Beyond a deficit-based approach : public sector audit as a transformative mechanism for positive change

Sweeney, John P. (2018) Beyond a deficit-based approach : public sector audit as a transformative mechanism for positive change. Doctoral thesis, London Metropolitan University.


Public service operates in an accountability environment, characterised by complex relationships among auditors, auditees, and stakeholders. Public sector audit provides important information to stakeholders, but it is not always so effective in transforming and improving management. This research explores audit’s potential to become an instrument for positive change, by addressing a knowledge-gap about intrapersonal, interpersonal, and interorganisational characteristics that would inhibit or facilitate such a paradigm shift. It found that audit has the capacity and potential to move beyond a purely deficit-based role, to positively promote improvements and collaborative learning between institutions and stakeholders. The studies obtained data from semi-structured interviews, survey questionnaires, and documents from 13 Supreme Audit Institutions in the period 2015-2017. The first study presents a unique competency model for performance auditors, identifying citizenship, creativity, and the love of learning, as distinctive competencies, congruent with a positive audit approach. The second study explores the auditor’s view of the auditor-auditee relationship using role theory and identifies distinct psychological assets used by auditors: independence, competence, positive personal attributes, collaboration, fairness, and positive change; the latter two forming scale constructs to measure adaptive relational attitudes. The third study evaluates the effectiveness of cognitive-based training in influencing auditors’ attitudes to audit relationships. The final study identifies three critical factors influencing interorganisational learning in an accountability context: organisations’ absorptive and teaching capacity; dynamic interorganisational processes, and the commitment, knowledge, and ability of staff. This thesis provides new insights into applying psychological theories on relationships in a public sector audit setting. It addresses practical issues affecting the recruitment and selection of staff and the design of better audit processes. It concludes that public sector audit already possesses the theoretical and practical attributes to become a proactive, collaborative, participatory activity. Thus, by expanding its role, it can be a dynamic, transformative instrument for positive change.

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