Auditing from a Citizen's Point of View: The Citizen's Perspective Is Often Overlooked in Traditional Audit of Government Programs. Incorporating the Citizen's Perspective, Where Relevant, Can Make Audits a More Effective Tool for Change

Article excerpt

Governments provide programs and services. Auditors look at how well those programs and services are delivered. Often overlooked in a traditional audit is the citizen's perspective: how well and how easily do the programs and services meet the needs of the citizens who use them? Incorporating the citizen's perspective, where relevant, can make audits a more effective tool for change.

ACHIEVING OUTCOMES AND PUBLIC TRUST

The task of government is to deliver services to citizens to meet their needs or protect the needs of others. Management sets goals, plans, organizes, and puts these services into operation, hut often has no idea whether those who needed the services received them or if the desired outcomes were achieved. Government-designed programs are required to follow rules, regulations, and laws, and have procedures that ensure fairness. Following these requirements can create services that are complicated or inefficient. As a result, management must find a balance between public sector requirements and delivering services that solve problems.

Initiatives such as performance budgeting, service efforts and accomplishments reporting, citizen surveys, citizen involvement programs, and continuous quality improvement have put more emphasis on understanding the citizen's point of view. Not only do these efforts increase the likelihood that outcomes will be reached, they also improve citizen confidence in government.

The public's level of trust or distrust results from many small experiences. Each time a citizen uses a service, government has the opportunity to make a good or poor impression. Every pothole ignored, hour spent standing in line to renew a license, rude or disinterested response received from a government worker, unanswered telephone call or unreturned message creates a lasting impression. A series of poor experiences leads to the belief that "government doesn't care." Furthermore, it reduces public satisfaction and decreases support for future funding.

Auditing a service from a citizen perspective is a way to address both organizational effectiveness and public distrust. It also provides unique and compelling evidence that can direct organizational change. While quantifying the effect of a problem in terms of dollars or outcomes might illustrate the need to change, it also increases the perception that government is wasteful and affects employee morale. Collecting data and reporting on service access or quality from a citizen perspective creates a climate of understanding and encourages change in a more constructive way.

AUDIT METHODOLOGIES

The scope of a citizen point of view audit varies by level of contribution and subject area as summarized in Exhibit 1. Evidence gathered from the citizen's perspective can augment other analytical methods or contribute the majority of evidence collected. Further, the subject of the audit can focus on the quality of services delivered or on service accessibility To date, auditors have tended to focus on the quality of services delivered rather than evaluating how easy the services are to access. It is important for auditors to remember, however, that if the citizen can't find, understand, or access a service, government will not be able to achieve its goals.

Exhibit 1: Potential Audit Scope

          CONTRIBUTION

SUBJECT   Partial scope-service access    Full scope-service access
          Partial scope-service quality   Full scope-service quality

There are also two methods for obtaining evidence in an audit from the citizen point of view (Exhibit 2). The more widely known and used approach is to collect information through a third-party from citizens, by interviewing, conducting focus groups, or surveying recipients of a government service to determine satisfaction with the services delivered or accessibility. A second method is to collect information directly, essentially putting the auditor in the citizen's shoes. …