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Governance, Risk and Compliance
By Joe Crampton Modified March 9, 2021
When it comes to the pressure of successfully identifying, anticipating and dealing with risks, few auditors shoulder as much burden as those who work with the government. As the Institute of Internal Auditors’ Richard Chambers wrote, these professionals deal with career-threatening political risks on a daily basis that many private sector auditors could never comprehend.
Internal auditors play a pivotal role in the relationship between the government and citizens. It’s up to auditors to set the appropriate controls to manage federal programs and also to provide insight into the effectiveness and the soundness of the government’s inner workings. Put simply, auditors are key to ensuring the public’s trust in their government is well-founded and not abused.
That being said, there are a number of challenges associated with governmental-level internal auditing. Citing a MicKinsey paper from 2011, Chambers points to a few key issues:
Turnover in the political sector is high, with appointed executives seldom lasting for more than two years. On top of that, newly appointed officials often come from outside departments or agencies. This means officials frequently don’t have a firm grasp on all the risks and challenges associated with their position, which can lead to poor decision making.
In the private sector, business objectives are clear and are conducive to metrics: more sales, more customers, more revenue, return on investment, etc. This means it’s extremely easy to determine the efficiency of audit programs and controls. In the public sphere, metrics aren’t as obvious because financial and mission objectives are more complex. This complicates the job immensely.
Most companies undervalue the importance of risk culture. Departments want to achieve their objectives, and risk management takes a back seat to that. In the public sector, officials are often even more dedicated to and passionate about the mission at hand. Additionally, people tend to assume that government budgets are big enough to bail departments out of bad decisions, which can lead to risky behaviors.
Internal auditors working for the government walk a rocky road everyday and bear a significant amount of pressure to succeed despite the latent challenges that exist before them. That being said, a best practices report from the World Bank highlights the importance of working with management to make the internal auditing process more effective.
“The planning of the internal audit section should reflect the organization’s business planning and align the audit effort with the key business objectives and the critical business risks,” the report explains. “Internal audit’s focus should be on critical business processes and areas of high risk; be relevant; and give due weight to the needs and expectations.”
Internal controls are pivotal to maintaining the public trust in government operations, so despite the challenges that lay in front of auditors, it’s crucial they work with managers to develop effective campaigns and programs.