Auditors at Work: Spoooky Spotlight on Jamie Ralls

Once a quarter we will be discussing the wonders of the world of auditing with (you guessed it) actual auditors! Our Spooooky Halloween Season (aka, Autumn) Spotlight fell on Jamie Ralls, one of the Principal Auditors with the Oregon Audits Division.

How long have you been an auditor, and what led you to auditing?

I started working here fresh out of college about 15 years ago. I was 22 and interning at Willamette Valley Vineyards, evaluating why sales were down. This included performing site visits, meeting with salespeople, and ultimately preparing a report with findings and recommendations for improvement. It was an interesting internship. About 6 months after I presented my findings to the director and sales team I heard back from them- some of my suggestions had been implemented, which had contributed to a 50% increase in sales.

Around that time, I met a representative from this office at a career fair- I was not very familiar with auditing, but in speaking to that person it sounded a lot like the internship I was working on and sparked my interest. I applied and was hired not long after that.

Many people, upon hearing the word ‘auditing,’ may assume that the job is just deadly dull. What are your thoughts?

I have done performance and financial auditing, dabbled in IT auditing, and work on the fraud team. Particularly with performance auditing, I have felt like my work can and does have a big, visible impact. This job makes big changes that can be felt across the state.

Individually, it’s also a great opportunity to learn about things you never knew you would learn about. I’ve learned about how big trucks get weighed. I was there to see the early stages of JJIS (Juvenile Justice Information System). The job has never been stagnant, never boring. I’ve developed some areas of expertise, but I continue to learn and build upon my knowledge base.

Any auditing horror stories?

I worked with the OSP (Oregon State Police) on a fraud investigation a few years ago. It was a case of embezzlement on the part of a state fair employee. I was invited to go with the OSP to the home of the suspect. I was in a suit, surrounded by police wearing full gear and bullet proof vests, wondering why I was the one knocking on the front door… The husband answered the door. We informed him that a search warrant was being served on his wife. He responded with, “That’s fine. Can you take me to work?”

The house itself was overrun with evidence of the presence of many cats. When I stepped in the door and stepped inside, I wasn’t sure which caught my attention first: the fact that my foot went ‘squish’ on the carpet, or the overpowering smell of… well, cats. The woman was also a hoarder. There were stacks of mail everywhere, in the backseat of the car, in the kitchen cupboards… as though she had just given up on her life and shut down. Ultimately, she was convicted of embezzling a large amount of money. As for me- I went home and took a shower.

Speaking of things spooky and scary… Are you dressing up for Halloween, or hiding out in your PJs?

Dressing up! My husband and our four kids are going to a Halloween party and trick-or-treating. I haven’t decided on a costume yet, but might go as Glinda the Good Witch. My son and one of my daughters are going as soccer zombies- you know, with half a soccer ball glued onto their midsections, some fake blood, soccer uniforms. My youngest daughter is going as some kind of princess- we haven’t decided which princess- and the eldest daughter hasn’t made up her mind yet what she is going to be.

Which would you least prefer to run into, and why: ghosts, zombies, or former auditors?

Definitely former auditors! They know enough to be dangerous, if they work for another agency now. But, they can also be very helpful and informative. They can be good or bad- they know our ways.

If you were a ghost, which state government building would you haunt, and why?

It would have to be DHS. I’ve spent a large portion of my 15 years auditing there, so I could have some fun haunting them a bit!

What else do you do when you’re not auditing?

I have four kids. That requires quite a bit of time right there. All four of them are involved in sports, especially soccer and swimming during the summer. On the weekends we go camping and do a lot of family stuff.

I have also started two nonprofits. One, called Lydia’s Love, throws birthday parties at two local homeless shelters each month. The other, Connor’s Chance, helps homeless kids participate in sports and other activities.

Any final thoughts or words of advice for new auditors? How about new-to-the-afterlife auditors?

Be open to doing audits in different places. You will learn the connections between different databases, and will begin to identify similarities in how different systems function that will help you understand new systems you encounter. The knowledge and experience builds upon itself; don’t hesitate to apply that knowledge to future audits.

As for afterlife auditors- I assume you mean second career auditors! I would tell them to communicate thoroughly to their in charge and audit team their background and experience, as they have a lot of expertise to bring to an audit. We all gain from that contribution.

Auditors at Work Featured

After 30 years of public auditing, Gary Blackmer announces retirement

Gary Blackmer OAD Director

Gary Blackmer
OAD Director

Blackmer wraps up a distinguished and respected career as government watchdog SALEM – State auditor Gary Blackmer announced his retirement this morning, effective December 31st. He was appointed Director of… Read More at the SoS Blog.

Source: After 30 years of public auditing, Gary Blackmer announces retirement

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Oregon’s history of auditing parallels the growth of the profession

Frequency of word occurrence in scanned books

The field of auditing is taking on a larger role in government, and a growing subject of authors.  Google has scanned many published books and you can use their ‘Ngram Viewer‘ to chart the frequency of a term. Here is the mention of ‘audit’ and ‘accountability’ in English language books since 1800. Auditing was written about much earlier than the broader term of accountability, though the two are running nearly parallel since the 1970s.

The topic of auditing is also reflected in the history of auditing in Oregon. Oregon’s Secretary of State is the ‘auditor of public accounts” as set forth in the 1857 State Constitution. The responsibilities of the auditor of public accounts had already been outlined in Oregon’s Territorial statutes of 1854.

Starting in the territorial days, the auditor was the general accountant of the territory and was also responsible for reporting to the legislature those recommendations deemed “expedient for the support of public credit; for lessening the public expenses; for using public money to the best advantage; for promoting frugality and economy in public offices; and generally, for the better management and more perfect understanding of the fiscal affairs’ of the state.”

Here is an interesting example of a performance audit by Secretary of State Kincaid in 1897. The state purchased paper by weight in those days. Thousands of dollars worth of paper were bought every year but had never been weighed to verify correctness. Secretary Kincaid bought a pair of scales and, in the very first shipment, found it was several hundred pounds less than its claimed weight, resulting in a $19 overcharge. The current value of that overcharge would be $540.

On the national scene, the GAO was created in 1921, which coincides with the first jump in ‘audit’ mentions among the writings. ‘Accountability’ was not a commonly used term during this entire time period.

Then, starting in the early 1970s, both ‘audit’ and ‘accountability’ started their steep increases. GAO developed and issued the first version of Government Auditing Standards, also known as the Yellow Book, in 1972. Correlation doesn’t mean cause because other factors or events could have triggered this growing dialogue about accountability and auditing. For example, the Watergate investigation  leading to President Nixon’s resignation could have sparked increasing use of these terms.

In the early 1980s the Oregon Secretary of State started assigning staff to conduct these performance audits and promoting their value. Secretaries of State Paulus, Roberts, and Keisling all grew the performance audit capacity in the office, during the period that ‘audit’ and ‘accountability’ usage continued their steep climbs. New technologies and analytical tools have allowed the profession to grow in sophistication in the past decades, and information technology audits are now a common genre of performance audits.

One note of interest: the seeds of the Division’s performance audits were planted in Oregon’s Territorial Statutes, and subsequently grew into the Constitution’s current office of Secretary of State.

Compare the previous blue, territorial auditor responsibilities with the definition of performance auditing in the latest Government Auditing Standards:

Performance audits provide objective analysis to assist management and those charged with governance and oversight in using the information to improve program performance and operations, reduce costs, facilitate decision making by parties with responsibility to oversee or initiate corrective action, and contribute to public accountability. [2.10]

There is a remarkable overlap in responsibilities between the Oregon territorial auditor and the modern Secretary of State Audits Division, which complies with these standards.

Auditing has 160 years of history in Oregon and growing more important, as the profession’s trend continues its path here and nationally.

Accountability and Media Data Wonk Featured Performance Audit

Interested in Audit Work? Come Meet Us this Month

The Audits Division holds its annual “Meet the Agency” event on Oct. 30, an opportunity for potential job candidates to meet the division’s financial, performance and information technology auditors and learn about our work.

capitol mapThe event runs from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Oct. 30, in Room 50 on the lower level of the state Capitol, 900 Court St. NE. Attendees will hear from current auditors and interact with them in small group discussions. Email audits.recruiting@state.or.us by Oct. 23rd to RSVP.

The Secretary of State’s Audits Division hires three types of auditors:

Financial auditors

  • Duties: Audit Oregon’s financial statements, evaluate compliance with grant requirements and rules, and determine whether agencies have adequate internal controls in place. Perform investigations and issue other public reports on financial and compliance projects.
  • Qualifications: Typical candidates have an accounting major or a degree that includes upper division accounting courses, plus a year or more of auditing experience. Internships are also available.

Performance auditors

  • Duties: Analyze data, conduct interviews and look for best practices to determine how agencies can improve. Write public reports detailing potential improvements.
  • Qualifications: Candidates typically have a year or more of experience in auditing or program evaluation or analysis. The division accepts a Bachelor’s degree or higher in one of 12 majors, such as business or public administration, social services, economics, public health and journalism.

Information technology auditors

  • Duties: Review and evaluate agency information systems and evaluate control effectiveness. Write public reports on agency performance and potential improvements.
  • Qualifications: Typical candidates have a year or more of professional IT experience. The division accepts degrees, or degrees with upper division course work, in computer science, management information systems, accounting or business administration.

This event is an information session. Please contact the Secretary of State’s Human Resources Division at sos.jobs@state.or.us for current job announcements and information on how to apply.

 

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Audits in the News: Oct. 12

We here in the audits division are proud that the work we do makes a difference. Our work attracts the attention of the legislature, statewide news sources, and even local media outlets. Local media coverage of our audits is just another way we communicate with the people of Oregon about the work that we’re doing on their behalf to make government better. This is part of an ongoing series of posts rounding up recent instances in which the Oregon Audits Division makes a cameo in the local news.

The Oregon Audits Division recently released its audit of Oregon’s debt collection practices, which found that liquidated and delinquent debts owed to the state have nearly doubled since 2008. You can read the full audit here.

The audit was talking some big dollar figures, leading several media outlets to jump on the story.

KTVZ – Audit: State debt collection falls short, $ owed nearly double

Read the story here.

 

“Liquidated and delinquent debts owed to the state of Oregon have almost doubled since 2008, to nearly $3.2 billion, and the state needs a sustained focus to improve collections performance over time, a new audit released Tuesday by Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins found. “

Oregon Public Broadcasting – Oregon’s Delinquent Debts Double Since 2008

Read and listen to the story here.

“Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins says collection rates on the debt have also dropped, from 13 percent to 11 percent.  “The state’s debt collection system needs leadership, it needs sustained focus and accountability to assure Oregonians that the state isn’t squandering opportunities to collect funds owed essentially to tax payers,” she said…. The audit recommends that one agency, the Department of Administrative Services, oversee collections instead. It would set policy and require departments to report their success rates.”

Audits in the News Featured Performance Audit

Eye on the digital future: Coding a Better Government

What is government? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it is “the group of people who control and make decisions for a country, state, etc,” or “a particular system used for controlling a country, state, etc,” or even “the process or manner of controlling a country, state, etc.”

But more simply than that, according to Tim O’Reilly government is, at it’s core, what we do together that we can’t do alone. The Merriam-Webster definition of government- often considered to be technologically outdated, slow, monolithic and inefficient- is being replaced and rebuilt to reflect the vast social and technological changes that have touched most of our lives. As Jennifer Pahlka explains in the video below, governments (particularly local governments) are becoming more accessible, more open-sourced, and more responsive to their communities through effective use of new technologies.

What do these changes in how governments serve their citizens, and how citizens work with one another, mean as we look to the future?

 

Featured

Audit Release: Oregon Needs Stronger Leadership, Sustained Focus to Improve Delinquent Debt Collection

Executive Summary


Liquidated and delinquent receivables owed to the state of Oregon have almost doubled since 2008, to nearly $3.2 billion, while collection rates on the debt have dropped. The state’s debt collection system needs more leadership, sustained focus and accountability to improve performance over time.

 

Read full report here.

Past due receivables are growing

Oregon’s liquidated and delinquent debt rose from $1.7 billion at the end of fiscal year 2008 to nearly $3.2 billion by 2014, while statewide collection rates on that debt dropped from 13.5% to 11.2%. Nearly $800 million of the debt is tied to the state’s general fund.

Liquidated and Delinquent Receivables

collections audit blog pic 1

Source: Legislative Fiscal Office. Adjusted for PERS errors. Excludes Department of Administrative Services interagency debt.

The recession contributed to the increased debt. Evidence indicates many of the debtors are low-income, and more than half the debt may be uncollectible.

However, bumping up Oregon’s collection rates could still make a substantial difference over time. At 2014 debt levels, every percentage point increase in the statewide collection rate would improve collections by about $38 million. If Oregon had collected delinquent debt at a 13.5% rate in 2014 – last achieved in 2008 – the state would have brought in nearly $90 million more in collections.

Our audit found four key improvements that could help Oregon increase collections:

  • Improved oversight of collections;
  • Enhanced performance measurement and reporting;
  • Increased expectations for private collection firms and the state’s central collection agency;
  • Better use of proven collection tools.

Oregon has not focused on improving collections

collections audit blog pic 2Our audit found Oregon’s highly decentralized approach to collections has contributed to a lack of sustained focus on improvement. This is our sixth collections-related audit since 1997. Significant improvements identified in those audits have not been implemented, some dating back 18 years.

Oregon has not implemented productive collection tools used by other states, has not resolved lingering legal issues that hinder collections, and has allowed inadequate performance measurement to persist.

Individual agencies have made some improvements. Statewide, however, no one has been tracking collection improvement efforts or encouraging them. Our discussions with leading states on debt collection highlighted the importance of having a system “expert” responsible for identifying potential improvements, looking outside the state system for new opportunities, and reporting to decision makers.

In Oregon, the statutory authority and history of the Department of Administrative Services indicate it is the best agency to serve as a statewide strategist on debt collection.

Performance reporting, measurement are flawed

collections audit blog pic 3State agencies routinely collect receivables, or bills for charges and services. Statewide performance reporting focuses on receivables that become “liquidated and delinquent” – past due debt that debtors have had a chance to contest.

The Legislative Fiscal Office prepares an annual report on liquidated and delinquent debt collection, designed 16 years ago by the Legislature to help drive collection improvements. However, the report includes few large-debtor agency details – not even their collection rates – contains noteworthy inaccuracies, and does little to hold agencies accountable for collections performance. It also does not identify potential collections improvements or detail the status of agency improvement efforts, key to encouraging advances.

In addition to reporting, we also focused on “assignment” of debt, accounts sent by agencies to private collection firms or the Other Agency Accounts unit at the Department of Revenue, the state’s collectors of last resort. Private collection firms carried nearly $1 billion of the state’s debt as of 2014 – more than double the 2008 balance – with a collection rate just over 1%. Other Agency Accounts, the state’s central collection agency, had a better rate, roughly 7%, according to Legislative Fiscal Office data. Assignment to OAA has stayed relatively flat, however, hitting $259 million in 2014.

We found the Department of Administrative Services is not evaluating the performance of OAA or private collection firms. We also found some large-debtor agencies are not using performance information to strategically assign debt.

Oregon is not using some proven collection tools

Our research, discussions with other states and interviews with Oregon officials suggested eight tools Oregon could pursue to increase collections, including some the state has considered for years but not implemented.

Among the most promising:

State vendor offset: Forty states are intercepting state payments to debtors who are also state vendors, including corporations and consultants. Our work indicates vendor offset in Oregon would collect at least $750,000 a year.

collections audit blog pic 4Bank levies: Other states have systems that allow for automated matching of a wide variety of debtors to bank account records, a process that yielded $30 million for Wisconsin in 2014.

Internet posting of debtors: Twenty-three states maintain public online lists of debtors, some focused only on large debtors, to increase collections. Many of the debtors pay after they receive a warning letter but before the information is posted.

2015 Legislative changes should help

The Institute for Modern Government at Willamette University drafted Senate Bill 55 in the 2015 legislative session to improve debt collection. We issued an interim report to the Legislature to suggest further legislative changes. Our recommendations were incorporated in the bill, which the Legislature passed and the governor signed in July.

At our recommendation, Senate Bill 55 charged the Department of Administrative Services with monitoring and improving debt collection. DAS’s duties, detailed in the bill, include improving performance reporting and assignment of debt for collection. DAS started a committee last year to address statewide collections, and contributed to Senate Bill 55.

Senate Bill 55, passed by the Legislature, included changes we recommended.

Even with stronger oversight, improving collection of Oregon’s rising debt will not happen overnight. During our audit, we found that improving collections requires meticulous work with agencies.

DAS officials – and policy makers – will also have to be persistent to ensure improvements are made.

Recommendations

Beyond the changes implemented in Senate Bill 55, we found improvements OAA could focus on. We also found other steps DAS could take, including:

  • Preparing meaningful annual reports on debt collection, relevant to the public and policy makers.
  • Helping agencies adopt successful collection tools.
  • Developing short- and long-term plans for a sustained focus on debt collection.

Agency Responses

Both the Department of Administrative Services and the Department of Revenue generally agreed with our recommendations, with DAS noting that it recognizes its oversight role.

DAS said it would focus efforts on current receivables as well as liquidated and delinquent debt. The response also included concerns about the difficulty of adopting a fully integrated vendor offset program.

The Department of Revenue said agency officials will continue to discuss many of the collection improvements noted in our audit with policymakers and stakeholders. A computer system upgrade now underway will help the agency make further improvements, the response said.

The full agency responses can be found at the end of the report.

 

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