To kick off this blog that I hope will be of service to those who write audit reports, I wanted to begin with an appreciation. In 1987, I began working with auditors--now called "analysts"--at GAO, and I've come to admire the good thinking they do, the hard work they put in to get a report out the door, and their usual good humor. I've worked with auditors throughout the country and throughout the world by now. But this brief appreciation really focuses on my admiration for the function all auditors perform.

Yes, getting through report writing and review is difficult, tedious, sometimes an expense of spirit. I begin many of our audit-report writing classes by asking participants what makes "writing" difficult. It's interesting to me that participants generate just about the same list no matter what audit shop they're in and no matter where in the world they live.

So here's a typical Top 10 List of writing challenges:

  • too many levels of review
  • personal writing preferences,
  • weak evidence
  • poor logic
  • findings that don't link back to objectives
  • the passive voice
  • lack of conciseness
  • lack of clarity
  • tone too strong or too weak
  • wordiness

You could add ten more pretty quickly. But I wanted to share a couple of responses I recently got in a writing class that put these ubiquitous complaints in some perspective and emphasize how important the auditor's role really is.

For the past 20+ years, I've had the rare privilege of working with about 20 international auditors each year through the International Auditor Fellowship Program at GAO. Here's how GAO describes this program:

Accountability and transparency are key to advancing good governance, and supreme audit institutions (SAI) play a critical role in improving government performance. The U.S. Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) annual International Auditor Fellowship Program, a 4-month intensive study course, is designed to strengthen the ability of SAIs to fulfill their missions and enhance accountability and governance worldwide. GAO initiated this program in 1979 in response to increased federal government expenditures abroad and the related need to strengthen accountability over these funds. Over 450 middle- to senior-level officials from the SAIs of more than 100 countries have graduated from the program. Many of them have since become Auditors General, Deputy Auditors General, or Government Ministers.

I get three days with the fellows every spring to talk about writing audit reports--how GAO does it, how they do in their SAIs, and what some important best practices are. 

When I recently asked the class to make a list of challenges, they produced a de rigueur list much like the one above. But then a gentleman from Tunisia told the class that he thought he could top all the challenges we'd listed. He told us he had to write every report in English, French, and Arabic. That was impressive. As bad as any of the other auditors had it, they were at least glad they had to write in one language only.

But another gentleman spoke up, telling the class that his major challenge could top even writing every report in three languages. He was from an African country, which I won't name. And he told the class that his biggest challenge in writing audit reports was that "telling the truth could get you murdered!"

That comment was surprising to the class, but several participants understood and explained that they had faced similar kinds of pressures to "adapt" findings under political pressure.

This comment resonated with me strongly over the next few days. It made me realize that auditors are called on to speak "the truth" to power.

I say "the truth" because they are tasked professionally with finding objective criteria for all their analyses, criteria that become the standards by which they judge actual performance--what's actually going on in a particular area of risk or concern. They also are tasked with discovering the causes of problems they reveal and with making recommendations aimed at improving the situation.

Those in power don't always like to hear "the truth," to put it mildly.

At one point at GAO when I began there (1987), an unassuming-sounding little report it published brought down the heavy rancor of many in congress, in several Western state governments, and in certain interested companies. The report was titled, "The Mining Law of 1872 Needs Revision." (http://www.gao.gov/products/RCED-89-72)

I won't detail the manifestations of the rancor this report caused, except to say there were rumors from congress that GAO's budget might be slashed. (A few years later its budget was severely cut; could this have been a contributing factor--the little snowball that lead to an avalanche? The report did lead to congressional hearings: http://www.agiweb.org/gap/legis110/mining_hearings.html

Audit reports speak through evidence. They speak through the criteria of laws, regulations, industry standards, proven best practices, etc. The writers anchor each statement of fact to reliable sources. Each report is vetted meticulously before it's published. At GAO, the average report gets at least 13 levels of review. And the interested parties involved in the "audit" have a chance to provide comments, which are published in the report. GAO, and other audit offices, uphold core values of transparency, accountability, reliability, and integrity, values that are really at the heart of good governance, values necessary for a democracy to thrive.

Journalism has largely relinquished its claim to these values. Yes, some journalism is still trying to get to "the truth." But too often journalism these days is heavily biased, extremely light on evidence, and built more to capture attention than to treat an issue fairly.

So, if you want an objective, unbiased, non-ideological, accurate, and balanced view of a particular issue, look to performance audit reports. They are still committed to telling it like it is, whether those in power like it or not.

THANK YOU auditors. I don't think society at large understands the huge debt of gratitude they owe to you all as you operate under their radar but help, to borrow Woodrow Wilson's famous words from 1917,  to keep the world safe for democracy.

It's heartening to see the audit function growing throughout the world. It's truly a hopeful sign.