GAO tweaks its mission

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The General Accounting Office, the congressional watchdog, is looking to align its name with its mission — less pure accounting and more oversight.

Congress is recognizing and extending GAO's role in management oversight, considering legislation that would change everything from the agency's name to employee pay rates.

Senators voiced little dissent about the bill, the GAO Human Capital Reform Act of 2003 (H.R. 2751), during a Governmental Affairs Committee hearing this month. Even Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), a proponent of redesigning the government's human resources systems, thanked GAO Comptroller General David Walker "for being a pacesetter on federal strategic human capital management."

The bill would change GAO's name to the Government Accountability Office, a title Walker said better describes its mission.

"Our activities are designed to ensure the executive branch's accountability to the American people," he said. The agency needs a highly skilled workforce with varied technical skills. Developing and maintaining this workforce are the ultimate goals.

"Being a best-practices organization is difficult," said Voinovich, who, along with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), introduced the Senate version of the bill. "You have to be doing them if you are telling other shops what to do."

The legislation's most controversial portion is aimed at recognizing and retaining top talent. It would do away with the automatic annual pay increase granted to most federal government employees in favor of a merit-based system. All employees would still receive automatic cost-of-living increases.

"What we want to be able to do is say increases will be based on performance," Walker testified. "We're trying to lead by example, to show you can modernize the workforce while protecting the integrity of the civil service and preventing abuse of federal employees."

Although there have been some pay flexibilities at GAO since 1989, the idea has not been popular with all employees.

"There is always distress when you take away guaranteed pay increases," said Chris Keisling, a member of the Employee Advisory Council, which meets regularly with the comptroller general.

Walker "believes that employees will fare better when there is more pay for performance out there," Keisling said. "The general concern is that that remains to be seen."

GAO watchers believe these flexibilities are necessary. "GAO needs to be a 21st-century employer," said Maurice McTigue, director of the Government Accountability Project at the Mercatus Cente. He has studied the office for the past two years.

GAO "may need to go to the marketplace to buy skills. It needs to reward high achievers," he said.

But there is concern that the flexibility could be abused. Walker acknowledged that most parts of the federal government are not prepared for the changes he hopes to bring to the office.

Al Ressler, director of the Center for Human Resource Management at the National Academy of Public Administration, said he is excited about the workforce changes at GAO.

"They're building a human resources infrastructure and framework specific to the nature of the mission that they've been charged with doing," he said. "It's inspiring, from an HR point of view."

Linskey is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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