Project Spurs Move to More Data Analysis in State Internal Auditing

Imagine confronting a mountain of information about budgets, transactions, processes, and systems for an entire organization. Your job is to make sense of all that information and be able to spot risks or inconsistencies. Where do you start?

This is the challenge confronting internal auditors. And the task of assembling, verifying, and analyzing the information continues to grow more complex. Recognizing the state’s internal auditors needed stronger tools for amassing and analyzing information, the Central Internal Audit Office (CIAO) have become champions of data analytics. 

“The best internal audit work looks at an entire data set but to review all that data manually is nearly impossible. To effectively analyze that much data you need software,” explained John Gagnon, Internal Auditor with CIAO.

The Process

After studying options for empowering internal auditors to do more robust analysis, CIAO launched an initiative to get data analytics powerhouse application Tableau into the hands of internal audit programs at state agencies and universities. The effort began in 2019, when CIAO purchased Tableau licenses for state agency and university internal audit offices. This was followed by the real task—training internal auditors on the software.

“We held four large-group training sessions as well as smaller group sessions for individual agencies or universities,” said Gagnon, who was one of the CIAO’s project leads. “People knew this was the right direction, but it was more than just learning new software, it was changing how we do things, how we look at information. It’s been a culture shift.”

Complicating this shift was the fact each agency and university has different needs. To demonstrate the power of Tableau, CIAO found a project that all agencies could find value in. They created a purchasing card (P-card) monitoring dashboard state internal auditors can now use to review P-card transactions to quickly reveal patterns and red flags. The dashboard was launched in 2020 and CIAO has been promoting the dashboard to state audit programs. Internal auditors who use the dashboard no longer must pour over spreadsheets and statements of individual transactions to achieve the same analysis. 

Screen shot of P-card dashboard in Tableau
A dashboard for monitoring P-cards is a popular Tableau dashboard for internal auditors in the state

Progress is Ongoing

While the P-card dashboard demonstrates the power of Tableau for internal auditors, it’s still up to each agency to figure out how to best use the tool to support their needs and if it’s worth the cost of the Tableau license.  CIAO paid for the first year of the Tableau licenses when the project was launched. Today, agencies must cover the cost of the licenses themselves.

Appalachian State University’s audit team has found it well worth the time and cost to shift analysis to Tableau. 

Sorina McInturff, an internal auditor with the University offered this example, “We have a dashboard for a specific activity fund and use that to see at a glance which organization used what funds and for what purpose and a timeline of fund use. We also use Tableau for monitoring travel expenditures. We can put so many accounts in one place and look at them at once. You can narrow it and filter the data and look at it in different ways. It’s more useful than the Excel reports we’d been using.” 

travel in North Carolina
Tableau has given internal auditors a robust tool for reviewing agency travel expenses

McInturff admits moving to Tableau has been a learning process. 

“It’s been two years and we are still learning new things. You have to commit time to it up front. But in the long run it saves time. You only need to set up your dashboard once and it’s set. No need to re-create it every time you update data,” she said. “My advice to anyone starting with Tableau is to start with a question you want to answer. Then upload your data and start playing around with it. See what kind of visualizations come out. You might see things you never noticed before.”

CIAO’s Gagnon agrees it’s a time commitment worth making for internal auditors. “We’re happy to provide support to agencies to use Tableau,” he explained. “But training is a must to be successful.”

Resources for State Agencies/Universities 

Fortunately, there are many training resources for Tableau. The software’s website,, provides opportunities to create sample dashboards and access to free, self-paced training. The site also offers a free, 14-day trial to help potential users decide if the application provides what they want.

NC Department of Technology’s Business Intelligence Service also supports agency efforts to move to data analytics. The group hosts webinars to introduce new users to Tableau and moderates a Tableau user Group for state government for easy access to resources and to connect users. 

“We want people to try it out,” said Dewi Matra, a business intelligence specialist with NCDIT. “Visualizations speak louder than words and looking at data in different ways is the best way to quickly identify issues.” 
Security is also one of the appealing features of Tableau, according to Matra. A Tableau user can publish visualizations and share them with others knowing the data behind the report is secure. People viewing the published visualization can’t manipulate the data and the owner of the data can add or remove user access to the published dashboard at any time. 

CIAO continues to encourage internal audit programs at state agencies and universities to embrace data analytics and Tableau. In the two years since rolling out the effort, internal audit groups have increasingly charted their own path forward in applying data analytics to their work. Which helps internal auditors fit the tool to their agency’s or university’s unique needs while still pushing internal auditing programs to meet current professional standards. 

This ambitious project is part of OSBM’s commitment encouraging the use of data, measurement, and evidence in state government and building a culture of continuous improvement.

About Central Internal Audit Office

CIAO is a section of the Office of State Budget and Management. The CIAO team supports the Council of Internal Audit and strives to provide training, guidance, and other professional resources to state agency and university internal audit programs. CIAO also provides internal audit services to smaller state agencies.