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A Startling Insight Into the Auditor/City Manager Relationship

by Hala Altamimi Assistant Professor, School of Public Affairs and Administration, University of Kansas

In the public administration literature, it is generally expected that city managers are likely to support practices that improve government performance.

There’s little question that’s true for a variety of reasons. For one thing, unlike elected officials who can retain their jobs based on simple popularity or name recognition, city managers are evaluated based on their ability to achieve policy goals and improve the quality of life for residents. This creates an incentive to encourage practices such as performance measurement, auditing, and evaluation that help them achieve these goals, building a strong reputation and career as qualified professionals. All of this means that they tend to take a long-term view in managing their cities.

But, at least in one field of endeavor these expectations, surprisingly, do not seem to hold true as I discovered in my recent research on performance auditing in 110 local governments.

One of the questions I tried to answer was whether performance auditors are more effective in council-manager or mayor-council governments. My unexpected conclusion: Performance auditors may not be as successful in council-manager governments. This finding contradicts previous public administration literature but is consistent with research done by former Kansas City Mayor and Auditor Mark Funkhouser in 2000. He also found that municipal governments with a council-manager form are less likely to have an audit function.

The research that led to this conclusion didn’t delve into the reasons for this startling finding, but I have a few possible explanations.

First, elected officials – and those who seek to obtain those positions – may use audit findings as a political tool to suggest problems in government management and policy implementation, which can create tension between auditors and managers. Audit findings can be weaponized to advance political goals and agendas, and media coverage of audit reports can make this strategy more effective. This can hurt the relationship between auditors and managers. Actions that blame managers for performance problems can potentially breed antagonism and reduce managers' acceptance of audit recommendations.

Second, local government managers may feel like they are competing with performance auditors for professional recognition. Both managers and auditors play important roles in policymaking, and they both see themselves as stewards of effective governance, organizational learning, and accountability. As such, they may end up competing to achieve these shared goals. This competition may become more visible when auditors are independent of the manager's office. Additionally, managers and auditors both want to influence the governing body, which can create tension between them. Managers may prefer to be the only ones influencing that body.

Finally, managers and auditors have different kinds of institutional logic that shape their perspectives and behavior. Auditors see their role as one of control and oversight, while managers see their role as one of professional judgment and discretion. As a result, managers may see auditors as a threat to their professional judgment and discretion.

To address this potential tension in the manager-auditor relationship, many auditors adopt a collaborative approach that focuses on building trust with managers to facilitate information sharing and problem-solving. This approach involves using a less confrontational tone, involving managers in discussions, and suggesting appropriate actions to address identified problems. Research has shown that auditors who follow this approach are more successful in getting managers to listen to them.

Life isn’t as simple as total collaboration, however. Though it’s in the auditors’ best interest to work smoothly and well with city managers, they must do so without risking their independence or creating any biases – implicit or explicit -- by getting too close to managers.

The contents of this guest column reflect those of the author and not necessarily those of Barrett and Greene, Inc


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