The Real Oversight is NOT Having an Audit Committee
By Jim Godsey, CPA, CGMA, Partner, MGO
Everything changes, except when it doesn’t
Time and time again we’ve seen reactions to various accounting scandals, after which new policies, procedures, and legislation are created and implemented. An example of this is the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) of 2002, which was a direct result of the accounting scandals at Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing, Tyco, and Arthur Andersen.
SOX was established to provide additional auditing and financial regulations for publicly held companies to address the failures in corporate governance. Primarily it sets forth a requirement that the governing board, through the use of an audit committee, fulfill its corporate governance and oversight responsibilities for financial reporting by implementing a system that includes internal controls, risk management, and internal and external audit functions.
Governments experience challenges and oversight responsibility similar to those encountered by corporate America. Governance risks can be mitigated by applying the provisions of SOX to the public sector.
Some states and local governments have adopted similar requirements to SOX but, unfortunately, in many cases only after cataclysmic events have already taken place. In California, we only need to look back at the bankruptcy of Orange County and the securities fraud investigation surrounding the City of San Diego as examples of audit committees that were established in response to a breakdown in governance.
Taking your audit committee on the right mission
Governments typically establish audit committees for a number of reasons, which include addressing the risk of fraud, improving audit capabilities, strengthening internal controls, and using it as a tool that increases accountability and transparency. As a result, the mission of the audit committee often includes responsibility for:
- Oversight of the external audit.
- Oversight of the internal audit function.
- Oversight for internal controls and risk management.
Chart(er) your course
Most successful audit committees are created by a formal mandate by the governing board and, in some cases, a voter-approved charter. Mandates establish the mission of the committee and define the responsibilities and activities that the audit committee is expected to accomplish. A wide variety of items can be included in the mandate.
Creating the governing board’s resolution is the first step on the road to your audit committee’s success.
Follow the leader(ship)
In practice we see a combination of these attributes, ranging from the full board acting as the audit committee, committees with one or more independent outsiders appointed by the board, and/or members from management and combinations of all of the above. While there are advantages and disadvantages for all of these approaches, each government needs to evaluate how to work within their own governance structure to best arrive at the most workable solution.
Strike the right balance between cost and risk
The overriding responsibility of the audit committee is to perform its oversight responsibilities related to the significant risks associated with the financial reporting and operational results of the government. This is followed closely by the need to work with management, internal auditors and the external auditors in identifying and implementing the appropriate internal controls that will reduce those risks to an acceptable level. While the cost of establishing and enforcing a level of zero risk tolerance is cost prohibitive, the audit committee should be looking for the proper balance of cost and a reduced level of risk.
Engage your audit committee with regular meetings
Depending on the complexity and activity levels of the government, the audit committee should meet at least three times a year. In larger governments, with robust systems and reporting, it’s a good practice to call for monthly meetings with the ability to add special purpose meetings as needed. These meetings should address the following:
- Confirmation of the annual financial statement and compliance audit, including scope and timing.
- Ad hoc reporting on issues where potential fraud or abuse have been identified.
- Receipt and review of the final financial statements and auditor’s reports
- Opinion on the financial statements and compliance audit;
- Internal controls over financial reporting and grants; and
- Violations of laws and regulations.
- Review of updated risk assessments over identified areas of risk.
- Review of annual audit plan, including status of the prior year’s efforts.
- Status reports of ongoing and completed audits.
- Reporting of the status of corrective action plans, including conditions noted, management’s response, steps taken to correct the conditions, expected time-line for full implementation of the corrective action and planned timing to verify the corrective action plan has been implemented.
Establish resources that are at the ready
Audit committees should be given the resources and authority to acquire additional expertise as and when required. These resources may include, but are not limited to, technical experts in accounting, auditing, operations, debt offerings, securities lending, cybersecurity, and legal services.
Taking extra steps now will save time later
While no system can guarantee breakdowns will not occur, a properly established audit committee will demonstrate for both elected officials and executive management that on behalf of their constituents they have taken the proper steps to reduce these risks to an acceptable tolerance level. History has shown over and over again that breakdowns in governance lead to fraud, waste and abuse. Don’t be deluded into thinking that it will never happen to your organization. Make sure it doesn’t happen on your watch.