Man on a mission
David Walker was handed a 15-year assignment, and he’s been busy every minute transforming the federal government
Editor's note: This story was updated at 1:30 p.m. May 21, 2007. Please go to Corrections & Clarifications to see what has changed.
- By John Pulley
- May 14, 2007
David Walker, comptroller general of the Government Accountability Office, is busy in the way only a man on a mission can be. In a town of BlackBerry-thumping, cell phone-addled, calendar-crazed, would-be world-changers, Walker is a multitasking reformer of the first order.
When he took command of GAO in 1998, the investigative arm of Congress was in a sling, hampered by budget cuts of 40 percent. Since then, however, Walker has expanded GAO’s reach well beyond its historical mandate to ferret out waste, fraud and abuse. Today, the agency routinely examines broad structural issues and the implications of government decisions — and indecision — for future generations.
As an agent of change, Walker has ruffled a few feathers. Walker tells it like it is, his friends say, because he is a dedicated public servant with a strong moral compass, a patriot, and a student of U.S. history. In 2004, several years into his tenure, Walker succeeded in changing the name of the agency from the General Accounting Office to the Government Accountability Office. The change is subtle, but it says much about the man and the direction he is taking the agency, his admirers say.
Mark Abramson, a consultant and former executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government, said that “David actually practices what he preaches,” unlike many people in oversight roles. He is able to do that partially because of the political cover afforded by his 15-year tenure. Apart from judges who are appointed for life, the comptroller general has the longest guaranteed tenure in Washington, Abramson said.
Walker has made the most of the opportunity, said Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “The fact is, he’s revitalized an important organization that had gotten bogged down.”
Walker said he’s not done yet. His intention is to use the remaining six-plus years of his time in office to pursue far-reaching reforms of a type that may be his most ambitious yet.
Will he notch another victory? In a city infamous for bitter political sniping, Walker has seemed bulletproof. With time, however, even the savviest reformers run the risk of being shot down.
“There are some tough issues facing the country,” said John Palguta, vice president of policy at the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit organization that works to make the government an employer of choice. “Dave Walker is one of the few people calling it like it is and backing it up with facts and figures.”A job with tenure
Walker didn’t aspire to be the country’s comptroller general.
“I didn’t even know the job was open,” said Walker, who, in the late 1990s, was encouraged by a number of career civil servants, congressional employees and elected officials “to throw my hat into the ring.” The timing seemed right to him. “My background was…well-aligned with a number of the major challenges the government would face during my term.”
That background includes stints as assistant secretary of pension and welfare benefit programs at the Labor Department, public trustee of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds, and acting executive director at the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. To take the top job at GAO, Walker resigned from Arthur Andersen, where he was a partner and global managing director of the company’s human capital services practice, and took an 85 percent pay cut.
He arrived at an agency decimated by the 104th Congress, which had slashed legislative-branch agencies in its zeal for smaller government. “Morale was not good,” Walker recalled. “The agency was unsure of itself and uncertain of its future.”
After settling into the office and meeting with constituents inside the agency and on Capitol Hill, Walker established three objectives. First, he aimed to remake GAO as a model federal agency and world-class professional services organization that leads by example. “In my opinion, we’ve achieved that,” Walker said.
Second, he sought “to modernize the accountability profession to better meet the challenges and capitalize on the opportunities of the 21st century.” On that score, the agency has made significant progress, Walker said.
Finally, he determined that he would lead what he calls “a much-needed and long-overdue transformation of what the federal government does, how the government does business, who does its business and how it is financed….We’re just getting started.”
GAO as a model
In remaking GAO, Walker has striven to create a model of reform he hopes other federal agencies will replicate. An organization that had been divided into more than 30 discrete silos has been reorganized into 13 issue teams flexible enough to work on projects that cut across multiple disciplines. In many ways, the new GAO looks more like a private-sector consulting firm than an old-line government agency.
“We are a wholly owned subsidiary of the United States Congress,” said Sallyanne Harper, GAO’s chief financial officer and chief administrative officer. “We’ve gone from being a stovepiped, hierarchical, process-oriented, insular organization to being a much flatter, exterior-focused, partnerial, matrix organization.”
Walker’s overhaul of GAO’s job classification and employee appraisal systems links pay to market forces and raises to job performance. Broad pay bands have replaced the regimented General Schedule, which was created in 1949 to manage a largely clerical federal workforce. The result is the most far-reaching overhaul of pay and job classification that any agency of the federal government has undertaken.
“We are the first agency to go off the GS system for all employees agencywide and the first to adopt broad pay bands for all employees agencywide,” Walker said. “That’s a huge change — a big paradigm shift. In the GAO, if you’re not performing at an expected level, you don’t get a raise.”
At a time when 70 percent of federal jobs are professional or administrative, Palguta said, linking pay to performance and rewarding high achievers is overdue.
“Kudos to GAO for trying to demonstrate — very personally and very aggressively — that this should be the compensation system of the future,” Palguta said. “It’s a bold move on the part of GAO, and it has caused some consternation within the agency.”
Indeed, Walker’s most vociferous critics are GAO employees who haven’t financially benefited from his reforms. A survey of GAO pay by an outside consultant revealed that some workers were underpaid, and others were being paid at more than market rates. Walker didn’t cut the pay of overpaid workers, but he did freeze it. Those workers remain eligible for performance bonuses.
Critics of the plan have taken steps to form a union. They have blasted GAO’s appraisal system, which they say is unfair to minorities. Their plea has resonated on Capitol Hill with sympathetic legislative staff members.
The critics are “very intense, very vocal, very angry, very bitter,” but they do not represent the majority opinion, said Elizabeth Singer, a member of GAO’s Employee Advisory Council. Indeed, a recently released ranking of the best places to work in the federal government, compiled by the Partnership for Public Service and American University’s Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation, had GAO in the No. 2 spot, behind the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Moreover, the agency generated $51 billion of financial benefit to the government last year, or $105 for every $1 spent, according to GAO statistics.
“We are proof that you can reform the government to generate positive results while maintaining high employee satisfaction,” said Walker, who has dismissed much of the criticism against him as unfounded. He does, however, share his critics’ concern about the disparity between the performance reviews of different racial groups. He has established mentoring programs open to all employees, and he has promised to have an outside auditor review the performance appraisal system. Remaking government
An enduring theme of Walker’s tenure is an emphasis on the value of the workforce. Bromides about employees being an organization’s most important resource are not new. In an information economy, however, the sentiment is truer than ever.
“From my perspective, the most important issue he has highlighted over the years is the importance of federal employees to achieving executive-branch goals and objectives,” said Robert Tobias, director of American University’s Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation. “A lot of lip service was paid to that prior to GAO putting human capital on the high-risk list.”
Walker’s recognition of employees’ value informed his overhaul of GAO’s pay and classification system, which he designed to attract and retain high-performing workers. In addition, he has emphasized the importance of succession planning in managing the federal workforce.
Maurice McTigue, director of the Government Accountability Project at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, said the overhaul reflects a cultural change. When the GS was created, “people were units of production,” he said. “Now people are more like capital. They bring talent and value to the operation.”
Convincing other federal agencies to embrace Walker’s vision of personnel reform won’t be easy. Four of every five of the federal workforce’s approximately 1.9 million employees are still on the old GS system.
“Before we implement pay for performance throughout the government, it’s important to look at GAO and other agencies where the system has been introduced in order to understand its effects and implications,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Walker has also focused attention on the critical mission of federal employees in implementing public policy. Heretofore, scrutiny of public policy tended to focus on policy creation to the exclusion of its implementation.
“If I’m in the executive branch and I’m an appointee, my focus is on creating public policy, not implementing it,” Tobias said, describing the traditional mindset in Washington. “The Washington Post focuses on fights in Congress, not on agencies that do good work. A sustained, focused attention on public policy implementation was not present until Walker came on the scene.”Fiscal wake-up
In his free time, Walker barnstorms the country like a latter-day Paul Revere, sounding the alarm of pending financial crisis. The government’s spending is accelerating at a clip that will outpace the growth of revenue, he tells audiences. The country is going broke, he says, and as baby boomers retire and health care costs escalate, the national debt will reach epic proportions. The economy cannot expand fast enough to keep up, which leaves spending cuts or tax increases — or both — as the only answers. While the country avoids taking action, he says, the options are dwindling.
“He puts this in stark moral terms,” said J. Christopher Mihm, managing director of strategic issues at GAO. “He thinks about it in the context of what are we doing to our nation’s children and grandchildren if we are leaving them with this fiscal mess. It’s not just a governance or accounting thing. It’s a real issue of right and wrong.”
Of his various initiatives, Walker’s outspokenness on the budget has drawn the most attention. Earlier this year, the TV news show “60 Minutes” did a segment on the comptroller general’s penchant for drawing attention to the looming budget crisis.
“As the comptroller general, he has plenty to do,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a sponsor of the road show. “Hitting the road to join the Fiscal Wakeup Tour is really above and beyond the call of duty.”
If he thinks he can make a difference, Walker would prefer to stay busy. He suffers no illusion, however, that he will solve the budget issue in the six-plus years that remain of his term at GAO.
“It is a generational challenge,” Walker said. “The best we can do is make a significant down payment.” John Pulley is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.