Regulatory Reality

Oct 20 2009   3:05PM GMT

Should bank examiners rely on audit and assessment reports?

David Schneier David Schneier Profile: David Schneier

A favorite cliché of mine is “if it wasn’t for the last minute nothing would ever get done.” Personally it’s sort of the way I’m wired and in my industry it’s an unwritten rule when it comes to many annual activities. There’s an appreciable uptick in services work each year beginning in early fourth quarter as banks and credit unions wake up to the realization that the audits and assessments they are committed to conduct have yet to be done. And examiners typically don’t pay much attention to the timing of the work; they only care that it’s done during the expected time frame, so oddly enough this approach works.

But this leads to another interesting quirk about how the examiners often operate. Generally speaking, if the reports are available, they don’t dig much (if at all) beyond the reports contents. And so the information security and IT components of many exams become more about inventorying recent reports and not much else. We see evidence of this all of the time when we conduct a first-year audit or assessment and discover gaps or issues that have been in place for years and which the exams never picked up on.

I’ve written in the past about how surprisingly few institutions maintain a current business continuity plan and even fewer properly test that plan. But what surprises me more is that these conditions have existed for years spanning many exam cycles. How is that even possible?

I’ll tell you how: There’s a documented plan that is provided upon request and by and large the examiner conducting the fieldwork checks off that they received it and voila, you have a non-issue. And because the people in the field are typically given too few hours to cover too much landscape, they don’t have enough time to dig in deeper. Sometimes it happens where an examiner happens to actually open the document and vet it for key details – every now and again we come across a DoR or an MoU where the absence of a recent business impact analysis was tagged – but that happens almost never.

I’m fond of advising clients that you conduct much of the required compliance work for one of two reasons: You do it because it’s the right way to manage your institution and reduce your risk or because you have to. Because of the approach taken by examiners, way too many institutions lean towards the latter and simply want to have a report available to hand over when asked. But is this really the right way to run a financial institution?

And when you consider that the value of the report is largely defined by its contents and the competency of the practitioners conducting the fieldwork behind it, isn’t there an increased likelihood that there are important issues that go undetected? If all you do is pay for the report (often issued by the firm submitting the lowest bid) and all the examiners do is check off that the report was available and issued during the appropriate time frame, is there any real value in even bothering with this process?

I’m a bit biased regarding the value of reports. My firm is on a constant hunt for real risk and not just simply working our way down a checklist to kick out a document and collect our money. We tend to examine our clients infrastructure as if though we have our own money deposited with them and tie what we see straight back to GLBA and NCUA requirements. The value in this approach is that we produce a report that the board of directors can relate to, not just the IT folks.

But again, if no one really even cares about the content of the report and only that it exists, why bother doing a good job?

Maybe our industry needs to adopt an approach similar to the PCI folks. Maybe the FDIC and NCUA should issue certifications to practitioners validating them as properly trained and educated experts with regards to GLBA. There would still be a variance from firm to firm to a certain degree, but at least there would be a recognized standard and an increased likelihood that if an examiner is going to rely on the competency and completeness of a report there’s some justification behind that decision.

Something’s going to have to change though and hopefully sometime soon. Because using the “last minute” logic is flawed and only serves to reinforce my own bad habits.

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