A GAGAS audit puts you on the front line of the never-ending fight for good government. Government auditors are powerful and knowledgable, but not everyone knows that.
I imagine that you, like me, have listened patiently while your brother-in-law spouts off about how stupid government is. Half of what he says is off-base, and he clearly doesn’t understand how government works and what government is about.
The next time he has a few drinks at a family get-together and starts his rant, you could interrupt him and give him some schooling. Of course, it may not be worth it to poke a drunk bear, but just in case you decide to take him on one day, I want to arm you with some conceptual ammunition that might shut him up for a while.
Our work is noble
First of all, our work is pretty cool. Noble, in fact.
One wise city auditor told me that his life’s mission was to make sure that citizens who do not have a voice or power are taken care of. Can your brother-in-law say that about his job?
Here is what Gene Dedaro, the head of the GAO, says in his introductory letter to GAGAS:
Audits provide essential accountability and transparency over government programs. Given the current challenges facing governments and their programs, the oversight provided through auditing is more critical than ever. Government auditing provides the objective analysis and information needed to make the decisions necessary to help create a better future. The professional standards presented in this 2018 revision of Government Auditing Standards (known as the Yellow Book) provide a framework for performing high-quality audit work with competence, integrity, objectivity, and independence to provide accountability and to help improve government operations and services. These standards, commonly referred to as generally accepted government auditing standards (GAGAS), provide the foundation for government auditors to lead by example in the areas of independence, transparency, accountability, and quality through the audit process.
I love knowing that my job, as tedious as it can be sometimes, has a higher purpose and meaning.
Government should NOT run like a corporation
I get especially irritated when I hear people say that government should run like a corporation. Uh, NO…brother-in-law, you really don’t want that because corporations hide information and are in it to make a profit.
If you work for Apple, it makes sense to keep your actions and progress secret so that you beat your competitors to the market.
But we don’t want our government officials to be secretive. Both government officials and auditors should be open about what they are doing and why they are doing it.
For instance, the City of Austin discloses budgets and transactions of all City departments online in real time. I can, with a few clicks of the mouse, see that the Police Department bought a van, how much the van was, who they bought it from, why they need it, and what color of funds (general revenue, special revenue, enterprise revenues) paid for it.
“Why bother with all that?” your brother-in-law may say. Because that is our money – the taxpayer’s money – and we all have a right to know what it is being used for!
And then you can point out that he would not like it if his government treated him like a corporation treats its customers. A corporation only courts customers when they want more moola (maybe so the executives can renovate their mansions in the Hamptons!).
Instead, the customer of a government program may be a child who has no money at all. In government, it isn’t all about the money; it’s about service!
On a GAGAS audit, auditors are checking to see whether tax dollars are being used for their intended purpose and whether the public is being served by the auditee’s efforts.
Consider this quote from the 2018 Yellow Book: GAGAS 3.08 A distinguishing mark of an auditor is acceptance of responsibility to serve the public interest. This responsibility is critical when auditing in the government environment. GAGAS embodies the concept of accountability for public resources, which is fundamental to serving the public interest.
Good government isn’t self concerned
Recently on TV news, I saw a high school coach (who I consider to be a government official) whining about the death of one of his teenage football players. The coach was responsible for the death because he made the teenager run laps in 100 degree heat and refused him water. Instead of being contrite, the coach said something like, “Everyone is forgetting that I suffered a loss, too, and that I will hold on to this for the rest of my life.”
That is not exactly what the parents of that boy wanted to hear. He deflected accountability for the accident and tried to engender empathy for himself. YUCK.
The GAO does everything they can to fight this self-centered approach to governing. Accountability is the anecdote for selfishness. And GAGAS repeatedly reminds us that government officials are accountable to the taxpaying public for their actions and that we, as auditors, have a crucial role in holding government leaders accountable.
1.02 The concept of accountability for use of public resources and government authority is key to our nation’s governing processes.
1.05 Government auditing is essential in providing accountability to legislators, oversight bodies, those charged with governance, and the public.
But just to be clear, GAGAS audit standards are not written for government officials (although government officials are mentioned a few times); they are written for auditors.
So, while we auditors hold public officials and employees accountable for their actions, we are held accountable for our actions, too. We have to model the behavior that we expect from our auditees. Otherwise, we lose credibility and influence. For example, GAGAS auditors are required to disclose whether they followed every ‘must’ and ‘should’ audit requirement and list the requirements that they did not follow in the audit report.
Be proud of what you do for all of us
So, next time your brother-in-law starts popping off, you can inform him that you are a proud member of a profession that is trying to take care of the issues that he lectures about every time he has a few beers in him. This will open the door for you to go on a little rant of your own about government accountability, transparency, and service. Then you can drop the mic and leave him stunned with his mouth gaping open.
It could happen.