This kind of auditing is different from what an auditor is commonly perceived to do
By Paul Buckingham
I recently had the pleasure of chatting to John Zabos, an audit manager at the Office of the Auditor General of Alberta, about what he does here. If you’ve never seen an auditor get passionate about their work, then you should track one down. John is clearly driven by the desire to make a positive difference in the lives of Albertans—in his case, through performance auditing.
Is government achieving what it has set out to achieve, and is it doing so at a reasonable cost to the taxpayer?
This kind of auditing is different from what an auditor is commonly perceived to do—that is, examine financial statements. Performance auditing, in a legislative audit office, means looking at whether government is operating in the most effective, efficient and economical way possible, asking the question: Is government achieving what it has set out to achieve, and is it doing so at a reasonable cost to the taxpayer?
John has a great analogy. Government designs and delivers services, such as Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) or social housing programs. But imagine instead that it designed machines rather than programs. Wouldn’t we want to make sure that those machines ran smoothly and efficiently and did what they were supposed to do? A vacuum cleaner that didn’t work on carpet would be very frustrating! And who’d want a car that guzzled large amounts of fuel for no good reason? If you can transfer that sort of inquiry to government programs, then you’re thinking like a performance auditor.
A strength of performance auditing is that it can throw light on areas of government that are behind the scenes and therefore out of public sight. As members of the public, we usually experience only the frontline delivery of services; rarely do we know anything about the decisions and processes taking place in the background. Here’s an example: One of John’s recent audits was on government’s delivery of child and family services to Indigenous children. The team found that the delivery of these services needed improvement. But while that finding was important, the true value of their audit came from discovering what was causing the deficiencies in service delivery. The department responsible wasn’t monitoring the program well enough so didn’t know that anything needed to be fixed. The team were able to make a practical recommendation to the department to improve its monitoring of child and family services.
For John, the excitement isn’t only about the positive outcomes of an audit. He seems to relish the challenges that the work throws his way—the need to think creatively, for a start. No two audits are quite the same, so coming up with the right lines of inquiry requires extensive research and deep thought. John also spoke of the challenge of seeing the audit topic from several perspectives—for example, how government views the program in question versus how the public perceive it. It’s only by taking this kind of even-handed approach that the audit team can give objective, insightful advice.
The resounding message I picked up from John is that performance auditing touches all of us, because we all have a stake in government—through the taxes we pay or the services we access. I’m just glad that the people keeping an eye on government are so impassioned!