GAO’s go-to guy on governance issues
As managing director of strategic issues, Mihm advises lawmakers
Christopher Mihm has hundreds of stories about the Government Accountability Office, where he has spent the past 23 years and is now managing director of strategic issues.
One story is about David Walker, who became comptroller general in 1998, the top official at what was then the General Accounting Office. Congress changed the name in 2004. “His first week here he brought in a cup of coffee and didn’t wear his suit jacket into the Warren Room,” Mihm said, adding that “no one had ever done that.” Walker knew he was breaking with tradition, and the story about his jacketless, coffee-sipping debut in the carpeted executive-suite conference room “went all around the agency,” Mihm said.
Observing Walker’s management techniques has been an education for Mihm, who is among GAO’s senior experts on management issues. For example, Walker likes to brainstorm with employees, an activity that previous comptrollers did not encourage. When Walker says, “I’m just brainstorming here,” he means it, and he wants people to push back, Mihm said.
Mihm often speaks about GAO as if it were an Ivy League institution. “Everyone is so educated and comes from the top of their classes,” he said. It’s a place where
a person can have several careers within the same agency, he said. “Friends tease me [by saying], ‘So you’ve had three or four careers, but you haven’t had to change health plans,’ ” he said.
Despite Mihm’s pride in GAO, he said the agency is not trouble-free. The transformation that Walker is leading has been painful for some employees. “It hasn’t been all bread and chocolate,” especially regarding the new pay system that Walker instituted, Mihm said.
GAO now bases employee raises and bonuses on their performance ratings instead of giving automatic increases.
“I’m a big fan of pay for performance,” Mihm said, but when it is poorly administered, it creates problems. It’s a topic he has studied intensely. As managing director of strategic issues, Mihm is responsible for auditing pay-for-performance systems at other federal agencies. “You have to have safeguards that people are going to be treated fairly and appropriately and that there isn’t politicization,” he said.
Pay for performance is one of many operational changes that Walker brought to GAO. The bigger changes, however, are strategic ones that reflect his intentions for transforming the 85-year-old agency, Mihm said. For example, under Walker, GAO dropped the practice of measuring its accomplishments by counting how many blue-cover reports it produced for Congress each year.
GAO tries instead to track the results of those reports. “We’re in the business of instrumental knowledge,” Mihm said. What matters is whether GAO’s reports have led lawmakers and federal agencies to pass new laws or craft new regulations that improve government performance.
Besides emphasizing results instead of reports, Mihm said, Walker has insisted that GAO’s senior managers cross organizational boundaries — internally and externally — to work on issues of strategic importance to the federal government. “When you start working with people across organizational boundaries, everybody gets smarter, everybody gets more effective,” Mihm said.
“Chris is one of those rare individuals in an audit and oversight role who understands that not everything can be reduced to numbers and hard facts,” said John Palguta, vice president of policy at the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group that promotes public service.
Describing Mihm as an auditor with empathy, Palguta said Mihm “understands how difficult it is to tell a hard-working employee they are achieving below-average results and how, if conveyed poorly, that information can de-motivate rather than motivate.”
But Mihm also insists that responsible public managers should recognize that the federal government can no longer afford a pay system that rewards length of service more than performance.
“The type of system where pay increases are [linked] more to longevity and time in grade than to performance just doesn’t seem to us sustainable over the long term,” he said. “Citizens and Congress are quite rightly demanding to see more out of the public sector, given the enormous investment we’re being asked to make.”