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1851 Center for Constitutional Law

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Performance Auditing

The first time I heard about performance auditing was at a Pickerington school board meeting where they paid the state auditor to come in and evaluate their bus system. That’s not performance auditing; it’s business consulting.

The second time I heard about performance auditing was from Maurice McTigue and the Mercatus Center, promoting essentially the idea that no government program should continue until and unless it has been shown to accomplish something. This could be performance auditing, but it misses a key point, which brings me to . . .

The third time I heard about performance auditing was while I was in a professional program studying bureaucracy and its long and ever growing history. Turns out the bureaucrats have been studying the problem of studying bureaucrats for decades. McTigue would have performance auditing act as the great brake on government, stopping its laying waste to wealth and happiness. He should be careful what he asks for, because there’s nothing a bureaucrat likes better than another bureaucracy to review another bureaucracy. The Agency of Performance Auditing sounds good, and its charge should be reviewing OMB and CBO, and it shall report to the Reinventing Government Task Force and the Blue Ribbon Panel on . . . does anyone remember what it all started with? Asphalt paving? Buying pencils? Anyone?

The fourth time I heard about performance auditing was the charm. It isn’t quite McTigue’s ideal, although it’s close to it, and it surely isn’t the Federal Commission on Regional Working Groups of State Task Forces Studying the Efficacy of Public Service Paradigms.

No, really, it was quite simple, and it boils down to this: You are average.

Normal graph

Normal graph

Of course this completely flies in the face of any politician or government or department head, to whom the skies are always clear and indeed glowing with promise. Talk to any mayor, and they are always pleased, proud, partnering and proactive, and never is there a problem that puzzles them, other than that their opponents seem not to want to move the city forward, etc. If your information comes only from newspapers and politicians, you’ll find yourself believing things such as “Ohio is world class.”

Saying such a stupid thing can be only the equivalent of Nixon saying he is not a crook: the only rational reaction is, “He’s a crook.” No matter how many state of the state addresses assert Ohio is world class, the sentiment is nonsense. What, after all, do you suppose the governor of Indiana is saying to his citizens at that very moment?

Governors and politicians and the public should be sanguine about this. No, Ohio isn’t the cat’s meow, that’s true, but then neither is anyone else. Ironically it turns out that Ohio is world class, because it’s average, and so is everyone else, but of course that wasn’t the message the governor was trying to convey.

Performance auditing is decidedly less interesting than the alternative of grandstanding, and therefore it is less covered by the news and less politically rewarding. Not only does it require work, it requires work with numbers, which is surely the worst form of Hell. To date, the only Ohio performance auditing program that reasonable inquiry brings to light is the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority. They acknowledge their predecessors in the city of Baltimore, and they acknowledge their predecessor in the city of New York.

In New York, they asked the question, “What is the average crime?”, and the answer came back along the lines, it is a theft, at 2 a.m., in the street in the Bronx. Okay. Then they asked, “What is the average policeman?”, and the answer came back, on duty from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in a precinct building. Okay.

They then asked, could any of this be changed? Can we move a few policemen out of the precinct building, and does it make any difference? And it turns out a small change makes a big difference, an effect of what many will recognize as Pareto.

In Cleveland, they asked the question, “What is our typical mechanic?” and the answer came back, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. And they asked, “Where are our buses from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.?” In response, the primary shift for mechanics was moved to overnight, and what do you suppose happened to the quality and frequency of bus maintenance?

What performance auditing is about is working with data, and using that data to compare outcomes and effects–not as some special study that comes along about as often as sunspots, but as the routine conduct of business.

It’s not magic. It’s only work.

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