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Cemeteries, fruit flies, the Glastonbury music festival, and the Vicar of Dibley – what a wonderful world

Posted by Gary Emery | Answering your questions | Apr 24, 2013

Is the work of a performance auditor dull and focused on processes and procedures?

Wonderful worldWell, the answer to that question, as you might guess from the rather cryptic title – is a resounding "no". We are a very privileged bunch, spending our working days doing performance audits for the Office of the Auditor-General. I don’t just say that because I want to cosy up to my employers or because I'm after a pay raise. It’s the truth, I swear.

I've worked in performance audit for the past 12 years in the UK and here in New Zealand. In both countries, I have been behind the scenes, asked some really interesting questions of many people from all walks of life, and observed many things that few people get to see. It's the nature of our jobs – we need to really understand the ins and outs of organisations and the people inside them to assess just how they perform.

It got me thinking back over the past 12 years. Which were the most interesting audits?

Well, I once conducted a value-for-money inspection of the cemeteries and crematorium in a small district council in Kent, southern England.  The local council ran the service, which included the upkeep and maintenance of the cemetery. Some of the things we audited were:

  • The health and safety of grave stones and monuments. Many monuments were put up in Victorian times (or older), so iron nails and pins might have rusted through and become dangerous. The previous year, a child had died after a monument toppled over.  Each grave stone or monument needed a record to show it had been x-rayed and, where necessary, made safe.
  • We had to check arrangements for diversity. Many religions have specific requirements concerning the burial or cremation of their deceased.
  • The UK is short on land for burial and many cemeteries have three bodies buried on top of each other at different levels in the ground. We needed to check record-keeping to ensure the council knew who was buried where.

I also remember having tea in the vicarage, with all of the local religious leaders talking about the quality of services they received from the council. It all felt very surreal at the time, but also kind of Vicar of Dibley-ish.

I undertook a waste management audit on the Isles of Scilly. These are a remote cluster of islands, 30 miles off Lands’ End in the Atlantic Ocean, with only around 2000 people living there. Domestic and commercial waste was building up on the island, causing a major environmental hazard. The incinerator on the island was old and not able to cope, and it was too expensive to send the waste off the islands by boat.

Imagine your beautiful islands becoming one big rubbish dump. We suggested the purchase of a crushing machine to crush bulky rubbish that could then be burned in the incinerator. The islanders couldn’t afford such a machine but our report influenced the UK government to purchase a German piece of machinery called a fragmentor. This made a huge difference to the environment and tourism on the islands. The council and local people were so pleased they named it Gary’s fragmentor – how many auditors can claim to have a piece of machinery named after them? What a result!

I also undertook a cultural and heritage services audit of Mendip district council. Glastonbury is located in the district, where they hold Western Europe’s largest music festival. I was asked to attend – wow, what an opportunity. I went behind the scenes and followed police and security. There had been huge crowd problems in the past, with the three-day event supposed to hold 100,000 people but estimates suggested around 250,000 might turn up. It was expected that many would illegally gain access. The festival was like a fortress, with high fences and barbed wire.

I also followed environmental health inspectors checking food outlets and crowd density numbers for health and safety purposes – imagine standing backstage while top bands are performing and, as they came off, saying "great show" and getting a high five or "thanks dude" from the likes of Elvis Costello, The Killers, and Keane.

Then comes my biggest dine-out beer-at-the-bar, moment. Chris Martin (lead singer of Coldplay) used to live in my home town of Exeter. I knew his dad – who sold caravans and was on the board of trustees at the school I went to. I saw Chris walking into the performers' lounge and I plucked up the courage to blurt out, "I know your dad, he sells caravans." Not the best line to come up with when you bump into one the world’s biggest music stars. He looked somewhat puzzled but came over, bought me a beer, and we had a 20 minute chat about caravans and auditing (I could tell he was impressed!). Next minute, he was headlining on the pyramid stage in front of 100,000 people – pure auditing legend.

More recently, one of my audit teams undertook an audit that focused on biosecurity incursions, including a fruit fly incursion in Auckland. I have watched fire fighters put out burning cars, gone out on a night patrol with the police, and met with Prince Charles' personal steward. All in the line of auditing duty.

Of course, I have also audited risk and financial and performance management systems, but I have had a lot of fun along the way, seen a lot of things many people wouldn't get to see, and travelled the length and breadth of the UK and New Zealand. I can almost hear the Louis Armstrong song, What a wonderful world, in my head.

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