GAO: What Congress' watchdogs are thinking

men talking

When the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee recently summoned Defense Department officials to explain their nearly two-decade delay in complying with a law requiring Cabinet departments to produce auditable financial statements, Chairman Tom Carper left no doubt who wore the white hats.

"The department's finances have been on the Government Accountability Office's high-risk list since 1995," the typically mild-mannered Delaware Democrat lectured top civilian managers from the Pentagon and the three largest military services. "Just last month, [GAO] released a report showing that the department's antiquated inventory systems, often containing incomplete and inaccurate information, have led to millions of dollars in wasteful ammunition purchases."

Oklahoma's Tom Coburn, the panel's ranking Republican, ramped up the barrage against the Pentagon for its "cultural bias toward the status quo" and embraced GAO's criticism of DOD's continuing financial management problems.

Q&A with Gene Dodaro

Richard Cohen recently sat down with the comptroller general to discuss the way he runs GAO.
Click here to read the conversation.

Then, like a dissatisfied teacher demanding that recalcitrant students stay after school, Coburn urged the panel of Pentagon witnesses to remain at the hearing after they had finished their testimony to listen to the final witness: a senior GAO official who has spearheaded reports that are critical of Pentagon operations. Conceding that GAO analysts "appear to be a thorn," Coburn bluntly told DOD officials they might learn something. Carper reinforced Coburn's request while promising that the hearing would not be pleasant.

Similar dynamics had been on display a few weeks earlier when Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, who leads the nearly 3,000 employees of GAO, provided an overview of agency activities to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The typically stern taskmaster Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) praised the panel of GAO officials and said the agency was making a difference in trying to uncover inefficiencies at federal agencies and save taxpayer money.

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) added to the lovefest when he told Dodaro that perhaps Congress should give GAO more power to ensure that federal agencies comply with its reports."It doesn't seem that [GAO] has a hammer," Mica said.

'Fair and balanced'

GAO might be the only federal agency that welcomes its more than 100 annual appearances at congressional hearings. The close relationships that its managers and top program analysts share with members of Congress and their aides are no accident. GAO officials spend countless hours in private meetings and communications with their Capitol Hill counterparts to share information and seek guidance on their inquiries.

When a committee launches a high-profile investigation of government mismanagement, members often work hand-in-glove with GAO. In recent months, teams of auditors and other technical analysts have worked with Congress to spotlight the potentially criminal inefficiencies at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals and the problems with the Obama administration's botched launch of the HealthCare.gov website. Indeed, GAO, with its large headquarters building 10 blocks from the Capitol, is an integral part of the legislative branch.

The more challenging part of GAO's work involves its dealings with executive branch agencies, with much of that work focused on routine government operations. But large federal expenditures are under review, and billions of dollars in savings can potentially result from its recommendations.

As GAO's director of IT management issues for the past 10 years, David Powner looks for savings in two broad areas: by streamlining or consolidating parts of the roughly $55 billion annual costs for federal legacy systems and by seeking greater efficiencies in the $25 billion in IT acquisition, especially at large agencies.

"We don't necessarily have detailed ongoing work for all of the [approximately 275] acquisitions each year," Powner said. "We try to work with agencies on when is the best time for our audits." Sometimes those audits are proactive to encourage more effective decisions before the funds are spent; others are reactive and often analyze what went wrong, he added.

Seeking to reduce agency costs "can be very sticky" for GAO, Powner conceded. "Most agencies prefer that we would not be there. We try to be respectful of their time. We also try to point out where they are doing things well so that we create a balance."

He said he often seeks a cooperative relationship with CIOs at agencies where improvements are needed. "Rather than have them play hide the ball, we try to avoid confrontation. If we are fair and balanced, that helps our reputation. It doesn't always work out, but we have good relationships with most agencies."

'A long-term perspective'

DOD has been a problem agency, as was clear at Carper's hearing. The Pentagon is the only Cabinet department that has failed to comply with audit requirements imposed by the Government Management Reform Act of 1994. Asif Khan, GAO's director of financial management and assurance issues, prepared the report that set the stage for the recent hearing and testified after the Pentagon officials were done.

"If the department had focused on that requirement, they would have complied," he said in an interview afterward. "But they were not serious until the past few weeks."

After many years in which DOD largely ignored the law, then-Secretary Leon Panetta -- whose lengthy government experience included congressional service as House Budget Committee chairman and Office of Management and Budget director for President Bill Clinton -- in 2011 set a 2017 deadline for the Pentagon to be "audit-ready." As a stepping-stone, he directed that the Pentagon's statement of budget information be completed by September 2014.

Carper and other senators pressed Pentagon officials about the prospects for meeting the latter deadline, and they were not happy when longtime DOD Comptroller and Chief Financial Officer Robert Hale said not all of the steps for the initial goal would be completed by September.

"More than 80 percent of our services will meet audit readiness,"; Hale said. Carper said that was better than zero, but "we want to get closer to 100 percent." Coburn concluded that the testimony reinforced his view that "$40 billion of [federal IT] is wasted every year."

Although Khan said GAO has received cooperation from the Pentagon's financial managers, "I can't say that about people who are in the supply chain and deal with contractors. Some of our recommendations are a tough pill for them to swallow.... We try to be constructive, with a long-term perspective."

DOD officials have reason to be unhappy with what some view as grandstanding by Congress, which enacted the law in 2011 that triggered tens of billions of dollars in unexpected Pentagon spending cuts under the budget sequester and has been tardy in completing recent appropriations bills.

Immediate gratification

GAO, for its part, has not been spared the pain of the steep budget cuts and planning uncertainties that have resulted from the congressional dysfunction since 2011.

"We had a 15 percent cut in staff over three years. Now we are coming back," Dodaro told FCW in an interview. "The impact was that we did fewer audits.... We still work with Congress to set priorities. The number of requests has been reduced."

Dodaro has led GAO since late 2010 and was the acting leader for nearly three years before then. He is the only comptroller general -- a post that comes with a 15-year term -- who has risen through the office's ranks and has had extensive experience in auditing programs, particularly federal IT. He claimed credit for recent internal changes that have broadened GAO's expertise, including the hiring of the agency's first chief scientist and creation of a science and technology office. GAO has also increased its hiring of electrical engineers to join the civil engineers who have long been part of its staff.

Even with those changes, GAO faces constant challenges to remain relevant given the faster pace in Congress and modern communications. Congressional aides familiar with the agency's operations said GAO needs to become more timely in its work with Congress rather than focusing on its trademark reports, which often take as long as 18 months to prepare. Lawmakers and their aides are typically under pressure to pursue more immediate gratification.

However, a quicker turnaround on reports could make it difficult for GAO to gather information from federal agencies and maintain the high quality of its reports. In expanding their use of social media, GAO officials have sought to respond to those challenges.

As with many of their activities, the government's oversight experts must reach a delicate balance at a time when much of Washington has become deeply polarized.

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