Letter: GAO lost objectivity under Walker

Regarding “GAO: Suggestions welcome”: As an antidote for the ringing praise this article lavishes on David Walker for his performance as the head of the Government Accountability Office for the last 10 years, FCW readers might want to reflect on the comments made by then-Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) at a hearing of the Senate Government Operations Committee almost 40 years ago on the interesting question of whether GAO, as an independent auditing organization, should also be in the business of recommending programs to Congress.

A former state comptroller, Cranston observed that "if [GAO officials] make a recommendation and it is adopted by Congress, they then...have a vested interest in that program, and their independence and ability to judge [are] somewhat impaired and, I think, less reliable."

Notwithstanding Cranston's concerns, on Walker's watch, GAO has effectively completed its transformation from an independent auditing organization into a management consulting organization that regularly recommends programs and "solutions" to Congress. Indeed, as the director of continuous improvement in GAO's Office of Quality and Continuous Improvement, Michael Motley, proudly points out in the article, without any sense of the irony of what he is saying, "At one time, GAO was mostly concerned with finances, but today only 7 percent of our work is solely financial."

GAO's transformation into a management consulting organization began under Charles Bowsher, Walker's predecessor. Bowsher was highly influential in getting Congress to enact management reform programs — perhaps most significantly the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990 and the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996. Those two pieces of GAO-inspired legislation have strongly influenced how the federal government has gone about trying to make its operations more effective and efficient over the last 20 years.

Under Walker, GAO's main mission seems to have become issuing one critical report after another about the awful job executive-branch departments are doing as they attempt to carry out the CFO and Clinger-Cohen programs while amazingly leaving the business of actually auditing how appropriations are obligated each year to the internal auditors in the inspector general shops in the executive-branch departments.  

GAO invented the CFO and Clinger-Cohen programs, requiring financial statements, as if government operations were businesses, and the creation of elaborate "enterprise architectures" to get there. GAO officials have proven themselves incapable of stepping back and objectively asking whether the management advice embedded in the CFO and Clinger-Cohen legislation is, in fact, flawed.

In the private sector, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act makes it illegal for an auditing firm to provide management consulting services to an audit client precisely because of the danger that poses to the firm's ability to be objective and independent about the programs it is auditing. Maybe it's time to revisit Cranston's concerns and pass a Sarbanes-Oxley law for GAO.


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