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Learn what an audit of consumer services is, what it can do, why, when, and by whom it might be conducted, and how to organize one if necessary.


  • What are audits of consumer services?

  • Why conduct audits of consumer services?

  • Who should conduct audits of consumer services?

  • When should you conduct audits of consumer services?

  • How do you conduct audits of consumer services?

Julio Robles had been working in restaurant kitchens in his southwestern US city since he had been in elementary school. He had graduated to better and better restaurants, and had gone from busboy to dishwasher to prep cook to assistant chef to chef. Although he was still in his twenties, he had learned the business from the bottom up, and was ready to start his own place. He had the space all picked out, and had convinced his brother, also a veteran of many restaurants, to be his partner. All he needed was the capital to get the business off the ground.

Julio went to the bank to negotiate a loan. He had the experience to make the business a success, he had been making a good salary and saving much of it, his brother was contributing several thousand dollars, and his wife's parents were willing to offer their house as collateral. But the bank turned him down, offering the excuse that there were already too many restaurants in town.

Although Julio knew that wasn't the case, he set out to find another way to raise the funds he needed. Then he learned that another chef he knew - one with less experience, and less of his own capital - had just been granted a loan to open a the same bank. Julio started to suspect that perhaps the bank's refusal wasn't wholly a business decision. He contacted a lawyer, who asked the state Banking Commission to audit the bank's loan services.

When the audit found a pattern of loan refusals to Hispanics and other minorities, not only did Julio get his loan, but the bank was fined and put on notice that its loan practices would be audited regularly. It had to develop a scheme to assure that Hispanics and other minority citizens were treated fairly.

Sometimes consumers of services are cheated, discriminated against, or otherwise treated unfairly. Sometimes a service provider neglects a necessary element, or diverts funding meant for a particular service to another purpose. Sometimes the services, whether well-meaning or not, simply aren't what they're meant to be. When those services are, or should be, publicly funded or regulated, an audit by the funder, a community group, a watchdog organization, or a government agency can bring the problem to light, suggest guidelines or regulations to correct it, and create an audit schedule that will keep it from being a problem in the future. This section will examine what an audit of consumer services is and what it can do, why, when, and by whom it might be conducted, and how you can go about organizing (or conducting) one if it's necessary.

What is an audit of consumer services?

There are two elements to understand here: audits and consumer services. An audit is a formal inspection, conducted by someone from outside the entity being audited, of practices, procedures, policies, and/or programs to determine whether they are what they're expected to be, and whether they're conducted according to legal, ethical, and professional standards. An audit does not concern itself with results: it's not meant to tell you whether a service is effective or successful. That's beyond its scope, and is a matter for an evaluation.

While it is sometimes possible for an organization to conduct an internal audit, examining its own workings in order to make sure that it's operating properly and effectively, the audits discussed in this section are conducted by objective observers from outside the organization, in order to assure that all problems are identified and addressed.

The word "audit" often refers to an examination of the financial practices and records - the books - of an organization, agency, or business, but, as in this case, it can also include actions and policies that affect consumers. Financial audits may, however, be an important part of an audit of consumer services.

Types of consumer services

For the purposes of this section, consumer services fall into two categories.

Publicly-funded services offered to members of a particular target population

These services are usually intended to help eligible consumers - who may be economically, politically, or otherwise disadvantaged - to gain and maintain economic, physical, psychological, or social health. Some examples:

  • Child health and nutrition services (WIC, for instance)
  • Adult literacy
  • Employment training programs
  • Parenting classes
  • Services for homeless families
  • Pre- and post-release services for prisoners

Services that may or may not be publicly funded, but that are controlled by laws and government regulations, and are offered to the general public

Among these are:

  • Transportation, including everything from cabs and city buses to airlines
  • Banking, as in the example of Julio Robles's loan
  • Real estate and housing
  • Stock and bond transactions
  • Medical services
  • Utilities - electricity, gas, phone
  • Municipal services - road repair, police, etc.
  • Education

A financial audit looks at both the procedures that an organization uses in keeping its financial records, and at the actual figures it enters into its books. First of all, the audit determines whether the organization has a coherent set of books. It establishes whether the organization's bookkeeping procedures conform to standard accounting practice in some way, and show, at a minimum, where income came from, where expenses went, what the organization owes and is owed, and its overall financial status. The audit also confirms that the figures balance, and reflect reality. It does not, however, concern itself with the financial results of the organization, i.e. whether it gained or lost money over the course of the year.

If there's a problem with the existence, the procedures, or the accuracy of an organization's financial reporting, the auditor has a responsibility both to report it (usually to the organization's Board of Directors, and sometimes to funders, or even to regulatory agencies, as well), and to give the organization a plan for correcting it.

For example, the reason that Enron and several other companies were prosecuted when they went bankrupt was not that the businesses failed, but that they used their books to lie about the fact that they were failing. They fooled their shareholders and stock buyers in general into thinking the businesses were doing well, when in fact they were losing enormous amounts of money. A financial audit should have found and reported this illegal behavior immediately, but, at least in the case of Enron, the auditors intentionally overlooked it, and took part in the deception.

An audit of consumer services has purposes similar to those of a financial audit. It determines what services are offered, and whether necessary services are unavailable. It shows whether available services comply with laws, regulations, and professional standards, and whether they use methods and procedures that have an appropriate rationale behind them. And finally, it demonstrates whether services are, in fact, what they pretend to be.

Why conduct audits of consumer services?

Auditing consumer services, as we shall see, can be difficult and time-consuming. Why bother to do it? There are, depending on your purposes, several answers to this question.

  • To determine whether needed services are actually being provided. If there's a question about whether a service provider is actually offering the services, or all aspects of the services, that are necessary, an audit can answer that question.
  • To use as ammunition for an advocacy campaign to acquire needed services. If an audit determines that needed services are not available because of inadequate resources, that provides an argument for funding and instituting those services.
  • To determine whether services that are being funded are actually being provided as they were intended to be. Occasionally, an organization may contract with a public or private funder to provide specific services, and then either divert the funding elsewhere or skimp on the services provided. If it's good at covering its tracks, it may take an audit to uncover the deception. If the offender is a public agency, an audit may be virtually the only way to identify the problem.
  • To protect the interests of those for whom the services are intended. Especially in the case of publicly-funded services, which are most often aimed at the economically or otherwise disadvantaged, recipients may not have learned the skills, have the legal and political knowledge, or possess the self-confidence necessary to advocate for themselves. They may not know that the services offered to them are inadequate or inappropriate to the issue. An audit can be a means of obtaining them the services intended for them.
  • To protect the economic and social interests of the public, who are paying for the services or their regulation. If publicly-funded services aren't being delivered properly, both the public and service recipients are being shortchanged. If publicly-regulated services are not being monitored, or if they use discriminatory or otherwise illegal or unethical practices, the public is being cheated both in its payment for monitoring, and in its lack of access to proper services.
  • To improve the chances of the successful resolution of community issues. If an audit helps to institute needed services, to correct abuses, or to steer existing services to greater effectiveness and more appropriate operation, the issues at which those services are aimed are more likely to be adequately addressed.
  • To foster social change. The existence of necessary services that operate fairly, legally, ethically, and effectively - all of which audits may address - is a huge factor in whether or not a community can reach its strategic goals and change as it wants to.

Who should organize (or conduct) audits of consumer services?

If you're interested in seeing consumer services audited, you have to think about who should do what. Will you conduct the audit yourself? Will you try to see that it's done by someone else, and if so, who?

In order to answer those questions, you might consider some others:

  • Do you have the knowledge, experience, etc. to conduct the audit yourself? In order to conduct an audit, you have to know what to look for, and how to recognize things that aren't quite right. The reason that official financial audits have to be conducted by Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) is that they have the knowledge and training to recognize when books look suspicious, or when someone has made unintentional, hard-to-find errors. They know what proper accounting should look like, and can help those who are not doing it well to improve their procedures and their financial accountability.

The same is true for an audit of services. The auditor has to understand what services should look like to begin with (or what kind of services are necessary in a particular situation), what's legal, what's fair, what funders require, etc. in order to conduct a proper audit. If you or others in your organization don't have that kind of background, you're not the best auditors.

  • Even if you have the expertise, do you have the resources to conduct an audit? At the very least, you'll need a lot of someone's time to gather information, observe, look through documents, and otherwise find out what you need to know in order to make a judgment. It may cost a fair amount of money as well, in salaries, printing, or other expenses.
  • Even if you have the expertise and the resources, are you or your organization the appropriate party to conduct an audit? First of all, a body - a regulatory agency, a legislative committee, a funding organization - may already exist, part of whose job is conducting audits of the services you want audited. It makes far more sense to leave the audit to professionals - assuming you have no reason to believe they won't do a good job - than to struggle with it yourself.

Another issue here is that of objectivity. In some circumstances, the fact that you may be an advocate for a particular position or group may not make a difference. If services are not available to address an important issue, for instance, the fact that you're in favor of those services probably won't affect people's opinions about your finding that they don't exist, or about the need for them. If your organization is seen as a rival to one you're auditing, however, or the issue is a political one, that may be an entirely different story. The public may well see your audit as self-serving, and doubt or ignore your conclusions. In those circumstances, an independent audit is crucial, and you're not the one to do it.

  • Can you gain enough cooperation from the entity or entities to be audited to be able to do a good job? If another party can easily gain that cooperation, that party may be a better choice to conduct the audit.
  • Are you a better choice to conduct the audit than a party with public recognition, public esteem, authority, or impressive academic or political credentials? Sometimes, an audit can have the greatest impact if the name attached to it is that of someone known to the public, that of a current or former government official or commission, or that of an acknowledged expert in the field.

If your answers to all, or at least most, of these questions are positive, you may be the best auditor for the job. If most of your answers are negative, it might make more sense for you to organize the audit. That means defining the area(s) to be audited, finding an auditor, and making sure the results are publicized or distributed to those who need them.

If you don't conduct the audit, some choices for auditors include:

  • Government agencies. In some cases, the services to be audited fall under the gaze of government regulatory or funding agencies (this last is true for virtually all publicly funded services). You might request an audit because you believe there is some irregularity in the way the services are delivered - as in the case of Julio Robles and his loan - or because the services don't seem to be reaching the people for whom they're intended. You might suspect (or know) that funding for the services is being misused, intentionally or unintentionally. Or you might simply want to make sure that services are being delivered appropriately and well, and at a level that is addressing the issue they're aimed at. In any of these cases, approaching a government agency is one way of organizing an audit.

Some state agencies that might be approached in this way are the Secretary of State's office (they deal with voting and election issues, among others); the Attorney General's office (their mandate varies from state to state, but can include oversight of public charities, business practices, and consumer services of various kinds); the Banking Commission (bank rates, loans and mortgages, lending practices, etc.); and the Commission Against Discrimination or its equivalent (hiring practices, real estate and housing discrimination, non-discriminatory delivery of any services). Most funding agencies conduct actual audits of services only when they suspect a problem, or at long intervals, just to make sure that grantees and contractors are doing their jobs. Your request, however, if you have a good rationale for it, might spur an audit by a funding agency.

  • Professional associations. Such organizations as the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association oversee the ethics and practices of their members and others in the profession. They have both the expertise and the structure to conduct formal audits of services.
  • Watchdog organizations. Both public and private watchdog organizations may be equipped and ready to conduct audits of services if there's reason to believe it's necessary.
  • Academics and other researchers and experts in the field. An audit of services by someone recognized as knowledgeable may be both more convincing and more helpful than one by a concerned organization.
  • Eminent individuals or commissions that include them. Just as former President Jimmy Carter monitors elections, other well-known and respected individuals may serve as auditors of services or as members of commissions or other groups that engage in auditing of services. Their presence lends credibility to the results of the audit, and can serve as an advocacy tool.
  • Audit teams from one or more peer organizations. Depending upon the circumstances, an organization may be more willing to cooperate with an audit conducted by peers, because they will be assumed to understand the difficulties of delivering the services in question. (Some organizations may react in the opposite way, and not want peers to know anything about how they operate.)
  • Funders, both public and private. Funders often have the strongest interest in assuring that the services they're paying for are being delivered adequately, and may also have developed an audit process that can be applied in the case in question.

Those who might organize or request an audit could include anyone, from an advocacy group to a peer organization to consumers themselves. Many service providers are required to have, or simply have instituted, grievance procedures and other mechanisms to allow consumers of services to address issues that may set an audit in motion. The Board of Directors of an organization may see the need for an audit, either as the result of consumer or other complaints, or from their own observation. A municipal government may institute an audit of services available as an aid to its planning process. A funder may - as a regular part of its oversight or as the result of questions about an organization's effectiveness or capacity - request an audit of services. In the case of banks, realtors, or other publicly-regulated and -offered services, a consumer or consumer advocate may organize an audit based on apparent discrimination or other unfair practices.

When should you organize or conduct audits of consumer services?

  • When you're advocating for the need for a particular service. When there's a need, an audit of the services delivered by existing programs can demonstrate that the need isn't being met, and make advocacy easier.

As is so often the case, the ideal time to organize an audit for this purpose may be just before, or in the midst of, a political campaign. Policy makers are often far more willing to address community issues when an election is at stake.

  • When there's a question about the availability of services. Are current services addressing a particular issue, and if they are, are they adequate to the task? These are questions that an audit can answer.
  • When there's a question about equity in the delivery of services. If, as in Julio Robles's case, a consumer is discriminated against by those providing publicly-available banking, housing, or educational services, or if a provider chooses to serve only a particular group of those eligible for a publicly-funded service, it's a good time for advocates to request or conduct an audit to identify and correct the problem.

Services aimed at improving economic prospects sometimes discriminate in favor of those more likely to quickly complete an adult education or job training program, i.e. those at higher levels and with more skills to begin with. This type of discrimination leaves out those at the lowest levels who, in fact, need the service most. An audit may not only be able to turn up this sort of discrimination, but also to help correct the funding policies - paying an organization only for those participants who complete a program or obtain employment, for instance - that foster it.

  • When funding is at stake. An audit may help either to justify continued or increased funding, or to redirect funding for greater effectiveness.
  • When there's a broad-ranging community development or other, similar effort. Audits of consumer services can be an important part of a community development plan, identifying areas of need and suggesting strategies for addressing those areas.

How do you organize or conduct audits of consumer services?

Organizing an audit

If you've asked yourself the questions listed in "who should conduct audits of consumer services?" and decided that you're not the appropriate person or group to conduct an audit, you may still be the appropriate party to organize one. That means convincing a public agency, a funder, a watchdog organization, or some other entity to embark on an audit process. Since audits are time-consuming, painstaking, and may lead to bad feelings, that convincing could be difficult. It's important to take the right steps beforehand to persuade a potential auditor of the necessity of the task, and of its responsibility in the situation.

Gather evidence of the need for an audit

Depending on the circumstances and the reasons for the audit, you might show consumer dissatisfaction with an existing service, or demonstrate preliminary evidence of inappropriate or illegal or unethical practices.

  • Consumer dissatisfaction with an existing service. If you're concerned about this issue, you've probably gathered a lot of evidence already. Consumers may be willing to be quoted without being identified, and may steer you to others with similar criticisms. Some may be dissatisfied enough that they'll lend their names to their complaints. Grievances and other formal complaints - at least some of which may be a matter of public record - can also add to this store of information.
  • Evidence of inappropriate services. This may come from consumer complaints, or may manifest itself by the fact that the problem the service is meant to address doesn't seem to be affected. The real question to be answered here is whether the services being provided actually address the issue they were meant to.
  • Evidence of illegal or unethical practices. As in the example at the beginning of this section, a consumer may suspect that she's being treated unfairly or illegally. An advocate may see a pattern after talking to a number of people, or word on the street may identify a particular consumer service as suspect. It usually doesn't take a great deal of data to move a monitoring agency to action when the issue is one of discrimination or another illegal practice.

Identify the appropriate auditor

Identifying an auditor may be a matter of determining what agency or individual is responsible for the service in question, or may have more to do with who might be most effective as an auditor and reporter of audit results. In the first case, a government regulatory or oversight body responsible for the particular service would be the primary choice. In a situation where no specific body has oversight, a better choice might be a watchdog organization or an expert in the field. In either circumstance, the auditor should be a body or individual whose findings will be taken seriously.

Much might depend as well upon who's willing to take on the task. Sometimes, problems arise specifically because an oversight body is reluctant to act. If that's the issue, it may be the oversight body itself that needs auditing, or it may mean that appealing to that body won't yield any results. The appropriate auditor in that case may well be a watchdog or grass roots organization.

The most appropriate auditor may be the party that can most easily gain the cooperation of the audited organization. A state agency or funder may have the easiest time here, while an auditor that's seen as hostile may not be able to gain access to internal records, documents, and lists of participants. Such an auditor may have to rely on public documents and whatever interviews and observations are possible.

Find support for the audit

The more support there is for an audit, the more likely it is to happen. Important groups and individuals to solicit for support include public officials, consumers themselves, funders and government agencies, and the community at large.

Just how much publicity you want in this situation depends upon what might be most effective. The purpose of an audit, after all, is to improve the situation. If that can best be done by seeing the audit conducted without publicity, then that is the best course of action. If, on the other hand, public pressure seems to be the most effective vehicle for change, then public pressure should be brought to bear.

Advocates sometimes let their desire for justice overcome their desire to improve the situation. When an organization has been behaving unethically or illegally, and knowingly harming people in the process - as in the case of the bank refusing loans to Hispanics - the advocate's first impulse is often to try to punish it. There are certainly occasions when this is appropriate, but sometimes the situation can be more successfully resolved if the organization's behavior isn't made public.

This may not seem fair - indeed, it may not be fair - but it may be the best way to gain the desired result. If that's the case, it's usually what should happen, regardless of the advocate's feeling of being wronged. It solves the problem, and it may also leave the door open for cooperation with the offending organization in the future, where public embarrassment and accusation would not.

Conducting an audit of services

If you're conducting the audit, you have a big job ahead of you. Financial audits typically take several days, and they deal only with the financial status of the organization. You have a broader area to cover. Your work may not include a financial audit (although it could), but if you're going to do a proper audit of services, you have to be just as careful as a financial auditor. You'll make the audit much easier by thinking the process through and doing as much negotiating as you can before you begin.

Muster the resources that you need

Make sure you've budgeted enough time for the audit. There will be unexpected delays. Some information will be missing even if the audited organization is cooperating totally. If it's not cooperating, everything will take at least three times as long as you think it will. This audit will cost money, at the very least in salaries, and will take a large amount of time. Be sure you're willing to spend what's necessary before you start.

Negotiate with the organization you're going to audit

Whether the organization is cooperating or not, if you can start the process on a relatively friendly basis, things will go more smoothly. Questions like "How can we make this as easy as possible for you?" can work to ease your access to information, and to make your relationship with the audited organization civil, if not friendly.

Make concessions where you can, as long as they don't compromise the purpose of the audit. The more you can show that you're not hostile or biased, the better reaction - and the more cooperation - you'll probably get from the audited organization. Work with it to schedule the process beforehand, so that both of you have a good idea of what's likely to happen and when. This may also ease your burden of time, because it will give a cooperating organization a chance to gather material and have it ready for you.

As the paragraph above implies, this part of the section assumes at least a minimal amount of cooperation on the part of the audited organization. It may be forced to cooperate, because you are, or have been designated to conduct the audit by, a funder or regulator; or it may be as concerned as you are to see services delivered properly.

If you're a watchdog organization, or a community group concerned about an organization that doesn't seem to be doing its job, the situation may be very different. You may be conducting an audit without telling the audited organization, or relying solely on sources outside the organization for information. An audit without any cooperation can be frustrating, more time-consuming than one where there's some agreement, and may give you results that aren't entirely provable or reliable. In a sense, it's not an audit at all, but an investigation, which is, by its very nature, an adversarial process.

It's greatly to your advantage, and to the advantage of your purpose, to avoid an uncooperative audit if you can. If you can establish some kind of relationship with the audited organization, you're much more likely to find out what you want to know and be able to correct what you want to correct. It may not be easy to make a connection, but it's well worth the effort.

Determine what information you need

What's the purpose of your audit, and what do you have to know to fulfill it? Some typical things you might look for:

  • Financial information (possibly a full financial audit)
  • Number of people served
  • Demographics of those served. This might be particularly important if discrimination is in question.
  • The amount of time each consumer spends receiving service.
  • Methods and procedures for delivering service. This might include an examination of how consumers are treated, and whether services are delivered in a way that the public and people in the field would find acceptable
  • The services actually being offered. The routes covered by public transportation, for instance, or the actual number of hours of job training a week offered by an employment program.

Gather information

How you go about this, and what you'll actually have access to, will depend on how much cooperation you have from the audited organization. Possible sources of information include:

  • Internal documents. Service records and documentation, contracts, grant awards, grant and contract proposals, statements of assurances to funders, Board of Directors meeting minutes, intake records, organizational handbooks, bylaws, policies, financial records.
  • Public documents. Tax records, annual reports, reports to funders (these may or may not be public, depending upon the nature of the information and the laws of the particular state), advertising/publicity, media reports, census data, etc.
  • Interviews. You might talk to current and former consumers of the service, their families, administrators and line staff members of the organization, Board members, funders, officials responsible for the oversight of the organization, people in peer and collaborating organizations, community activists and advocates, and members of the community at large.
  • Observation. Areas you might observe include the actual delivery of services (an adult basic education class; a loan interview; a vaccination clinic), reception and intake, interactions among staff and participants, meetings, and follow-up.

Analyze the data

Analyzing data for a service audit may mean more than simply looking at it to see what you have. First, it means comparing what the service actually does and is to what it's supposed to do and be. Then, it means looking carefully at the information you have to see what it tells you about the unspoken standards and policies under which the service operates.

Some of the kinds of issues that a service audit might examine:

  • Many federally- or state-funded services are required to institute certain procedures - a grievance procedure, for instance - for participants, and to inform participants about them at the outset. They must have documentation of both the procedure and of the briefing of participants. A service audit may check on these procedures and their documentation, or on other mandated paperwork.
  • An audit may also check to see that the services being delivered are actually those aimed at the issue in question. Sometimes, an organization may be funded to provide a particular service, and may use the money for another purpose instead. Some charities may devote only a small amount of the money they collect to the purpose for which it's solicited, while the rest goes to high administrative salaries and other perks.
  • Occasionally, an organization may be an outright scam: it may receive a grant or contributions to provide a service, and simply not do it at all. It will file reports with false information, and count on the fact that the funder or oversight organization doesn't have the resources to check up on it. Such organizations should be easily caught...but may not be without an audit or other monitoring. Indeed, some have gone years without being detected.
  • An organization or service may be doing what it's meant to, but still be discriminating or otherwise treating consumers unfairly. Public transportation routes may schedule few stops in minority areas, for instance, or may skirt low-income neighborhoods where public transportation needs are great. A provider serving large numbers of Hispanics may have no Spanish speakers on its staff. Realtors may try to steer minority buyers toward or away from certain neighborhoods, even though they don't actually refuse to sell them any given property. These patterns may not be apparent until someone looks at them carefully.

Prepare an audit report

Once you've analyzed the data, you have to let the organization and others know what you've come up with. The standard way to do this is to prepare an audit report, explaining how the audit was conducted, what it examined, and what the results of that examination were. The report serves several purposes:

  • It creates a record of the audit, and a picture of at least one aspect of the functioning of the organization at a particular point in time. If the report is carefully detailed, it is difficult for the organization - or anyone else - to deny its findings.
  • It acknowledges what the organization is doing right and well. Part of the purpose of an audit is to show what an organization is doing right, regardless of what it may be doing wrong or badly.
  • It points out functional, legal, or ethical problems and inconsistencies in procedures, practices, policies, and programs. This is the part of the report that details whatever negative conclusions you've reached.
  • It suggests remedies for whatever needs to be corrected. Either working with the service provider (the ideal) or on your own, you should propose solutions for the problems you've found. If they're glaring and serious - if the provider is, in fact, providing no services, or if there's outright illegal activity - the remedy might be to prosecute the provider and find another who'll do the job. If the problems are correctable and the provider is willing to correct them, however, that should be your focus.

Work with the organization to create a plan to put remedies into practice

Suggesting remedies is useless unless it leads to action. You, as auditor, should help the provider to prepare an action plan that will address and eliminate the problems found in the audit.

Decide what you're going to do with your findings

Once you've analyzed the data, you have to do something with what you've learned. If the organization is, in fact, doing its job in an acceptable way, then your only obligation might be to point out possible improvements, or to help it get difficulties under control. If, however, you've found that the service is not what it pretends to be, or that it doesn't adhere to acceptable legal, ethical, or professional standards, you'll need to act. Depending upon your position - whether your audit has been official or unofficial, for example - you should have several options, which you can exercise singly or in some combination.

  • Report problems to the organization's board. This may be enough to provoke corrective action in some organizations. Boards can usually fire directors, change policy, and otherwise steer organizations away from unacceptable operation. You have to know, however, that the board is both willing and able to make changes if this is the only action you take.
  • Work with the organization to change what's wrong. If problems with the service stem from poor management, ignorance, or other unintentional and correctable instances of incompetence or error, your help may be welcomed. When problems are intentional and systemic, your assistance may be neither accepted nor useful.
  • Report the organization to the appropriate oversight body. File a formal complaint with a regulatory agency, present your evidence to an oversight committee, alert public officials or funders, or otherwise make sure that whoever's officially responsible for monitoring the service knows what you've found.
  • File a lawsuit. If what the organization is doing is simply beyond the pale - blatant discrimination, using charitable contributions to pad salaries and buy expensive homes for administrators, operating a fake service - going to court might be the best remedy for consumers and the public.
  • Go public. Hold a press conference, release your audit report to the media, stage a public meeting at which you announce your findings, organize a public demonstration to protest the operations of the service, buy media advertising - do whatever is necessary to expose the service for what it is. Sometimes the mere threat of going public is enough to gain the results you want.

Which of these or other options you choose will depend on what your goal is. If it's to expose illegal or unethical practices, you'll probably be best served by one or more of the last three. If it's simply to see that services are provided properly and fairly, you might not need to take such drastic measures. Keep your goal in mind. Policy can be changed in any number of ways: try to take the road that's most likely to lead to the outcome you'd most like to reach.

Create a plan for maintaining the audit process over time

Most organizations undergo financial audits every year. Regular service audits, at least for the organization you're concerned with, may be just as necessary. If the organization is working to correct its problems, someone needs to check and make sure they're on the right track. If another provider has been substituted, it's important to confirm that it's not falling into the same pattern as the previous one, and that acceptable services are now available. In either case, ongoing audits should be a part of the overall plan.

An audit of consumer services is one tool in the advocate's research kit. It may not have to be used very often, and it's often hard to work with, but you'll be glad you have it when you need it.

In Summary

Consumer services encompass both publicly-funded services provided to specific populations and services regulated by law that are provided for the general public. An audit of consumer services is a formal inspection of procedures, practices, policies, and/or programs by an objective party to determine whether those services are what they are meant to be, and whether they are conducted according to accepted legal, ethical, and professional standards.

Consumer service audits can help to identify gaps in necessary services (and serve as an advocacy tool to institute those services), confirm that services are what they're meant to be, protect the interests of service recipients and the public, to improve the chances that community issues will be resolved, and to foster social change.

To determine whether you should conduct an audit yourself, or should instead act as organizer (determining what and who should be audited, finding an appropriate organization or individual to conduct the audit, and convincing them to undertake it), you should ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you have the expertise to conduct the audit in question?
  • Do you have the resources to conduct an audit?
  • Are you the appropriate party to conduct the audit?
  • Can you gain the cooperation of the organization to be audited?
  • Are you a better choice to conduct the audit than a better-known or more universally-respected possibility?

Anyone concerned might organize an audit. The best choices to conduct an audit are usually government or professional oversight agencies, watchdog organizations, academic researchers or other eminent and credible individuals who are recognized experts in the field, teams from peer organizations, and funders

The best times to conduct an audit may be when you're advocating for the need for a particular service; when there's a question of the availability of a service; when there's a question of equity in the delivery of a service; when funding is at stake; and when there's a broad-ranging community development or similar effort under way.

Organizing a service audit involves both identifying the problem and convincing a potential auditor to take on the job. To accomplish these tasks, you'll need to gather evidence that the audit is necessary, identify (and persuade) an appropriate auditor, and gather support for the audit.

To actually conduct an audit, you'll need to:

  • Budget the resources for the task
  • Negotiate beforehand with the organization to be audited
  • Determine the information you'll need
  • Gather the data
  • Analyze the data
  • Prepare an audit report
  • Work with the provider to develop a plan to correct the problems you've found
  • Decide what you're going to do with the results of the audit
  • Create a plan for maintaining the audit process
Phil Rabinowitz

Online Resources

About PIRC/Social Audit is a British consumer watchdog modeled on Public Citizen, currently focusing on an audit of the use of anti-depressants and the pharmaceutical industry.

The European Union Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS) is a management tool for companies and other organisations to evaluate, report and improve their environmental performance.

The U.K. Audit Commission on conducting crime and safety audits. An excellent take on what information to collect, how to get it, etc.