For public sector leaders and their employees, pressures and workloads are rising as they struggle to keep up with constituent and stakeholder expectations. Outdated processes and tools often compound the problem.
The good news: The audit team — with access to in-depth data and a high-level view across an organization’s many functions — is uniquely positioned to help.
Read on to learn why internal audit departments are well positioned to go beyond their traditional responsibilities, plus three actions they can take right now to step into an expanded role as a trusted advisor.
A Public Sector Auditor Already Wears Many Hats
The role of a public sector auditor is multifaceted by design. As the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) writes, “Good governance requires continuing oversight to ensure that policy is implemented as intended, strategy met, and overall performance... meets expectations and needs within policy, laws and regulations.”
By providing this oversight, public sector audits gain in-depth knowledge of both external requirements and internal operations, across a range of vital departments and functions. These include:
The Organization’s Financial Statements
Most importantly for entities who serve the public, is the organization making the best use of its resources?
Auditors address this question by providing objective assurance that financial monitoring and reporting are reliable and consistent. They follow established accounting rules and validate the accuracy of reported assets and expenditures. Throughout, they gain first-hand, in-depth exposure to all facets of the organization, which means they are often in a position to spot risks and red flags before other departments.
The Organization’s Compliance and Controls
Another core aspect of an internal auditor’s job is evaluating the governance and controls — basically an organization’s ability to identify, assess and manage risk.
In this role, auditors look at policies, procedures, communications practices, monitoring systems and more, then map them against relevant regulatory frameworks and internal benchmarks — activity that yields valuable troves of data.
Because this data is comprehensive, mapped to risk and regulations, collected by an independent source (the audit team) and validated for accuracy, it provides a robust framework to help organizations hold themselves accountable — both to established laws and standards and to public scrutiny.
How Well the Organization Is Performing
Because of the two roles above, an audit team is often the first to know if an organization is not achieving key operational or financial performance goals.
Moreover, because of the scope of the audit team’s purview and the in-depth nature of the data collected, audit teams are in a powerful position to help leaders identify the source of the issue and take action.
Lessons learned can yield lasting benefits. “Not only can the performance of the specific program under audit be improved,” the IIA writes, “but working through the issues brought to light by a particular audit can enhance the capacity of government and the public to deal with similar problems.”
The Efficiency of the Organization’s Operations
An audit team’s wide-ranging work also exposes them to management practices that can be borrowed, adapted or re-engineered across the organization. For public sector leaders, this is invaluable, unbiased insight into where and how employees can streamline processes and better manage their workloads.
Accountability, transparency and trust: Finally, by providing objective assessments of whether public resources are responsibly and effectively managed to achieve intended results, auditors help their organizations earn — and keep — the confidence of the people they serve.
Three Advisory Actions Auditors Can Take Right Now
According to the IIA, all of a public sector audit team’s many activities feed into three vital roles:
- Oversight: Are government entities doing what they are supposed to do, including detecting and deterring public corruption?
- Insight: Are programs, policies, operations and operations working as they should be and yielding results?
- Foresight: What trends and challenges are on the horizon?
Here’s how auditors can translate these roles into action in the organizations they serve.
- High-level monitoring: Across the organization, auditors can help leaders recognize risks and areas of improvement — in programs, projects, processes, technology systems, governance, compliance and beyond.
- In-depth assessments: Auditors can also get granular as needed, drawing from the fine details of investigations, performance audits and financial reviews.
- Forward-thinking counsel: Finally, there’s the invaluable ability to see around the corner. From demographic trends to economic conditions to evolving security threats, an audit team’s wide-ranging work enables them to keep a pulse on emerging trends and challenges, so their organization can proactively address what’s on the horizon.
Public Sector Auditing Continues to Evolve
“Over time, auditing shifted from a detailed focus on confirming or validating individual transactions to evaluating the effectiveness of the systems that control transactions,” the deputy city auditor of Austin, Texas said in 2002. Now more than 20 years later, this evolution shows no signs of slowing down.
“The internal audit activity adds value when it offers ways to enhance governance, risk management, and control processes,” writes the IIA. “Additionally, one of The IIA’s Core Principles for the Professional Practice of Internal Auditing states that the internal audit activity is insightful, proactive, and future-focused.”
In a world of change, one thing is constant: The challenges and workloads of public sector organizations will continue to grow. Fortunately, so will the opportunity for audit teams to assist as trusted advisors.