GAO’s Holiday Wish List

Stephen DeAngelis

November 27, 2006

With the holiday season now in full swing, lots of people — from children to Comptroller General David M. Walker, the head of the Government Accountability Office — are making wish lists. Walker’s list is discussed in a Washington Post article by Stephen Barr [“GAO Chief Sends Long Wish List to the New Congress,” 27 November 2006]. Not surprisingly, with the new Congress promising stiffer oversight, Walker’s list points them to areas in desperate need of oversight.

“We cannot afford to continue business as usual in Washington, given our current deficit and growing long-term fiscal challenges,” Walker said in the letter, sent this month. In addition, Walker wrote, most of the government’s policies and programs “are based on conditions that existed decades ago,” suggesting that it is time for “a fundamental review, reprioritization and re-engineering of the base of government.” Walker lists 36 topics for investigation and oversight hearings, and many of them involve daunting political issues, such as Social Security and Medicare, immigration policy, and the costs and benefits of environmental and energy policies. Some of his recommendations touch on how federal employees conduct the government’s business and deliver services to the public.

Walker is jumping aboard a bandwagon that has been gaining momentum in the business world for some time. Conditions have changed and the way organizations conduct their business must not only change with the times but try to stay ahead of them. In other words, organizations, including the government, must learn to be resilient. Among Walker’s 36 topics for oversight and investigation are:

· Addressing the government’s contracting problems. The GAO estimates that about a quarter of the government’s discretionary spending is for products and services from contractors (more than $338 billion in fiscal 2005). Walker recommends that Congress require agencies to report on how they ensure that contractors “are playing appropriate roles.” He also urges Congress to ensure that agencies are adequately staffed to monitor contract costs and performance, particularly at critical times, such as hurricane response and the war in Iraq. [Sounds like there is a place here for automated rules that increase both efficiency and effectiveness].

· Improving federal computer security to deter identity theft. Special attention needs to be paid to protecting Social Security numbers, including the methods used to issue and replace Social Security cards, Walker says.

· Transforming Defense Department business methods. Billions of dollars are wasted annually because of poor management decisions in such areas as weapons acquisition, supplies and technology, GAO studies have found.

· Assessing the progress of the government’s largest recent merger — the consolidation of 22 agencies into the Department of Homeland Security. Attention should be paid to the department’s strategic planning capabilities and the steps being taken to improve border security, Walker recommends.

· Reviewing coordination and information-sharing in the intelligence community, focusing on the National Counterterrorism Center and the National Counterproliferation Center. [I know that this effort is already underway and I expect great progress to be made].

· Reorganizing the U.S. Postal Service, which is under increasing pressure from the Internet and competition from private delivery companies. That raises questions about whether the Postal Service “can remain a self-financing government provider of affordable universal postal services in the 21st century,” according to Walker.

· Modernizing federal employee performance management and compensation systems. Congress should consider market-based, performance-oriented pay systems in government, based on a “show me” test that demonstrates employees will be treated fairly when their pay raises are tied to more rigorous job performance ratings.

· Examining the presidential appointment process. Congress needs to look at whether some political jobs require certain qualifications and experience, such as those involved in national and homeland security, and whether other political jobs need to be given independence from the White House to ensure professionalism and objectivity.

Walker understands that the outcome of mid-term elections was partly due to a loss of confidence and trust in government. He believes that public hearings on these and other issues will start Congress down the road towards regaining taxpayers’ trust and confidence. He may be right, but ultimately it will be actions, not words, that help re-establish confidence and trust. Automated, reliable, transparent, and auditable business processes can help put words into action. Human errors are reduced, questionable practices red flagged, and accountability can be determined using such systems. I agree with David Walker that it is time the government join the 21st century and adopt 21st century processes.