Accountability: What is it?

January 22, 2003

POLICY HIGHLIGHTER by Jason Mercier, Budget Research Analyst
Evergren Freedom Foundation

"If people aren't getting a dollar's worth of service for every dollar they pay in taxes, then government isn't helping them-it's ripping them off." - Stephen Goldsmith, former mayor of Indianapolis

Accountability has been the subject of much discussion of lately-namely, the lack of it in state government. The resounding failure of Referendum 51 (transportation spending package) in the face of obvious transportation problems, was a loud reminder to state officials that taxpayers no longer trust them to spend tax dollars wisely.

Many state officials seemed surprised by the public repudiation of their spending habits. They shouldn't have been. Numerous examples of waste and mismanagement in state government have roused taxpayer angst. (For more details please visit

Real accountability in government means performing legislatively-mandated missions efficiently, effectively, and economically. For state employees who violate the law or commit fraud, it means tangible consequences exist and are enforced. It means state programs and budgets have clear goals and measurable outcomes. And it means allowing comprehensive and independent performance audits based on those goals.

Most taxpayers understand the necessity of paying for essential services. But we should not be subject to excessive taxes as a result of waste, fraud and mismanagement in government. We have every right to expect that those we hire to manage our tax dollars and services will do so efficiently and effectively.

The only way to ensure that tax dollars are spent wisely is to clearly define the goals of government and make spending transparent.

That said, it is impossible to assess efficiency if government does not determine its core functions and priorities. Defining core functions and identifying measurable activities for successfully achieving each function is the first step to good government. The second step is to identify meaningful performance indicators to show whether the state is successfully achieving its core functions and spending allocated funds wisely. And the third step is to subject the process to comprehensive and independent performance audits.

Taxpayers hired a state auditor to conduct such audits, but he's currently prohibited by the legislature and governor from doing his job. If his hands were untied, his office is convinced that "wide-scale use of performance measures and performance audits will provide policymakers with tools to determine the success of their decisions and give citizens information they need to assess value for their tax dollars. That will help build citizen trust and confidence in their government."

Remember, properly used performance audits are a tool, not a weapon.

We agree with the state auditor that the critical elements of a successful performance audit program are independence, employee participation, citizen and private sector involvement, and publicly reported results.

A good audit doesn't just follow a money trail and make a de facto report, it evaluates the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of a program so service can be improved. It triggers immediate consequences for any wrongdoing or mismanagement uncovered, and it acknowledges and rewards good performance. Under such a system, the state auditor would also be responsible for reporting on best practices so they could be replicated in other state agencies.

Unfortunately many legislators and agency bureaucrats think internal audits should be enough. Others are reluctant to allow an elected state auditor to do the job for fear his reports will not be independent. They prefer instead to contract with private audit companies. While this is a positive step, it is not sufficient since many companies want to continue doing business with the state and this may influence their willingness to be critical when necessary. (This issue will be discussed in more detail in a subsequent policy highlighter.) We believe performance audits should be under the jurisdiction of the independently elected state auditor.

Some state officials simply lack an understanding of true accountability, while others seem determined to thwart it. Instead of finding ways to implement true accountability, some have talked of hiring additional public relations staff.

The commitment state officials have to a transparent and effective state government will be evident by their willingness to embrace the principles of true accountability. Legislators have the tools before them now to prioritize programs and define expectations. The actions of those who refuse to engage in such a process will also speak volumes of their commitment to good government.

See the state auditor's recommendations:

Prepared by Jason Mercier, Budget Research Analyst
Contact: or (360) 956-3482


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