Let's give some credit where credit is due. Despite the fact that the words "Port of Seattle" put readers to sleep, local newspapers have been trying to penetrate the inner workings of the Port for years. Historically, the Port not only hasn't been transparent; it hasn't even been even translucent. Even it own elected Port Commissioners, charged with oversight, have been fooled, stonewalled and bamboozled. The media has chiseled away at the granite wall with some success, but getting at the foul center of the Port's operations has been nigh on impossible.
But the Port was an early target for a new state performance audit, a program passed by voters in 2005 that permits the state auditor to go in and look at the practices and effectiveness of public agencies — not just state agencies, but the hundreds of local entities that often operate in the dark or with little attention being paid.
In the case of the Port, its audit raised serious questions about Port practices and found evidence of waste, possible fraud and ethics violations. The result was a major internal investigation, with results revealed in early December when former U.S. attorney Mike McKay released a scathing look that justified journalists' and Port-watchdogs' suspicions (and amplified their legwork). The performance audit wasn't the end of the process; in some senses it was the beginning. It cast some daylight where it was needed until reinforcements could come with Klieg lights. In this one case, if not others, the performance audit program proved its value.
State Auditor Brian Sonntag was just re-elected this November. The performance audit program he oversees was a people's initiative, resisted by many at the state and in the Legislature. The argument was made that it could be a political tool in the wrong hands, though no one outright accused Sonntag of trying to use his position to jump into higher office. The fact that the audit program was a Tim Eyman initiative also soured many simply because of their dislike and distrust for the man. But Sonntag has made enemies in Olympia and elsewhere too with his independence and aggressiveness. Bureaucracies don't like loose canons, or grandstanders.
Now that the state is facing a $5-6 billion budget shortfall and knives are being sharpened, the voter-approved performance audits are on the chopping block, appearing on the state's "do not buy" (pdf) list. Perhaps the time has come to lop them off, saving more than $20 million, and let leaner government be its own watchdog again — a half-starved beast perhaps can't get into as much mischief. Sonntag tells me he's "a bit surprised" at finding the program a budget target. Some newspaper columnists are weighing in on his side (see here and here). The gist, and I agree with it, is that now is precisely the time when such a program can prove its worth. Targeted audits can leverage reform, as in the case of the Port of Seattle. They can increase confidence in public agencies.
Sonntag says that they're a valuable tool for identifying savings and revenue sources too. In an email to me (in response to a question) he writes:
To date, our first 14 performance audits have produced 574 specific recommendations and identified $4.1 billion in potential cost savings, unnecessary spending, uncollected delinquent debt, and potential economic benefits. Compare that with the combined audit cost of $14.1 million. Much of that could help state government confront its budget shortfall. For example, our audit of debt collection found that the state could bring in $320 million in uncollected delinquent debt simply by using follow-up phone calls and other practices.
Sonntag says he'll be meeting with the governor "soon" to discuss the audits and says she's been supportive in the past. Let's hope she doesn't become pennywise and pound foolish when it comes to public accountability — especially when it can help root out savings, identify revenue sources and expose incompetence and fraud. The fact is, leaner government is going to need those things as much, maybe even more, than a well-fed beast.