Survival guide: David Walker, comptroller general of the GAO

David Walker, comptroller general of the GAO

Henrik G. de Gyor

If the General Accounting Office is the government's watchdog agency, then David Walker is the GAO's big dog. Just the seventh Comptroller General of the United States since GAO was founded in 1921, Walker leads an agency charged with being the nonpartisan overseer of government operations.

His experience is heavy on the accounting side with stints at firms such as Price Waterhouse, Coopers & Lybrand and Source Services Corp. But he sees GAO's role as being more about accountability than financial auditing. In fact, he wants to change the name of the agency to the Government Accountability Office.

Walker spoke with Staff Writer Patience Wait about the GAO and its role as keeper of the government.

WT: What are the characteristics of a good auditor?

Walker: They have to have a solid foundation [in] certain skills and competencies, and we look for certain attributes ... personal skills, communications skills, judgment and who can do the job in a professional, objective, fact-based, non-ideological manner.

[The name] is one of the misnomers about us, and I'm looking to change the name of the agency to the Government Accountability Office. We want to keep GAO. Only about 15 percent of our work deals with financial management and related auditing. Eighty-five percent is program review, legal research, adjudications and investigations on a broad range of subjects.

WT: How will the push for more outsourcing change GAO's role?

Walker: I refer to it as strategic sourcing. If you use "outsourcing," it leaves the impression that you're predisposed to send it out, which I don't think is the right answer.

The bottom line is the government has certain missions and responsibilities -- some performed by federal workers, some by contractors. There are a number of areas on our high-risk list that have been contracted out to the detriment of [everyone involved], such as [the Defense Department,] NASA, Energy, the IRS. To the extent that things are being contracted out, we must keep in mind that the department or agency is still responsible for the work. We need to have an adequate number of workers monitoring cost, quality and performance.

WT: How can investment in IT infrastructure help get the government's fiscal house in order?

Walker: [IT] can obviously help... But we have to change how we acquire, design, implement and integrate our IT systems. The Defense Department is the perfect example, where you have too many people doing their own thing. There are thousands of systems that don't communicate with each other. They are taking it seriously -- undertaking a multiyear effort to understand what systems they have -- to have some very tight approval requirements, fiscal controls over where [they] go from here, including trying to finalize an enterprise architecture that can be used as a basis for decision-making going forward. 

WT: When an agency's IT program gets in trouble, is it generally an IT problem, a government management problem or a contractor problem?

Walker: It's all facts and circumstances. One of the biggest areas I find problems in is where something is contracted out, but the government does not have an adequate number of personnel with the skills, knowledge and ability to manage. I've also seen contracts in which the costs were not nailed down adequately, or what the deliverables should be. I would say those are the two biggest situations. Needless to say, when there's a problem, nobody wins: It's not good for the contractor, not good for the agency, not good for taxpayers.

WT: Do agencies resist giving you the information you request?

Walker: There are agencies that historically we've had challenges getting information from, though the only time we've actually been stonewalled is [on Vice President Cheney's energy task force]. There are times when agencies have taken much longer to respond than they should, but they do eventually. GAO has had greater difficulty dealing with the White House, Defense, the intelligence agencies, Justice, including the FBI, [though] I would say we actually have much better relations with the FBI now than we ever have.

WT: You recently said Congress needs to take more responsibility for following up with agencies on their problems.

Walker: That had to do with the Government Performance and Results Act. ... Congress needs to increase its oversight, authorization and appropriations activities in connection with linking resources to results. If people are doing a good job, there ought to be [rewards]; if they're not doing a good job, there ought to be consequences.

I gave the executive branch a grade, but I didn't give Congress a grade; I said they'd have to ask... I gave OMB a B in trying to increase their efforts in linking resources to results. Let's just say that Congress' rating would be considerably lower.

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