Ralph Campbell, Jr. ­ Combining Politics and Social Process in North Carolina

Forget any stereotypes you might have about an auditor.

by , / November 6, 2000
By Darby Patterson and Cathlea Robinett

Forget any stereotypes you might have about an auditor.

Ralph Campbell, Jr., state auditor of North Carolina, just doesnt fit the image. A dynamic, outgoing 54-year-old, Campbell attacks his job with a creativity seldom found in his profession. He has been a highly visible and successful constitutional officer, moving the state to a leadership position in fiscal management through the use of information technology. And hes not shy about his accomplishments.

"Im just good!" he joked, adding that his position as an elected official allows him the freedom to inspire change. "You end up being the one to conduct the affairs of your department based on the desire of citizens as opposed to the direction of the legislature. It has a great deal of independence. On the other hand, you have to run for re-election."

"As chairman of the states Information Resource Management Commission (IRMC), Campbell is also in a powerful position to guide internal and external development of online systems that benefit the public and make government more efficient.

Early Inspiration

Campbells experience in politics began when his father served as president of the NAACP in Raleigh during the height of the civil rights movement. From 1958 to 1969, his family welcomed leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., to the oval table with white iron legs where courageous men and women gathered to develop strategy in the struggle for equality.
"Aside from pushing for change, you had to be involved in the social process," remembered Campbell. "The people who changed the laws were those who got elected to office."

He suspects this is what drove him and his younger brother Bill, now mayor of Atlanta, to run for public office. After campaigning for Bill, Campbell was inspired. He returned to Raleigh and won a seat on the City Council in 1985. His commitment to a life of public service was born in this local office, but it didnt stop there. In 1993, he became the first African-American in the states history to be elected to a statewide, constitutional office.

Getting to Work

Campbell wasted no time in automating the auditors office to better serve North Carolinas state agencies and the public. Every year, there are more than 300 audits conducted by Campbells office, including 45 departments, colleges and universities. Today, every auditor has a laptop with audit programs and forms online. Not only did technology make the auditors job faster, it provided a training mechanism for new employees in the department. To the dismay of some public employees, Campbells auditors became increasingly efficient and effective.

"Through our hotline, our auditors were notified of purchasing irregularities in the Department of Corrections," said Campbell. "Officials had bought a 115-year supply of little shirts and very large shoes for $7.5 million."

An audit of the departments books quickly revealed kickbacks from vendors for corrections officials. "Now we have some help for our legislators in developing a profile of criminals," joked Campbell: "Little bitty shoulders and great big feet!"

Most audits bring less attention, and Campbell likes it that way. "We have built a strong foundation of accountability, reliability and integrity," he said. "We have taken the Office of the State Auditor into the Information Age and now, as IRMC chair, I want to take state government along."

A Natural Visionary

Campbell wants to see an expansion of portal development throughout the state under an enterprise-wide plan that links state and local government to businesses and citizens. Since September, citizens in North Carolina have been able to obtain motor vehicle tags and purchase tickets to the perennially popular state fair online. Campbell looks forward to online acceptance of income tax payments and professional licensing services, along with a host of other transactions to benefit the public.

In addition, he wants to see North Carolinas employee portal creating greater efficiencies internally. "Right now, there are so many forms throughout state government," he said. "We have 45 different forms for travel expenses that have to be done manually. The state should have one standard form for use in every department that can be completed online."

Accompanying the benefits of e-government are policy issues and technology changes that didnt exist in the paper-based age. "As we deploy technology at a rapid speed, there are two high priorities: security and privacy. We have a lot of information about people and we need to be ever-vigilant that we are protecting the privacy of that information," said Campbell.

The IRMC has a committee dedicated to tackling these issues. According to Campbell, members are looking at best practices and technologies to create integrity as the states online presence grows. Already, the committee is looking at the U.S. General Accounting Office, where security tests of federal systems were conducted and poor grades were handed out in many areas. "They found vulnerability in the system. We want to conduct these tests at our state agencies," said Campbell. "We have to realize security systems in state agencies cant be a one-size-fits-all scheme."

Southern Comfort

Campbell makes his job as auditor sound almost fun -- a word rarely used in reference to auditing. He says his first interest in technology came from watching James Bond films and being irresistibly attracted to high-tech gadgets. Then came a job with IBM selling Selectric typewriters and buying into the benefits of productivity as technology developed.

Throughout his journey, Campbell has stayed in touch with his roots, performing community service as a lifetime commitment. He has won numerous awards and honors for his dedication. "I have a strong interest in the United Negro College Fund and the Habitat for Humanity program," he said. "When I was on the council in Raleigh, we pushed forward a bond referendum for affordable housing opportunities. Home ownership is very important."

Just as his father stood at the frontlines of the civil rights movement, Campbell is poised on the frontier of new technology that can transform government and engage people regardless of income, education or ability.

Ralph Campbell has high expectations for himself and for the state he plans to serve in the new millennium. "Through technology, I want to push North Carolina to become the first smart state," he declared. "And we are already on our way."