(ALGA Repost) Opportunities for Improvement: We Need to Talk

“The Yellow Book addresses communication of audit scope and objective at the beginning of the audit, and audit results at the end, but much communication happens, or should, during the audit.

8.23 Determining the form, content, and frequency of the communication with management or those charged with governance is a matter of professional judgment, although written communication is preferred. Auditors may use an engagement letter to communicate key information early in the engagement.

“Written communication is preferred”? Of course an engagement letter and discussion draft are written, and at the federal level, written is probably preferred, but the federal government is astronomically larger than any local audit office, like Jupiter is to Earth. Working under the general assumption that communications must be written, I think, will limit interaction that is critical to the ultimate success of an audit.

Because you all are auditing in a large variety of jurisdictions, I am cautious about recommending universal practices and just urge you to develop your briefing (and listening) procedures around the who, what, when, where, and why appropriate to your government.”

Gary Blackmer, former director of the Oregon Audits Division, discusses how auditors can communicate most effectively with agency heads and staff in his quarterly ALGA post, with practical suggestions for making introductions, engaging the agency in the audit process, finding context for problems, and making sure that your audit is on point. Read more here.

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ALGA Repost: Trust, these days

Auditors know how difficult it can be to muster facts to develop findings, workpaper by workpaper, and draft after draft, to get the language right. In contrast, someone can easily broadcast misinformation or, worse, distrust and skepticism about others’ information. Mark Twain had a good quote: “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on.”

What should auditors do in these times of fewer reporters holding local government accountable, and less public confidence in facts?

Our very own auditing sage Gary Blackmer discusses the nature and necessity of trust as it pertains to government auditing. Read more here.

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The Scales of Time

This post is in honor of May being National Historic Preservation Month

Two years ago, our former director Gary Blackmer wrote about Oregon’s long history of auditing.  He outlined how Oregon’s territorial statutes of 1854 called for an auditor to report recommendations “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”.

One of those recommendations was to provide sufficient resources to the state penitentiary. Territorial auditor B.F. Bonham noted in 1857 that “The amount appropriated by the Legislative Assembly ($2,500) annually for the support of the penitentiary department, is wholly inadequate for that purpose, and must be increased unless a reorganization can be effected”.  In 2017 dollars, the amount allocated would be approximately $70,000 per year, which I think we can all agree would have been wholly inadequate to operate a state prison.

Oregon’s founding fathers designed our constitution with accountability and independence in mind based on our territorial experience. Drafted in 1857, Oregon’s constitution calls for the Secretary of State to be the “auditor of public accounts”.

In 1897, Secretary H.R. Kincaid reported on what could now be termed a performance audit and certainly the earliest known audit from our office. The Secretary was concerned the state was purchasing paper without verifying the quantity of paper received.  Secretary Kincaid reported “Soon after taking charge of this office I bought a pair of scales for the purpose of weighing paper which is purchase by weight for the public printing.  The first lot of paper received for the state printer after the scales were obtained fell short of the weight charged in the bill several hundred pounds, amounting to about nineteen dollars, which sum was deducted from the bill.  Since then full weight has been required.  This has no doubt saved to the state many times the cost of the scales.  Previous to the time mentioned thousands of dollars work of paper had been received and paid for ever year on bills of shippers without being weighed here to verify the correctness of the weight charges in the bills”.

Recently, I was at the Oregon office of Publishing and Distribution. While there I saw a small historic exhibit with some old printing equipment and some very old scales.

And wouldn’t you know it, one of the scales had a serial number dated 1890.

From a report from the State Treasurer in 1897, the state made several disbursements to the Howe Scale Company (Thank you Google for digitizing the book and making it text searchable and thank you Treasurer Phil Metschan for the excellent transparency of Oregon’s expenditures). The largest disbursement to Howe Scale company was for $71.50, which matches the report by Secretary Kincaid since the scales cost more than what was saved on the first weighing ($19.00).

Given all of the evidence, from the Secretary’s report on purchasing two scales to a corresponding the serial number date (these scales were made in Vermont and would have taken a long time to cross the country or sail to the west coast), and the Treasurer’s report showing a payment to Howe Scales that matches the Secretary’s report, it seems more likely than not that this scale is one of the pair H.R. Kincaid used more than 120 years ago to do some innovative performance audit work.

The scale shown above cost roughly $22.50 according to this 1900 catalog. The scale’s current value – priceless.

Ian Green, CGAP and OAD Principal Auditor

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ALGA RePost: Opportunities for Improvement: Risky audit topics to avoid

…Topics to avoid always sound good to a ‘somebody’: elected officials, agency directors, newspaper editors, green auditors, or even you. Yet these topics run the risk of wasted effort, embarrassment, loss of credibility, or lawyers.

I always keep in mind the goal of adding maximum value with each topic: Producing audits that leverage large performance improvements in government organizations to benefit the public. If the topic can’t compete with others on your list, then ask these ‘somebodies’ how they think their topic will produce on-going benefits for the public.

Choosing audit topics carefully is of paramount importance to undertaking an audit that can bring benefit to an agency and to the public. Part of knowing what to choose is knowing what to avoid; after all, all that glitters is not gold. Gary Blackmer, former Director of the Oregon Audits Division, shares some sage and straightforward advice with the Association of Local Government Auditors (ALGA ) on avoiding audit topics that look flashy but might not contribute anything of value to the general public, or to the agency being audited.
Follow the links above, or read more here!
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Gary Blackmer bids auditing farewell

Join us as we bid adieu to one of our own. Gary Blackmer, outgoing Director of the Oregon Audits Division, has been in the field for over 30 years. On December 31st he will leave auditing behind to pursue his true calling: terrorizing fish populations across the Northwest (and beyond). We sat down with him to gather a few nuggets of wisdom, trick him into sharing the location of his favorite secret fishing hole, and gently prod him to stop by and say hi once in a while.

Speaking of fishing spots, where is your favorite spot?

You think I’m gonna tell you that? No way! You’ll have to find me out there. I’ll give you a hint, though. There’s water, trees, and fish.
But really, fishing is also an excuse to travel around and see beautiful Oregon.

What led you to auditing, and why did you stay?

Auditing at Multnomah County

Auditing at Multnomah County

I’ve always enjoyed analysis. Years ago I worked in the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Department in planning and research, and we were audited by the Multnomah County Auditor. They were asking the kinds of questions that I myself asked and was interested in learning the answers to. I realized that I could be an analyst in many fields other than law enforcement. That realization, and pursuing auditing later, opened many doors.

New auditors entering the field might hear a little about your approach to auditing, otherwise called ‘auditing by the Code of the Samurai.’ What does that mean to you?

The best won battle happens without shedding blood. We have power as auditors, but need to use it carefully. Some of the elements of the Code are veracity and integrity- these come naturally to us, and are essentially written into our standards.
You know, Davy Crockett also said, “Make sure you’re right, then go ahead.” So you could follow the Code, or you could follow Davy Crockett.

After 30 years, you’ve worked on many, many audits. Can you tell us about a few that are particularly memorable, or have had lasting impacts?

I’ve seen both. Going sideways here for a second; few understand how difficult and successful audits are and can be, apart from auditors. Most people, even in the agencies we work with, don’t really understand the challenges going in to an audit or what exactly it is we do. Agencies are often tense and uncertain about us the first time we go through an audit with them. As the relationship builds, over time they usually learn to trust our input and judgment and become much more welcoming.

NSAA Award Winner

NSAA Award Winner

One of the first audits I worked on in the City of Portland Audits office in the late 80’s was an audit of the Portland Police Bureau. That audit established our office as a force to be reckoned with, and had lasting impacts on the agency. Another audit that comes to mind, when I worked with Multnomah County, focused on foster care. That one had a big impact as well. Here at OAD, the TANF audit we released a few years back helped frame the issue for legislators and program heads, which helped them plan out a future direction for TANF in Oregon.

Any big plans for 2016?

I’ll have to figure out how to taper out of auditing. That’ll be my biggest challenge in the coming year. I also foresee some travel, some fishing, time with friends, some home improvement… I have a list of home improvement projects already, though I’ve been told by my wife that there is another whole list out there… Making sure we don’t get water in the basement will be a priority. I have this spread that goes directly onto the concrete that is supposed to help with leaks- it has the same texture as feta cheese. It should only take about a day to do. I might put it off for a while…

How scared are the fish?

Gary, fishing... © Carol Afshar | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Gary waits for a lunker…

Not that frightened! I haven’t had good luck lately when it comes to fishing. Either they’re getting smarter, or I’m getting worse. I am looking forward to improving my luck with some weekday fishing, though. There are a few spots I’d like to return to out in Eastern Oregon- the Imnaha river, North Powder river, the Owyhee… I may venture out to Montana and the state of Washington as well. Maybe even British Columbia!

Perhaps the fish should be afraid.


Any final thoughts or words of advice for those of us still in the trenches?

I have huge confidence in everybody to continue the work we’ve been doing. There is a huge need for what we do. We produce good recommendations, and should stay the course.

Something OAD might consider for the future would be more open and effective communication about what we do, especially to the Legislature. People are surprised when they hear that we get 75-80% compliance on most of our audit recommendations- they often assume it is much lower than that, but agencies usually act on what we recommend.

We could design an instructional approach to educating people about what it is we do, both inside and outside of the office. This could help newer auditors learn to more quickly recognize and develop potential auditable topics. It could also improve the quality of the requests that we get from the Legislature. Not everything can be solved with an audit. Legislators already go through some training to familiarize themselves with the legislative process- if we were able to let JLAC and the legislators know more about what we can and cannot do, and what our follow-up practices are, we could see some improvement in how we work with the Legislature.

Final comments?

This is a fascinating profession. It calls on all of your skills- personal, analytical, writing, etc- to succeed at it, and it can be very, very satisfying. It’s been a great run.

Want to wish Gary farewell in person, but don’t work in the OAD office? You’re in luck! The Audits Staff Fund will be hosting an open house fare-thee-well on Tuesday, December 22nd. We’ll be celebrating Gary’s career and mourning his departure from 2:30-4pm in Basement A of the Public Service Building, 255 Capitol St. NE, Salem, OR.

Gary comments block

Bird photo courtesy of © Carol Afshar | Dreamstime Stock Photos

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Audits in the News: Nov. 23

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.

As previously announced, division director Gary Blackmer is retiring next month after 30 years of auditing at the city, county and state levels. Gary was featured in an interview and article in Governing magazine, where he reflected on his career and shared some insights learned from decades of auditing experience.

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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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