DoD Audit: Is the Cure Worse Than the Disease?

I can’t let the recent articles in the press regarding DoD audits go by without commenting.  The headline on the Federal Times web site was “DoD falls behind audit goals – again”.  Again is the operative word here.  Some of the reasons cited for the slide (paraphrasing here): two wars in the last decade, overwhelming size and complexity, furloughs, shut-downs and the general “drain” brought on by an infectious STD in DoD (That’s Sequestration Transmitted Disease).  Preparing for audits has been on the DoD leadership’s plate for over a decade as is regularly cited as the reason for many fits and starts in DoD:  Lean Six Sigma, ERPs, Business Transformation, cost initiatives, process standardization, etc..

But in truth, there has been some progress.  Let’s not forget the US Marine Corp’s efforts in that regard (not mentioned in the article).  I have commented on the USMC progress a few months back in the Hall of Heroes and Auditors article. As of today, the USMC is the only Service to complete an audit of its Statement of Budgetary Activity (SBA), even if it’s only for one year.  We are still awaiting the results of the latest audit of the USMC SBA.  There is every reason to expect that it too will be “clean” and thus the USMC will have two successive years of clean opinions on their SBA.  This was done on purpose, because the previous years were so gooned up that it was pointless to spend the amount of time and money necessary to get things up to speed for water already under the budget bridge.  The SBA can be thought of as that part of the SBR that covers most appropriations and transactions, but not prior-year appropriations and therefore not affected too much by prior-year sins.  It is also accurate to say that DoD is focused on achieving an audit on only one part for the Department’s financials, the Statement of Budgetary Resources (SBR).

In many areas audit readiness is being achieved by manual work-arounds and other non-sustainable means instead of actually simplifying and consolidating the rat’s nest of kludged together systems and processes that have evolved over the ages.  The result of this type of preparation will be continued costly audits, with each one being just as costly as the next.  The only way to save costs is to move to reliance on internal controls instead of conducting on-site, manual inspection of paperwork, digital or otherwise.  (Most private sector audits move rapidly to reliance on internal controls because it’s cheaper and faster).  Reliable internal controls are a result of standard processes, interoperable systems, standardized data and legacy reduction, so the more we focus on the audit (at the expense of fixing internal controls) the more money we will spend.  This means that the 2018 audit is likely to be just as costly as the 2015 audit.  That, my friends, is unsustainable.

We haven’t  gotten around to auditing property records and equipment inventories (existence and completeness), for example. The plan is to do that later, after tackling the SBR.  The problem I have with all the DoD audit rumpus is that no one really understands DoD financial ops and the statements behind them outside a few budgetary monks within DoD.  Contrary to just about any commercial company, no one…not management, not customers, not investors, no one but a few accountant types at GAO and OMB look at these things.  We don’t measure the success of DoD or the desirability of investment in it by its financials.  In the real world, when a company releases its financial reports, stock prices either surge or shrink, depends on the results.  Not so in DoD. DoD Financial Statements do not reflect its performance or effectiveness.   If (almost) no one uses them, then why all the hype?

First things, first.  What the heck is a Statement of Budgetary Resources anyway?  Here’s the definition from GAO’s Financial Audit Guide, Auditing the Statement of Budgetary Resources, dated December 2001:

The SBR and related disclosures provide information about budgetary resources made available to an agency as well as the status of those resources at the end of the fiscal year. The SBR and related note disclosures serve as a tool to link budget execution data in an agencys financial statements to information reported in the actualcolumn of the Program and Financing (P&F) Schedules in the Appendix of the Budget of the United States Government (hereafter referred to as the Presidents Budget). Coupled with the analysis of other budgetary data, the SBRs linkage to the Presidents Budget provides a means to help assess the reliability of budgetary data reported in the Presidents Budget. 

Whew!  How about them apples?  Let me decode for you: The SBR makes it easier for OMB to aggregate the budget numbers.  For the “Show and Tell” crowd, here’s a copy of the Navy’s 2013 SBR.  By the way, don’t go looking for it because it is buried so far down in the paper stack that it’s impossible to find by mere mortals.
Navy 2013 SBR
WoW!  For you purists out there, here is the link to the complete set of Navy’s 2013 Financial Statements along with the accompanying footnotes. I suggest putting it in the bottom of your parrot’s cage so it can memorize the numbers and amaze your accountant friends when they visit.

This is what the little red guy with a pointy tail on my left shoulder says:  So far the Services have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to get this statement correct (Audit Readiness, financial system modernization, ERPs, etc).  But take a look at it.  Is this what really matters?  Our benefactor, the US Congress has never thought we do that bad of a job in accounting for the money.  The money just keeps coming and we are in little danger of Congress withholding the bucks because the SBRs don’t balance.  When we told them we spent $800 on a toilet seat, no one said, “Your accounting practices must be flawed.”  Nope, they believed us.  Why we spent the $800 is far more important than accuracy of the number.   DoD knows to the required degree of accuracy (you engineers will remember the significant digits drill) where the money is.  When you are dealing with half a Trillion dollars, what’s a few million among friends?  Is it worth paying the King’s Treasure to get to the finite level of detail demanded by auditors?  In my previous life as the Navy’s budget guy, I would have declared this a “Science Project for the Green Eye Shades.” There is no doubt that DoD can do a better job at managing the money, but is it really worth the Billions we will ultimately spend to get it THAT right? Maybe DoD audit is too big of a bite to make it worth the cost.  Why not focus on specific processes and make them right.  Get pay and allowance correct, get inter-service transactions right, get contract payments right, etc.  If the individual parts are good, why waste a lot of time and money messing around with trying to combine them.  Let’s spend that money somewhere else.

On the other shoulder, the little guy with the nightgown and halo says: Even if the financial processes in DoD are off by one-tenth of one percent, that’s a lot of money.  Anything we can do to increase confidence in the management of our national treasure is worth the effort.  If these things weren’t valued, why have a GAO?  Obviously the American people have made a judgment that accurate accounting is important.  Why should the DoD be exempt from the requirements levied on every other part of our government year after year after year?  Oh by the way, it’s the law of the land that all federal agencies will have auditable financial statements.  The DoD is not above the law, therefore they must do it (Never mind that DoD has ignored the CFO Act for many years, or at least failed to comply with no consequences!).  Finally, audits can save money.  In the case of the Marine Corps, correcting errors in accounting systems and procedures found during the audit resulted in identifying additional funds it could use.  It’s interesting that the Department almost never spends more money that it has been appropriated because the system is set to err on the side of caution.  Anti-Deficiency Act violations are low.  Just look at the amount of unobligated balances at the end of each year.  If our accounting procedures were better, we could spend that money.

So who’s right….left shoulder or right shoulder?  Hard to say, but the answer to this question falls squarely into the “Tough Decision” category and our leadership should seriously consider what to do.  I would not  push the “Audit” button just because it sounds like a good idea.   A lot of money rides on this decision.  It’s easy to say “It’s good business to spend money on audits,” but others will say, “At what cost?.  At the macro level DoD does an adequate job managing the money, so spend those resources on combating Cyberterrorism, readiness, R&D investments to ensure our dominance on the battlefield or on taking care of Wounded Warriors.”

In the end, I say we should focus less on the obsession with a clean audit opinion, and more on fixing the processes and systems, once and for all, that we use to manage the money.  I don’t think it’s nearly as good as it could be, but it’s certainly not as bad as some assert.

Thanks to BG Roger Scearce USA (Ret.) and Deb Delmar of Vanguard Advisors LLC  for their assistance on this article.

Disclaimer:  I’m sure I may not  have gotten some of the technical terms exactly right, but for the intended audience (non- DoD Budget Monks and Scribes) it’s close enough!

 

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