GAO: Suggestions welcome
David Walker, the former comptroller general, began transforming the Government Accountability Office nine years ago with what would seem a simple first step: putting up a suggestion box.
Fresh ideas were clearly needed at GAO, which had gone through a long stretch of budget and staff cuts that had dashed employee morale.
But an internal management committee gave Walker three options that it said would take six months, a year or 18 months to implement, said Michael Motley, a 39-year veteran of the agency and director of continuous improvement in GAO’s Office of Quality and Continuous Improvement.
Walker had another idea. “He said, ‘How about we start one next month and run it out of my office,’ ” Motley said. By summer 2003, the agency had received 2,348 suggestions and had acted on 345 of them.
The committee’s response and Walker’s solution reflect the state of GAO at the time — and the changes to come.
The suggestion box was just a starting point. During the next several years, Walker set out to instill a culture of continuous improvement, in which he and his team methodically sought input from GAO staff and customers, identified problems and developed solutions.
The net result was what years later Walker would describe as a model federal agency and a world-class organization.
The story of Walker’s tenure at GAO is one of organizational transformation. Motley and others inside and outside GAO identify several concrete steps Walker took that made such transformation possible — surveying employees, revamping recruitment plans and documenting best practices.
But one overarching principle stands out: Change starts at the top.
Everyone at the agency was part of the transformation, Motley said, but Walker was the driver. “It takes a whole community — from the mail room to senior management — to make change happen,” Motley said. “But if you don’t get support from the top, don’t waste your time.
It won’t happen.” Learning from others
In November 1998, when Walker came to GAO from consulting firm Arthur Andersen, the agency’s reputation was at a low point.
During the previous six years, downsizing had reduced its staff by nearly 40 percent. After cuts in spending for information technology, travel, training, supplies and performance awards, morale was in tatters. A five- year hiring freeze had drained institutional knowledge and broken the leadership pipeline. Motley said, “It was devastating to the organization.”
Walker began his term as comptroller general by gathering as much information as he could through surveys. “I recall when he did his first survey,” Motley said. “He went out and talked to people and asked them, ‘What are the major issues of concern to you?’ ”When complaints of unreliable IT emerged, Walker stopped all other major changes at the agency. In a year, GAO had new computers and an updated IT infrastructure, Motley said.
GAO works primarily for Congress. It audits federal agencies and writes reports on its findings. It also hears bid protests from disappointed federal contract seekers and assists other legislative-branch entities, such as the Architect of the Capitol, the Capitol Police, the Government Printing Office and the Library of Congress.
Walker asked Congress how GAO could improve. Lawmakers told him the agency’s reports were excellent, but “the message was sometimes buried in one of these 45-page or larger reports,” said Christopher Mihm, managing director of strategic issues at GAO. After that, GAO started publishing its reports with one-page summaries at the beginning of each document.
“The great thing about [Walker] is he’s a learner,” said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, which ranks the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government. GAO ranked No. 2 in 2007.“He learns both from what he does well and what he could have done better. That’s very rare.” Reframing the mission
In addition to his interest in continuous improvement, Walker had ambitious ideas about GAO’s role in the federal government. Walker said he believed GAO had the ability and responsibility to offer “oversight, insight and foresight” and that “GAO is uniquely positioned to deliver it in a professional, nonpartisan, fact-based and nonideological way.”
With that as its mission, the agency that had been the General Accounting Office changed its name in 2004.Walker preferred the name Government Accountability Office because he thought it could help correct a widespread misperception about GAO. “I felt that the word accountability was broader and more appropriate than accounting in describing our focus,” he said.
The name change made recruitment easier, Motley said. “When I used to recruit for GAO, I had a big banner that said ‘General Accounting Office.’ People would see ‘Accounting,’ and walk on by.” It was frustrating, he said. “At one time, GAO was mostly concerned with finances, but today, only 7 percent of our work is solely financial.”
GAO is recruiting at Harvard University, Indiana University, Pennsylvania State University and other top-flight schools, Motley said. “You should see the résumés we get.”A large percent of GAO’s auditors now have master’s degrees in public policy or public administration.
The agency’s focus on identifying and developing talent is another aspect of the agency’s continuous improvement culture, Stier said. It’s one of Walker’s most important legacies, he said.
Walker took his search for employees to university deans and professors, with whom he held periodic meetings. Colleges and universities also heard from GAO’s newest employees, who would tell them what was useful in their education and what was lacking. Review, document, repeat
Continuous improvement at GAO is documented.
The agency records its best practices in an online Electronic Assistance Guide for Leading Engagements (EAGLE), further evidence of GAO’s effectiveness at promoting continuous improvement, Stier said.
Available to other federal agencies via an internal Web site, EAGLE is a guide for agencies that want to create conditions for change, Motley said. “Some of the work on EAGLE was the result of talking to other federal agencies to see how they organize their processes.” GAO was scheduled to publish an updated version of the guide this month.
Temperature-taking is a continuous activity at GAO. The agency conducts annual employee surveys in addition to entry/exit surveys. A week after it hires new employees, the agency asks them about their experiences as a prospective job applicant, the hiring process, their new workspace and equipment. When employees leave the agency, they fill out a survey about their experiences and their reasons for leaving.
The agency conducts customer surveys, too. In one year, GAO sent 1,148 five-question surveys — 697 about its reports and 451 about its congressional testimony — to lawmakers in the 108th Congress.
Motley is chairman of a committee that meets every two weeks to review changes and consider new ones. He loves his work. However, his former boss concluded that even a transformed GAO can’t lead the changes that he believes are necessary. Limits to GAO’s success?
“One the biggest frustrations I have with the federal government is that it’ ; s not strategically focused or results-oriented,” Walker said in an interview. “The current federal government is by and large an accumulation and an amalgamation of political programs, functions and activities that have aggregated over decades.”
GAO is the agency best equipped to identify the programs that work and those that don’t and “to call the balls and strikes regarding budget rules,” Walker said.
However, not everyone thinks GAO can do it all.
In 1921, when GAO was created as an auditing agency, “the idea was that if you audit more frequently and more thoroughly, you had a better chance of finding mistakes, wrongdoing and mismanagement and could correct them earlier,” said Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington.
After World War II, the scope of GAO’s audits grew. The Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act of 1985 gave the comptroller general the authority, under certain conditions, to make automatic budget cuts. The Supreme Court later struck down that provision, saying that such authority could not be exercised by an official who could be removed by Congress.
GAO gained expanded authority with the enactment of the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 to monitor government accountability and the Truth in Regulating Act of 2000, which authorizes GAO to review agencies’ regulatory impact analyses.
GAO has had some notable successes as an agent of accountability, Lilly said, citing the example of the Capitol Visitor Center, the biggest and most expensive expansion in the history of the Capitol. “As big a boondoggle as that was, it was significantly less catastrophic than it might have been without GAO. GAO identified the problems, alerted the people responsible for overseeing that project, and its recommendations for management improvements were made. Its analysis was on target from the beginning.”
GAO has been less successful as a watchdog “in evaluating whether those engaged in the war on terror are doing an effective job,” Lilly said. “Walker’s been trying to move the agency into a more difficult and sophisticated role” but not fully succeeding, he said. “I just don’t feel that they’re there yet.”
Lilly said he shares Walker’s frustrations about government accountability. “There are so many parts of the government that are not working well, and we’re not finding out about them,” Lilly said. However, the motivation to identify problems may be lacking in Congress and the White House, he added. “That’s been a challenge for Walker and GAO. I think Walker has shown a lot of courage and fortitude in the face of great pressures from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.” New challenges
On Feb. 15, Walker announced that he would step down as comptroller general, stunning many who expected him to complete his 15-year term.
Walker left sounding a warning. “We have large serious fiscal challenges that threaten the future of this great nation as well as the future of our families, and we need to start doing something about those challenges,” he said. “We have about a five-to-10-year window of opportunity to get our fiscal house in order.”
Walker said he would be in a better position to achieve those improvements as president and chief executive officer of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, whose founder has committed $1 billion to finding solutions to fiscal challenges that troubled Walker as comptroller general.
Meanwhile, some lawmakers are sorry Walker chose to leave GAO. “His oversight work saved the taxpayer billions,” said Rep.
Henry Waxman, (D-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Some experts say GAO’s culture of continuous improvement i u likely to disappear with Walker’s departure.
“Many of the changes he made he got backed up with changes in law,” said John Kamensky, senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government and associate partner at IBM Global Business Services.
Kamensky worked at GAO in the early ’90s.Walker leaves behind a strong corps of senior executives, including acting Comptroller General Eugene Dodaro. “I’ve worked for Eugene Dodaro, and I have enormous respect for him,” Kamensky said.
Out of government, Walker said, he will still be focused on government accountability.
Anyone who reads the GAO report titled “Forces That Will Shape America’s Future: Themes from GAO’s Strategic Plan, 2007-2012” might want to go to bed and pull the covers over his head, but “Dave Walker wants to pull those covers off your head and get things moving,” Kamensky said.
Walker laughed after hearing Kamensky’s comment. “The thing is, I’m an optimist,” Walker said. “If I didn’t believe we could solve these problems, I wouldn’t be trying so hard to do it. But it’s going to take unconventional tactics to get it done, and I think I pushed it as far as I could as CG.”