VIRGINIA BEACH, VA, August 28, 2012 – The ongoing global recession and sour economy has hit the revenues of many state and municipal governments hard, underlining the need for effective and transparent use of taxpayer dollars. Across the nation, anti-incumbent fever is sweeping the land as more and more people are demanding that government shape up or ship out. But just what does it take to run a good government?
To give us an inside look on just what it takes to juggle the difficult demands of keeping government honest and sharp, I sought out one of the nation’s leading experts on transparency, Lyndon Remias, auditor of the City of Virginia Beach.
Danny de Gracia: Tell us a little bit about what inspired you to serve in government and what it’s like being the auditor of the city of Virginia Beach.
Lyndon Remias: My first experience serving in government began in 2006 when I was elected to the Virginia Beach School Board. There were two reasons that I decided to get involved. First, as the saying goes, one needs to “lead, follow or get out of the way.” At that time, I had two young boys in the public school system and I realized I’d much rather be someplace where I could voice my concerns, lead from the front and make a positive impact on the school system. Second, being a CPA and having a strong financial and analytical background, I felt that I could bring a different perspective and skill set to the School Board.
I’m extremely honored to be the first appointed city auditor for the City of Virginia Beach. The mission of my office is “Promoting Accountability and Integrity in City Operations.” As such, we’re challenged every day in fulfilling this mission. My job is very exciting and rewarding.
One of our councilmembers described my position as “part accountant, part detective.” Every day I get to learn something different about our great city while ensuring taxpayer dollars are being used efficiently and effectively. We perform many operational and performance audits, as well as investigate allegations of fraud, waste, and abuse. It’s a position I’m very honored to have and I embrace wholeheartedly.
DDG: With so many cities around the nation suffering from the ongoing weak economy, revenues are down, a lot of essential services are being cut back and now more than ever taxpayers are demanding transparency and accountability from government in the way their dollars are being spent. What do you think are some ways that mayors and city councils across the country can ensure there’s “sunshine” in their city?
Remias: Former Supreme Court Justice Brandeis once said “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.” That quote succinctly applies to all forms of government. When you put sunshine – that is, transparency – on a certain area or program it’s one step to helping clean things up in that particular area.
We bring the “sunshine” during the many audits and investigations we perform. While some of the audits and investigations may cast a bad light on a certain Department or area the audit findings and recommendations serve as the disinfectant to clean things up. While many cities and counties have an internal audit department there are many others that do not. Creating an effective, independent internal audit department in every city and county would be one way to ensure there is “sunshine” in every city.
DDG: In some cities, government agencies occasionally go through periods of fraud, waste and abuse that can even turn into a culture of corruption that lasts for decades at a time. What are some of the things that can be done to catch those things early?
Remias: Research shows that fraud, waste and abuse routinely occurs to some degree, in all organizations, not just occasionally. Granted, difficult economic times create more financial pressure and thus, can increase the probability but, the potential is always there.
To discourage fraud, waste and abuse in our city, we’ve done a couple of things. First, we have a code of ethics that’s communicated to our employees on a regular basis through our Integrity Connection Program. We also have a fraud hotline for whistleblowers to make anonymous reports. We likewise maintain an active and knowledgeable internal audit department and we place an emphasis on management to vigilantly maintain effective internal controls and report any anomalies. Last of all, we have a zero-tolerance-policy regarding fraud. It’s important to remember above all else that management influences the culture of an organization and employees need to see leadership by example when it comes to ethical behavior.
Nevertheless, in spite of our best efforts, we do have our share of fraud, waste, and abuse in Virginia Beach. It’s my responsibility to thoroughly investigate any allegations of fraud, recommend and necessary corrective action and work with management to determine the proper disciplinary action which can range from termination to verbal reprimands.
DDG: It seems like some government programs don’t have metrics or benchmarks to determine whether they are actually accomplishing their mandate. What’s your test to determine if an agency or program is fulfilling its mission?
Remias: We conduct performance audits to determine if an agency or program is actually fulfilling its mission. However there’s no one test to determine this. Agencies and programs all have multiple, complex and varying missions and goals. Therefore, creating a few “silver bullet” all encompassing performance measures is very difficult.
Operations have become much more complex and that’s why cities and most other government entities have not been able to performance measure everything. Not that data, analytics, statistics and so forth aren’t part of the answer – they are – but I don’t think you can simplify complex programs that easily. That’s why we haven’t been able to 100 percent “manage by performance measures” … those measures change, can be manipulated, aren’t audited or don’t tell the whole story, so anyone can come up with custom statistics or way to report the measures to fit their needs.
The program insiders know the program best, but that’s who you are trying to measure. I may be biased, but I think effective performance auditing by talented independent auditors is the answer. We always start off each audit by asking management of the area being audited “How do you measure success?” If there is pause or hesitation – we know we have our work cut out for us.
DDG: Do you hear the phrase “if we get more funding, everything will work better” a lot? Do you think that bad agencies can be fixed just by increasing funding?
Remias: If you have wasteful, disorganized, visionless, apathetic management and employees, they will maintain those habits no matter how much money is in their budget. On the other hand, there can be situations where you have cut , cut , cut – have great management and the answer may be more funding – but more than likely there is a complex blend of items needed for improvement- we are all a mixed bag of successes and failure.
DDG: What do you think is the most important thing when it comes to being a public servant?
Remias: You said it – “servant”. Public servants should always be continually reminded that they are hired and paid by their hard working, tax- paying fellow citizens and neighbors. Thus, as public servants we must be committed to the highest degree of integrity and the delivery of high quality services.
DDG: Last but not least, is there anything you would like to say to our readers in D.C.?
Remias: Please continue to demand accountability and transparency from your government. Remember: “It is not the function of Government to keep the citizen from falling into error; it is the function of the citizen to keep the Government from falling into error.”
I’d also like to encourage all of your readers to take a break from the hustle and bustle of the DC/NoVA area and venture down to Virginia Beach. The city offers 38 miles of sandy shores, a boardwalk like no other, plenty of entertainment and the best seafood around. We would love to have you come visit Virginia Beach, and while you’re here, stop by and see me at City Hall and I’d love to tell you more about my role within our great city.
We greatly appreciate Mr. Remias for taking the time to share his thoughts with us. For more information about the office of the Virginia Beach City Auditor, click here.
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