Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Irony of the Audit

Do public organizations overspend in the effort to demonstrate that they don't overspend?

A lot of time and work goes into reporting, but what is being reported? Is it the money spent, services provided, or the needed social change accomplished?

I wonder why people are so interested in things like expense accounts and less worried about how their money is working to provide services and enhance society. Perhaps what the Minister spent on lunch is just much easier to measure and report on. Or maybe roads, garbage and wastewater management are not that big in terms of the media-sexy factor and don't interest the politicians. It's equally likely that the narrow focus is because the work of the public service is too varied and complex to be summed up in any kind of number, but numbers are what people think is objective, even though they're only meaningful when what is being counted really counts.

It would make a lot more sense, in terms of what gets demonstrated, and may increase public engagement, to emphasize more strategic goals, showing what the public service actually does, rather than what it spends.

The public service is not a business and does not exist in order to make a profit, or even to be "fiscally responsible." The correlate of private sector profits for the public sector is the the public good. Fiscal responsibility is not a goal, but a means.

There is usually an inverse relationship between what is worthwhile and what is easy to measure.

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