“Government auditors are critical to ensuring that our police and law enforcement agencies are effectively and equitably serving and protecting all communities.”
That is a stone cold truth, one that the millions of Americans who want real change in the way policing is done in this country need to understand and take to heart. It comes from an official statement on racial injustice posted on the Association of Local Government Auditors’ website and pushed out on social media by ALGA’s board of directors under the heading “Black Lives Matter.”
Two things about the way in which ALGA has officially stepped up are remarkable, and both are incredibly gratifying to me personally. First, it pushes the frontier of government auditing further into the issue of social equity, something I have been advocating for nearly 20 years. After the riots that followed the deaths at the hands of police of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014 and Freddie Gray in Baltimore in 2015, I wrote in Governing: “I have long argued that the standards should include the concept of equity — the fair exercise of power — along with efficiency and effectiveness. Governments use both money and power to achieve results. Efficiency and effectiveness address money, while equity addresses power.”
Today’s rage and frustration over the apparently unaccountable power of the police in the deaths of George Floyd and other African Americans, and in the far-too-aggressive police response to the resulting protests, have made starkly clear that the public is as concerned with the misuse of power as they are with the waste of resources. As the citizens’ watchdogs, auditors should examine and report on both kinds of issues.
Second, I have long argued that when auditors try to avoid being political they become irrelevant. In issuing its statement, the ALGA board has chosen to be relevant. Good. That’s what we pay them for and it’s what the best audit organizations in the world have long recognized. In my global study of performance auditing, Honest, Competent Government: The Promise of Performance Auditing, I quote Caroline Gardner, now auditor general of Scotland: “What role does Audit Scotland play in the political process? Formally, none. Informally, everything we do is political. We try everything we can to play our role absolutely straight-backed. We try to be fair, balanced, and fact-based. … If people aren’t trying to look at our work for political purposes, we’re not looking at the right things.”
We’re likely to see a wave of long-overdue legislation reforming policing in the United States. In every case, the legislation should include provisions similar to those adopted recently by Kansas City requiring the city auditor to review and report on a new program to equip police with body cameras. Residents demanding accountability from and seeking to regain control of their governments have an important potential ally in government auditors, especially the new generation of activist auditors that embraces social equity and is willing to take the political risks inherent in doing the job right. Every Black Lives Matter activist ought to be working to strengthen local government auditing. As the ALGA board’s statement shows, the auditors are stepping up – they’re going to catch flack and they’re going to need support.