We’ve written a lot about citizen distrust of government, which we abundantly believe is a bad thing. On the other hand, introspectively, we’re aware that we may be as much a part of the disease as we are of the cure. For example, we lean heavily on performance audits for the news we cover — but it’s rare that we give much attention to audits that say everything is swell. Instead we, like many government observers, tend to focus on the audits that point out aspects of government that are flawed.
Here’s our excuse: We have not figured out a good way to report on government audits that find little wrong and still convince readers to click through to see the details. It’s the old man bites dog/dog bites man issue. Some skeptics refer to this phenomenon with the mantra, “You lead with what bleeds.”
And we’re not the worst, by any means. When it comes to local newspaper, TV, Internet or radio coverage not only are positive audits virtually ignored, one tiny negative can be plucked out and turned into a headline. We don’t do that.
There is, however, something the auditors can do to help ameliorate this problem. Missouri’s audit office has a neat way of putting its audit results into context and that, we believe can be a big help.
The Missouri system provides audit ratings, based on both the quantity and seriousness of the findings, as well as the efforts made to fix the problems. Audits are labeled poor, fair, good or excellent. A somewhat different rating system is in use by the Texas State Auditor’s Office, where individual findings are labeled on a low, medium or high scale (accompanied by colored dots). We have not noticed other examples. We visit lots of audit offices and believe this kind of system is quite rare.
The Missouri rating system was designed before the current auditor, Nicole Galloway, took office in spring 2015, but she’s a big supporter of the practice. “I strongly believe in the rating system. It serves the citizens well,” she told us. “The sky is not falling with every audit report. Citizens would like the audit report to be put in context. The rating system does that.”
There is some subjectivity to the ratings, which are not formulaic. Sometimes an audit with a handful of minor findings could still get a good, while an audit with one major finding could be labeled fair. Auditors use their judgment. One advantage of the rating system is that entities with a lower rating have a chance to show improvement. Getting a “fair” rating is nothing to brag about, but if an agency is moving up from poor, it does show that improvements are in the works. A poor rating also helps the audit office focus attention. “For every poor rating, we conduct a follow-up review. If there’s one hot-button issue in a ‘fair’ audit, we may do a follow up just on that,” Galloway said.
One other advantage to the system: When Carroll County, Missouri got an excellent rating last year, the county’s audit was accompanied by a press release from the auditor’s office announcing “the first-ever excellent rating to a county” since the rating system started in 2011. (About 5 percent of audits, in general, receive excellent ratings.)
Counties and elected officials celebrated with cake.