% The Flaming Right by Rudy de Haas

Outsource, and re-direct, government audit

18:35 Feb 13, 2015

The saddest speech I've ever heard outside of a funeral home was delivered a few years ago by Alberta's Auditor General, Merwan Saher, at a presentation in Red Deer. What he essentially said was first that his budget had more than doubled over the last few years; second, that he and his staff spend a lot of time agonizing over the meaning of their mandate; third that he can't do his job because his audience (Ministers, MLAs, and the media) either don't care about, or don't understand, his results; and, finally that he hoped a British style council of senior deputies would help bring efficiency, auditability, and top down control to the business of government.

Overall I got the impression of an honest, deeply committed, accountant who probably watched "Yes, Minister" when it was first aired on the BBC, but has no idea that most of his troubles come from identifying with the bureaucracy he has to work with instead of the politicans he works for.

His idea of a value for money audit, for example, involves looking at adminstrative efficiency, record keeping, and the availability of better business management alternatives in terms of costs or risks. Those are the right questions in a customer driven organization, but his failure to understand that government is a politically driven service, not a business, allows the more self conscious among senior bureaucrats to deflect criticism from themselves, causes the MLAs and Ministers he's supposed to serve to mostly consider his office an irritating irrelevance, and reinforces the media community view that he's little more than a muckraker.

In general, the question the Auditor General needs to ask as input to the political decision process, but typically does not, is whether the program as delivered meets the political agenda - does it, in other words, achieve the goals set for it directly by politicians and indirectly by Albertans? and, if so, at what cost?

For example, when Steve West initiated the ALCB privatization in 1994 he insisted that the compromise arrived at with respect to government's continued control over the wholesale trade incorporate specific pricing incentives for craft and pub brew beer. Thus a high volume product like Molson Canadian might be taxed at $0.98/litre while Grizzly Paw Rutting Elk Red (great stuff, from Canmore) would only attract a $0.20/litre upcharge. Here, the wrong question is whether this program was, and continues to be, properly implemented (apparently so) - the right question is whether it works to produce more and better product and career choices for Albertans (probably not).

Reducing the Office of the Auditor General to perhaps four or five people working out of the legislature, eliminating the 90 or so departmental or senior agency staff positions whose jobs consist largely of working with the Auditor General's Office, and then contracting out for audit services will not produce measureable savings in the budget context. If, however, those out sourced audit contracts are run out of the house committee system, limited to qualified personnel whose Alberta operations are not materially dependent on government, and focused on program effectiveness then we should soon see significant savings coming from this as programs achieving next to nothing for Albertans but costing in the hundreds of millions are reviewed, rethought, and gently escorted to oblivion.