independent audit can be a valuable tool for positive change. If you are interested in better, faster, cheaper government, a good audit can be your best friend…A good audit offers not just oversight, but insight.

    In my recent article on Governing.com (full article here), I argue that one reason that audits so often fail to trigger needed improvements is because auditors are–forgive me–dull.

    Like all professional disciplines, auditors bring a personality consistent with their positions. Pop stars are snazzy dressers, politicians are gregarious and the best auditors are professional, meticulous and circumspect. Their writing style tends to the prolix and soporific. This creates something of a problem. Audit reports make for painfully dull reading. In many cases, findings that should create a furor are ignored because they are buried in sleep-inducing prose.

    The “dull factor” is a serious problem. Good auditing work gets wasted by poor writing, The findings go unread and unreported.

    So here’s my humorous solution: What if we have auditors perform the audit, then have PR flaks write the executive summary for the press? Snazz things up a bit.

    Am I crazy? Am I being unfair to auditors? Or have others noticed the same thing?

  • #108224

    Steve Ressler

    As a former auditor, I totally agree with you. I was always surprised that all the research and analysis in audits often goes underreported in news and underutilized in the agency.

    I would say GAO is a little better at marketing than the others. They must have a good PR team as often in USA Today and other places. Also they have a solid podcast. But I think they could do even more and all auditors should spend some time/money on marketing and packaging to make sure their research gets heard.

  • #108222

    Jenyfer Johnson

    I have to add my $0.02 on this subject, having be subjected to a number of AF Audit Agency audits through the years.

    The key word in your discussion is “GOOD”…the audit must be a good audit. Too often what we end up with is not a good audit because the auditor doesn’t know the subject, hasn’t listened, hasn’t paid any attention to comments that have been provided by the subject expert and so on. Therefore you end up with bad data at the end, poor write-ups, skewed numbers and a bad taste left in everyone’s mouth (mine especially).

  • #108220

    Steve Ressler

    Fair point. There is a big difference between a good and a bad audit that may only be clear to folks close to the project and audit.

  • #108218

    Sterling Whitehead

    Interesting point. I haven’t dealt with any auditors (yet). Sounds like they could benefit from our government’s Plain Language guidelines.

  • #108216

    Denise Petet

    I think another contributing factor is the ‘bully supervisor’, who puts forth any audit as ‘yep, gonna see if you’re worth keeping around’. Employees are naturally defensive, middle supervisors tweak and augment and spin results. Things get rewritten to ‘look good on paper’, and, quite often, nothing that needs to change ever really does.

    And, if you’re really, really unlucky, there are some in management that’ll use a routine ‘just gathering info’ audit into a means to push forth some personal agenda.

    There is quite often, such a lack of transparency that, combined with a bully, gets turned into a witch hunt.

    I have literally seen this in my organization. A singular middle manager bully that whips others into a frenzy, convinced that any audit is evil and gunning for their jobs, the managers under him panic and the employees get to ‘enjoy’ the fallout.

    Sometimes I think the best audit is not only, as others have said, conducted by knowledgeable people, but one that’d be, at least to some level, conducted without anyone even knowing it’s going on, so the auditors can get a real picture of what’s going on, instead of the image that’s put forth.

    Do an ‘invisible’ audit first, get a real picture of what’s going on, then use that info to guide the real and official one.

  • #108214


    Assuming it was the result of a fair and objective (albeit, not necessarily popular) analysis, another few things to ask about any audit report is:

    1) Are the corrective actions/recommendations actionable (well-understood)?

    2) Are the corrective actions/recommendations accountable (regularly reported to the right folks via an easy-to-understand report or other mechanism that helps ensure momentum towards, and eventually, closure of the actionable recommendations)?

    I often find the answer to one or both questions is an emphatic “no”. If the clear line of sight to tangible action is obscured, either through obtuse language, odd phrasing, questionable methodology, or unclear roles/responsibilities or offended sense of denial in the audited organization, then that audit is on the road to Shelfware.

    On the other hand, if the actionable implications are clear, but there is no accountability anchor for anyone to move forward on the findings, then this becomes another Shelfware situation waiting to happen. GAO reports have the benefit of having accountable process and reporting deadlines back to GAO, helping close the loop on the most pressing findings. Other audits, especially internally generated ones, not so much.

    Glossy executive summaries can be helpful for shared understanding, especially for making the auditing methodology more transparent. However, the real key is for any audit to generate actionable, realistic recommendations, with accountability anchors somewhere along the way so a specific person will notice and intervene when the actions are dormant for too long.

  • #108212

    Stephen Buckley


    Most of my 25 years in D.C. were spent as as a federal employee at five federal agencies, with most of that time doing “internal oversight”.

    Many, if not most, audits of government agencies are internal, i.e., they are done by “in-house” employees. We tried to find problems while they are still small because, otherwise, they will grow into big problems that the I.G.’s office will begin to notice, and their reports are made available to the outside. (Not good.)

    And, because the general theme of internal audits usually focuses on those things that are NOT being done properly or adequately, the agency’s management is most certainly NOT looking for ways to tell everyone all about their shortcomings. That behavior would be considered a professional death-wish almost everywhere in the federal service.

    Yes, there are islands of enlightened management who do want to know the truth, whereever it may lead. But those government offices are the exception, and many of the people who work in those offices don’t realize their great good luck. They think, understandably, that their office is the “norm”, and they can’t figure out why so many employees in other offices and agencies are so timid about reporting “opportunities for improvement” (i.e., problems).

    So, even when an audit is “done right”, the major factor that determines whether any improvements will be made depends on that agency’s system of rewards-and-punishments (written and unwritten) about how it handles the truth about its own shortcomings.

    So, when we see the vast majority of people doing a particular task (e.g., reporting problems to management) in a similarly unusual fashion (i.e., using obtuse language), then there’s probably a very good reason for that behavior (e.g., their career stays on-track).

    I made a suggestion on OpenGSA (it got the highest # of votes) about the need to recognize our “shoot-the-messenger” problem inside federal agencies: Internal Transparency: Make It SAFE for Govt. Workers to Speak

    Until that happens, IMHO, discussion about other lesser factors is premature.

  • #108210

    Steve Ressler

    Agreed on actionable, realistic recommendations.

    I’ve been known to write them myself but sometimes the recommendations are grand and not tactical enough.

  • #108208

    Richard E Mallory

    OK – having done many audits, let me add that we can get a platform for key findings by doing an exit briefing attended by all managers. That also smokes out the “how could be implement this?” discussions that “test” the validity of recommendations. We can develop a tracking matrix so that you, the client, can keep a focus on what is done afterwards.

    After all is said and done it must be remembered that improvement of all sorts is always possible, but requires an investment of your time. We know that current operations will use at least 85-95% of ALL your time, and improvements will be able to access only 5-15% of time at most. So working together to develop a budget of what is possible, and what is top priority, is a key to effective improvement.

    Good discussion. And yeah, we auditors can be really dull if you let us. Remember too that dull-ness can be a deliberate strategy that lets us escape and get final payment without getting dragged into too many unpaid hours explaining the difficult stuff! Make sure to get your money’s worth.

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