Auditors at Work: Spring Spotlight on Nicole Barrett

Once a quarter we will be discussing the wonders of the world of auditing with (you guessed it) actual auditors! For this installment we talked with staff auditor Nicole Barrett, an eight-year veteran of the Secretary of State Audits Division. She loved performance auditing so much, after a brief hiatus in  California she returned to the Secretary of State’s office to do more great work!

What is your professional background?

I graduated college with a theater degree and worked in theater for seven years. There was a point that I felt that I needed more. I looked around for graduate degrees that focused on nonprofit management, because I thought that was where I wanted to be. At the time, most nonprofit degrees were connected to Public Administration programs.

What got you into performance auditing?

I took a Policy and Process course in grad school at Portland State University where we traveled to Washington D.C. to learn about the work that public government employees do in different federal agencies. On that trip we visited the Government Accountability Office. I came out of that meeting, thinking, “That’s what I want to do!” This was my first exposure to performance auditing. I liked that this profession could affect change–auditors work to make government better. From there on, I shifted from my goal of pursuing a career in nonprofit management to working for the government.

A classmate told me that there is an agency, the Secretary of State that does similar work to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in Oregon. I interned in fall 2002. April 2003 I was hired as a Staff Auditor 1. I left in 2009 for family reasons, but returned in 2015 because I loved the work and the work environment at the Secretary of State’s office.

What do you love about performance auditing?

In our office we have a structure to our audits that I like. We are very team oriented. We can separately do parts of the audit work and then come together. I am an external processor so a team environment really works for me. And, things are constantly changing. There is a constant flow of new and different task. . In this office you get experience doing a lot of different aspects of auditing. The work that we do challenges me—it stretches and grows my mind. My husband says I get really energized from my work and I think that is true.

On the other hand, for me the scoping phase can be a challenge because at times it feels undefined and is less structured. Reading administrative rules and statutes is not my favorite part—I don’t have the legal mind for it. Other people on my team really enjoy these types of aspects, so that is helpful.

What is one audit that really stands out for you and why?

I really liked the cell phone audit I did years ago. It was a multi-agency audit. We did some interesting work with data. It identified and brought areas of both under-utilization and overuse to the agencies’ attention. And, that audit had a good impact.

What is it that excites you about working for the government?

I believe for the most part, people are drawn to government work because they want to serve. That really resonates with me. Time and time again I see good people doing good things in government—their heart is in it.

When you are not in the office, how do you like to spend your time?

I love being with my friends, drinking coffee…going on walks, with friends to drink coffee. Seriously though, my husband and I enjoy seeing plays in Ashland and the Portland area, as well as attend lectures.

 

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City of Portland Audit Services: Financial Condition Report released

As part of our Regional Roundup beat, we are starting to feature the work of other audit shops. Check out the recent financial condition audit released yesterday by the City of Portland Auditor’s Audit Services Division. 


Portland Audit Services DivisionThe Financial Condition report, produced by the Portland City Auditor’s Office every other year, focuses on historical trends over five years and allows decision-makers to visualize the City’s course, consider options, and make adjustments to improve the City’s long-term financial health.

Portland Spending

Auditors found that although Portland’s financial condition is stable, the City must address long term challenges.

Some City assets are losing value faster than the City can make repairs.  While the City is making significant investments in water, sewer and stormwater assets, most transportation infrastructure is in fair to poor condition.

Portland Construction

The City has also seen a declining net position – partly due to increased liabilities, such as the City’s pension system for police and fire, as well as policy changes for the Oregon Public Employees Retirement System.

Report highlights

Read the full report


Have an audit you would like featured? Let us know!

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Speaking Truth to Power (Users): Why data visualization matters to researchers, auditors, and program evaluators

“I’m not a data visualization expert, but I am a data visualization enthusiast” Rebecca Brinkley joked as she started her presentation on including visual elements in reports to the State of Oregon Research Academy (SORA).  Several dozen researchers from around the state listened intently as she walked through the importance of including visual elements and gave examples from recent audit reports from the Oregon Audits Division.

Why Visuals Matter

“Our brains are visual processors not word processors” explained Rebecca Brinkley. Most people think visually rather than verbally.  Furthermore, visuals have been found to be processed at a much higher rate than text alone.  The visual elements help the reader process complex information and improve retention.

Many times visuals can help tell a story or make a connection that would be more difficult to do using text. For example, Rebecca highlighted this image of the water cycle in a recent report on water management in Oregon.

waikato

I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather see this image describing the water cycle than reading a long paragraph describing the water cycle.

We will be highlighting some more example of useful data visualization techniques in future blog posts.

Rebecca will also be presenting to the Pacific Northwest Intergovernmental Audit Forum in March.

Ian Green, CGAP and OAD Senior Auditor

Ian Green, CGAP and OAD Senior Auditor

Auditors at Work Featured Performance Audit

Talkin’ Shop With: Larry Stafford, Clark County Audit Services Manager

Join us as we talk shop with our neighbor to the North and former OAD performance auditor, Larry Stafford.

About Clark County’s Audit Services

clarkcountylogo

Per county code, internal audit is an independent appraisal activity for the review of operations within the county. The objective is to assist management in the effective discharge of their duties, and to promote efficiency and economy consistent with the public interest.

Clark County government is comprised of several separately elected officials, including the County Auditor.

The Audit Services Department conducts performance audits, internal control reviews, and provides other services to county management. Performance audits are objective and systematic reviews of program quality and the results achieved. Internal control reviews include analytical reviews, interviews, observations, and tests with the intent of evaluating the security of county assets and the accuracy/reliability of financial reports.

The Clark County Auditor

The Clark County Auditor is elected to a four-year term and our current Clark County Auditor is Greg Kimsey. In addition to being the county’s chief financial officer, the auditor also oversees several essential county services: Audits, Auto Licensing, Elections, Marriage Licensing, Financial Services, and Recording. Additionally, the Auditor works with other elected officials, various state agencies, and the state legislature regarding issues that affect these services.

ft-vancouver-clark-county-historical-musuem

Fort Vancouver (image from Clark County Historical Museum)

Working with an elected auditor is interesting because they can bring a different perspective and things to consider. We do debriefs with the auditor throughout our audits, and at the end of the Scoping, Planning, and Fieldwork phases.

Can you describe your role as Audit Services Manager?

stafford

As the Audit Services Manager for Clark County, I serve as the principle auditor and am responsible for the quality of the Audit Services team (2016 Peer review). This includes reviewing audit work and administrative responsibilities such as developing and maintaining policies and procedures, hiring staff, performing the annual quality assessment, and coordinating peer reviews.  I also serve as a liaison between County departments and external auditors, like those from the Washington State Auditor’s office.

When I left OAD, Gary Blackmer, who was the director at the time, told me that I would have to “live with my audits” at the county. He was right. At the state, we would audit an agency and leave. But at the county we see the people we audit every day. We still report to a separately elected Auditor and so we are external to those that we audit, yet we are still internal to county government. We have to build relationships while always being aware of our independence.

What got you into performance auditing?

Luck! I spent ten years in the automation/ engineering field. That was mostly robotics-related work including electrical design, project management, and programming. I also spent some time in the financial services industry.

I wasn’t happy with my work-life balance, so I went to graduate school and earned my MBA as a path to a new career. I attended a job fair with a classmate who went to speak with the Oregon Audits Division about financial auditing. At the booth they also told me about this interesting and challenging field called performance auditing. I’ve always been driven to learn new things and this sounded like just the right fit. I was fortunate to get a position with OAD and to work with some very good auditors.

Larry’s take on performance auditing

One of the most important things I learned at OAD was that performance auditing is about understanding the issues and finding solutions – not placing blame. Also, reporting when you find things are happening the right way is just as important as identifying problems. It provides objectivity to your report and delivers the assurance expected from an audit.

For example, the first audit I worked on at OAD examined if state agencies hired former employees as contractors.  We found some instances, but all of the required procurement processes were followed and the award decisions were appropriate. Saying that in an audit report certainly didn’t get headlines but it did provide assurance.

Working at OAD was really interesting.  I was involved in a lot of issues at different levels, auditing different agencies and topics.

Coordinating with state auditors

clarkcountyThe Washington State Auditor’s office is doing some work around accountability. As part of this work, they are reviewing the financial affairs of municipal governments, state and local laws, and contracts to assess risk and evaluate compliance, mostly looking at internal controls. What I help with is making sure there is no duplication of work, and help facilitate communication and work with Clark County staff. I also help provide context and clear up any confusion, similar to an internal auditor.

Providing training

Internal control failures are common issues identified in our audits. So each fall, we host a half-day seminar on fraud and internal controls for County managers. I’ve found this kind of training is helpful for managers who are often experts in their field but have not been exposed to management tools like the COSO framework or the fraud triangle.

The training doesn’t take a lot of our time, but there is a big pay off. When these fundamental issues are addressed, then our performance audits can focus on higher level issues. The trainings also help to build relationships and credibility, and we get good feedback from managers who attend. They’re very interested in this information and how they can apply it to improve their departments.

How do you choose your audit topics?

We complete a biannual risk assessment and create a schedule of proposed audits. This includes input from elected officials, employees, citizens of Clark County, and our auditors. This proposed schedule is presented to our Audit Oversight Committee, of which the Clark County Auditor is the chair. The committee recommends audit priorities before we finalize our schedule. The County Auditor can approve audit work on issues that emerge between biannual risk assessments.

What are some interesting audits you’ve worked on at Clark County?

An audit I did on economic development was probably the most interesting audit I’ve worked on. Economics has a lot of intertwined theories, so it’s hard to nail down criteria. We wanted tangible criteria because it doesn’t matter what’s happening if you can’t agree on how to measure things. In the end, we also adjusted our conclusions based on the more questionable evidence. This audit received an ALGA Knighton Award as a result of this approach and how we treated the evidence.

Audit of Clark County’s Job Creation- Fee Waiver Program 

“The Clark County Auditor’s Office evaluated an economic development program designed to spur job creation through waiving government fees. The audit found that the fee waiver program cost Clark County approximately $8 million in its first year in forgone revenue and was not cost effective. Objective in its treatment of evidence and sensitive to its policy implications, the audit makes two strong recommendations: 1) either discontinue the program, or 2) implement significant changes to improve the program. The audit won the exemplary award for its scope and methodology, significant impact and for its clear and concise report writing.”

fee-waiver-audit

We’re also completing a series of inventory audits that look at high-risk assets, like ammunition and fuel. These material management audits are more interesting than you’d think! We’ve found opportunities to improve operations while decreasing costs, risk, and liability.

Sheriff’s Office High Risk Equipment and Supplies Management Audit 

“This was an impactful audit that focused on internal controls of high-risk materials utilized by the Sheriff’s Office, taking into account public safety as well as accountability. Findings and conclusions directly tied to objectives. Recommendations when implemented will not only have a cost savings but will increase efficiency and enhance accountability. The report was well organized with effective use of photos and charts.”

What is your favorite part about your job?

When I was a kid, I would research different topics and learn all about them. In doing this work, I have the opportunity to that for a living. It’s also all across a wide spectrum of services — it’s very hard to get bored! My favorite part about this job, though, is getting to work with other auditors. They’re so intelligent and passionate about their work.

Auditors at Work Featured Performance Audit Regional Roundup: Talkin' Shop

ELGL RePost: Your department has been selected for an audit

So your department, office, division, or program has been selected for an audit. You and your coworkers might be worried that a team of humorless scolds is coming by to tell you how to do your jobs. But have no fear! As auditors, our job is to work with you to make whatever you do more efficient and effective, so that all of us can provide the best service possible to our residents. Also, we have a great sense of humor.

Sam Naik, who works for the Office of the City Auditor in Austin, Texas, eloquently summarizes for Emerging Local Government Leaders (ELGL) what we as auditors do and what agencies that are involved in an audit can expect before, during, and after an audit. It covers the standards we follow, the planning process for audits, fieldwork, and reporting, as well as follow ups after the audit.

This is a great read for anyone that fears an audit may be coming down the pike for their agency, for those interested in becoming auditors, and for those who just want to have a better understanding of what an audit looks like and what it can achieve.

Read more here.

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Things to consider when choosing performance audit topics

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

Topics

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.

Timing

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.

Audit Schedules

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:

Multnomah County Auditor

Auditor General of British Columbia

Audit Scotland

 

OAD and our peers both near and far approach topic selection thoughtfully, deliberately, and with a long list of considerations in mind.

Please consult our website to delve deeper into our recent performance audits, or visit our audit snapshots page to get a taste of our recent performance audit findings.

 

Auditors at Work Featured Performance Audit