Powner: A model of constructive oversight

This GAO official believes no one benefits from a 'gotcha' audit

David Powner isn’t a gotcha auditor. He believes in bringing an enlightened perspective to the agencies whose programs he scrutinizes.

“I think our role is to build a relationship where we’re viewed as a value-added service to federal agencies,” said Powner, director of information technology management issues at the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. “You build credibility, and they look at you more as being helpful instead of in a ‘gotcha’ audit mode.”

An example is GAO’s relationship with officials at the Internal Revenue Service, which is engaged in a complex business systems modernization program. “We have a very open relationship [with IRS officials], and they seek our advice maybe a bit more than other agencies,” Powner said.

The IRS’ effort to replace its aging tax-processing systems appears to be on the right track after years of costly failures. Powner’s guidance has been integral to improving the program, said Richard Spires, IRS deputy commissioner of operations support.

“Dave brings a valuable perspective to his role as auditor, providing realistic, solution-oriented guidance for improvement,” Spires said. “His recommendations have served as the foundation for maturing the IRS’ ability to meet the enormous challenge of modernizing the core systems that support tax administration for the nation.”

Under Powner’s counsel, the IRS added the IT modernization program into its governance structure, enhancing the partnerships between IT and internal customers.

Powner said he believes that proper governance is critical to keeping IT projects on track. “We try to stress that not only do we need to bolster program and project management rigor and expertise at agencies, but when you get key executives engaged in performing the right governance over a project, that makes a world of difference, too,” he said.

Improving executive-level governance can ultimately help agencies deliver technology within budget and on schedule, Powner said. In that regard, he said he believes in earned value management, a performance management technique that measures a project’s progress against cost, schedule and technical baselines.

“There are some areas in the government where we’ve looked at [agency IT programs] and pushed for more rigorous implementation of earned value, and it [has] really made a difference,” Powner said.

As GAO’s director of IT management issues, Powner’s audit portfolio covers programs valued at billions of dollars. Ultimately, his job is to see that federal tax dollars are well spent and not wasted, he said.

Powner carries out that job from GAO’s field office in Denver, where he lives. Powner, who spends about two weeks each month in Washington, said he doesn’t mind the frequent travel between Denver and the capital. It gives him plenty of time to review GAO’s voluminous reports and testimony. “You hop on a plane, and you’ve got three hours of uninterrupted time to look at reports,” he said.

Powner is in his second stint at GAO’s Colorado office. After nine years with the agency in the 1990s during which he evaluated modernization programs at the Air Force, National Weather Service and Federal Aviation Administration, he took a job in the telecommunications industry in Denver. However, he decided in 2003 to return to GAO.

“GAO is a tremendous place to work,” Powner said. “I look at the portfolio of stuff I get to work on and how we get to make a difference.”

Powner said the government’s biggest challenge is to improve the quality of its workforce. “There are pockets of expertise at any agency where you have very good folks who really know the technology — how to manage complex programs, ho to oversee contractors and how to push contractors,” he said. “But then you see a lot of programs where you don’t have the expertise.” 

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