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Audit armies: Taking the plunge



Saturday, April 15, 2006

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- The targets are picked, and the army of auditors is ready.

It's the launch of the nation's most sweeping performance audit program, not your friendly Internal Revenue Service this time.

Washington lawmakers and voters had a love affair with the unlikely reformist notion of performance audits last year, teaming up to increase scrutiny of state and local programs.

But attention spans being what they are, voters and legislators moved on to other issues this year, and now it's up to state Auditor Brian Sonntag to produce results.

He has taken dead aim at some of the juiciest targets - transportation, schools, health care, and children's services, plus Sound Transit and other local agencies.

Over the coming months, a small army of state auditors and private contractors will zero in on selected agencies and programs to see how well they're performing, whether they meet public needs and expectations, and whether reforms are needed. This is on top of the regular financial audits.

Sonntag, the independently elected state auditor who has been agitating for performance audit authority for years, sees this as the most significant development in state and local government in decades.

He and other backers foresee huge potential savings, better service and reconnecting of citizens with their government through the magic of accountability.

What it's not, says Sonntag, is a panacea.

"We want to achieve significant results as soon as we can, but this is not about a quick fix or a silver bullet," he says. "This is about long-term change in government."



Washington is trying something new in the emerging field of government accountability - performance audits on steroids. Texas and a few other states pioneered the strategy and the Washington Legislature has long targeted a small number of programs for these rigorous audits.

Last year the Legislature capped years of mulling the issue, authorizing performance audits and specifically targeting the much-criticized Department of Transportation.

Critics didn't like the small budget lawmakers contemplated and the auditor's smallish role. In November, voters agreed, adopting Tim Eyman's Initiative 900, which far exceeded the Legislature's more timid approach.

The new system, which Eyman called the "900-pound gorilla," authorizes the auditor to do performance audits on both state and local agencies and programs - and designates a steady stream of sales tax money to pay for it, currently about $10 million a year.

I-900, which passed by a landslide, directs audits to identify cost savings, reduce or eliminate some services, transfer some programs to the private sector, fill gaps, eliminate duplication and identify "best practices."

The country is watching, he said, since no other state has authorized such an extensive program, devised a steady stream of financing, and incorporated "civic engagement" to bring citizens and front-line agency workers into the mix.

So far, the Gregoire administration, lawmakers and Eyman are impressed with the early launch of the program.

Sonntag is the first to concede that he's inventing it as he goes along.



Drum roll, please.

The first targets will be:

-TRANSPORTATION. The state spends about $1 billion a year on road construction, and the audit will look at how it manages contracts from start to finish. Tips from the private sector and other public agencies will be included.

Related audits will delve into road maintenance, inventory management, asphalt purchasing, administration and how to measure progress in combatting traffic congestion.

-FERRIES. The ferry system, which spends nearly $300 million every two years, will be studied both on the operating and construction side. Other states and countries will be solicited for ideas.

-SCHOOLS. K-12, which accounts for nearly half of state spending, will be one of the first and most important areas of scrutiny. While targets are being chosen, the state will do a "comprehensive education review" that looks at the system as a whole, from the state superintendent's office down to the classroom. A large sample of districts will be picked.

A performance audit is planned on the state's nine educational service districts, which spend about $200 million a year, providing local districts with group purchasing power and a variety of services.

-HEALTH CARE. A comprehensive review is planned for one of government's costliest areas, looking for "major opportunities for increased efficiencies and effectiveness."

-CHILDREN'S ADMINISTRATION. Another review will cover children and family services, licensing and risk management.

-CALL CENTERS. Six state agencies operate call centers handling 3.5 million calls a year from citizens and businesses. The study will explore consolidation.

-WORKERS' COMP. The state provides coverage to 2.3 million workers. The audit will look at other states and possible improvements.

-UNEMPLOYMENT. Auditors will zero in on job training programs, including those designed for the welfare system.

-LOCAL GOVERNMENTS. First targets will be Sound Transit, the Port of Seattle and the state's 50 public development authorities.

Sound Transit, which operates buses and commuter rail and is developing light rail, spends between $500 million and $800 million a year. The audit will look at overall operations, including engineering and construction contracts, Sonntag said.

The state's largest port is spending heavily for a new airport runway, and construction contracts will be scrutinized.

PDAs operate stadiums, parking garages, public markets and other local services. The audit will look at accountability and oversight.

The audits have different start dates and most, if not all, should be complete by July of next year, Sonntag says.

He says the audits won't be "gotchas," but he also expects auditors to be bold and fearless, free to "think outside the box - or blow up the box."

UPCOMING: Future audit targets may include other local transit systems, criminal justice, tax administration, the Department of Ecology and its permit process, public utility districts, information technology, procurement, personnel and public facilities districts.



Sonntag wants to engage citizens, since a big goal of performance audits is to tackle some of the public's favorite targets. The general public, as well as front-line workers, will be asked how government can be improved.

Sonntag has contracted with pollster Stuart Elway to oversee and conduct "civic engagement," a longtime passion of Elway's.

So far, Elway has conducted three focus groups to solicit views on government and accountability. He has done polling and more than 600 people have completed a survey on the auditor's performance audit Web page. Elway is doing Town Hall meetings with randomly selected voters in Kent, Lynnwood, Vancouver and Pasco.

Elway's theory is that performance audits will greatly improve government and give voters a much greater sense of accountability. That's what voters have demanded in a whole series of initiatives, he says.

"This will help heal some of the public distrust and cynicism, if people actually feel that government is listening and is acting on what they hear," Sonntag says.

Bring it on, says Eyman. "I'm an impatient guy. This is really exciting stuff. I love the targets they've picked. Everyone's ox gets gored. You couldn't have a better kickoff for a reform idea."



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David Ammons is the AP's state political writer and has covered the statehouse since 1971. He may be reached at P.O. Box 607, Olympia, WA 98507, or at dammons@ap.org on the Internet.



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