Thursday, October 22, 2009

The End to Pushback on Audits?

Auditors across the country have shared with me that they get pushback from agencies being audited. They get arguments full of fallacies. We get our fair share too. Let me identify a few of the fallacies for you.

We could help end the city deficit if we had a dollar for every time a city agency has said to us, "The auditor has no authority to look at that information." I call that argument from formal logic, an "ad vericundiam fallacy." That fallacy refers to arguments that ask for acceptance based not on sound fact, but appeals to some higher authority or tradition. The agency tells us, "We have always done things this way.” Like Rebtavia in "Fiddler on the Roof," the agencies shout back "Tradition." We simply respond, as did the city attorney, "Read the charter, the auditor has the authority."

One agency, responding for a request of staff work records simply dumped thousands of papers off at the auditor's office with no delineation as to which information covered the requested material. We felt like archeologists sifting through tons of historical residue to find out the truth about employment patterns. I call that the fallacy of confusion and chaos. This diversion process tries to overwhelm the audit staff.

Several agencies have complained that working with the auditor's office is not timely, "We are so busy running our agency, we can't take time to have staff get all the information you request for an audit." I call this one "the no good time fallacy," not a formal definition in classical logic, but which certainly applies to the city. With some agencies there will never be a "good" time for the auditor's office to look at agency records or speak to agency staff. "Just go away, we don't want to be bothered, no one has ever complained before," they tell our office. Like the prayer for the Tsar in "Fiddler," "Lord, may the far away from us."

One agency head actually told our audit staff he did not see much value to performance audits. Agencies have hired expensive consultants to anticipate arguments and problems we might find in their agency. The agencies try to diminish what our office finds not working well in a department. We had another department who tried to distract us away from the real scope of the audit. We simply include the information as part of the audit.

And Denver Health, in response to our audit of Emergency Response Times, kept saying to us, "Look what a wonderful emergency room we have, the best in the nation." We told them, "we agree with you, you have a great emergency room, we are simply trying to measure how long it take for you to get injured people to it." I call that close to the fallacy of composition. Our department is composed of many areas, "so if our emergency room is so wonderful, how can any other part of our system be in need of improvement."

Agencies use ad hominem augments in response to audit findings, arguments of personal attack. "Oh, that damn Gallagher is doing this for political purposes. He must be running for mayor."

But, there is hope, I hope.

David Fine Esq., City Attorney, hand-delivered to me, an unsolicited memo which he had written and shared with Mayoral Appointees after a meeting with them on October 9th. The memo is on our website for all to see, including agency staff and heads. He reminds them of our access to records and, indirectly to staff, during our audits.

In the final paragraph, the city attorney reminded the mayor's appointees, "Please be advised that it is illegal to take adverse employment actions against employees from your department based upon their participation in these performance audits." Our audits will only bring improvement if city employees feel free to communicate to us without retaliation for their comments on department situations during a departmental audit. For this auditor any other retaliatory or bullying cultural context is intolerable and unacceptable.

Fine could not have put in any clearer. I congratulate him on a thoughtful and appropriate memo. I hope the agency appointees take it to heart. If they don't, be assured Auditor Gallagher will with vigor call them on it every time.

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