How does a performance audit shop decide what topics, and which agencies, warrant an audit? After all, a quick scan of your morning newspaper will stir up a seemingly endless number of important public issues. We can’t get to them all- not all at the same time, anyway- so how do we pick one topic over another?
One illuminating response to that question comes from the schedule of the Auditor General of British Columbia:
Because there are more projects than we can carry out, we use a comprehensive and systematic process to select the topics that best meet our mandate and will have the greatest impact. Potential performance audit topics come from:
- the work we’ve completed and are currently engaged in
- discussions with stakeholders, including the public service, government and the opposition
- information and requests from MLAs, the people of B.C. and other stakeholders
- the work of other audit offices
- changes to government sectors and programs
The same considerations largely apply in Oregon as well. Auditors here at the Oregon Audits Division (OAD) work on a wide range of potential topics, limited only by the range and breadth of public services state agencies deliver. In addition to the considerations outlined above, we also look at broader issues that affect multiple agencies and the general public. We consider topics where an audit may add value and clarity to the discussion, or provide guidance to an agency in need of a course correction to achieve its mission and goals. These include areas of great significance to the general population and costs to taxpayers (education, health care, environment), areas prone to risk (IT systems), and many more of the kinds of complex ‘wicked’ problems that require sustained efforts to ensure that they are properly managed.
The timing of an audit can affect the relevance and value of the audit findings and recommendations. An immediate issue that receives a lot of public attention in March may change drastically by October, so it is worth considering whether to go ahead with an audit when circumstances might render the findings obsolete by the time the report is released. For that reason, we choose topics with much care and an eye to systemic long-term benefits. The results of our audits ideally help public agencies avoid major issues to start with- not just attempt to right what has already gone wrong.
Many audit shops prepare and even publish audit schedules well in advance. Some audit topics are requested or mandated, and others are issues (or agencies) that haven’t been visited in a while and are ripe for review. That said, apart from mandated audits, an audit schedule is less a promise than it is a preview of potential coming attractions. Other, more needful, questions may arise between now and the beginning of the next audit schedule. Maintaining some amount of flexibility helps audit shops share a perspective on issues that is timely and useful.
A few audit schedule examples:
OAD and our peers both near and far approach topic selection thoughtfully, deliberately, and with a long list of considerations in mind.