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GAO Seeks New Name, Image

David Walker thinks the General Accounting Office has an image problem — one he says would be relatively easy to fix.

The comptroller general of the United States wants to change the name of Congress’ investigative arm to Government Accountability Office, saying the current name doesn’t fit its job description. The new name would “better reflect what we do and who we are,” he said.

The name proposal would keep the agency’s acronym in tact, he noted, because the three letters are “really a brand name.”

But the changes afoot at GAO are more than semantics. Walker is also seeking more authority from Congress to remake the agency into one he feels would better serve the institution.

A spokeswoman for the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee said the GAO’s proposals were being reviewed, but there is no time frame as of yet for addressing them.

Three years ago, GAO sought and received authority to restructure the agency, including new flexibilities to offer voluntary early retirement and buyouts. And just prior to that, GAO released its first strategic plan. The result was a complete restructuring.

“We closed five of 16 offices. We eliminated a layer of management. We reduced the number of units from 35 to 13 to provide more flexibility, more standards control, better accountability [and] changed how we measure success,” Walker said in an interview this week.

The agency’s current proposal asks Congress to make permanent GAO’s ability to offer voluntary early retirement and buyouts, as the previous law expires this October. He is also seeking to separate GAO’s pay scale from the executive branch, add authority for an executive exchange program with private-sector organizations in positions where GAO has a supply and demand problem, and obtain greater flexibility in the annual leave offered to upper-level hires.

“We are really trying to be in the vanguard of government transformation. In other words, to be as good or better than anybody else in government on strategic planning, organizational lines, financial management, information technology, human capital strategies, knowledge management, change management,” Walker said. “For the most part we’re there. And the reason we want to do that is: A, we think we can, and B, we think we should because we’re the ones holding everybody else accountable.”

That’s a tall order for an agency whose purview includes, in his words, “everything the federal government is doing, or thinking about doing, anywhere in the world.”

When it was created in 1921, GAO was primarily concerned with pre-auditing agency expenditures. Thirty years later the agency’s statutory obligations shifted to auditing government agencies and later was expanded to include program evaluation and policy analysis. Today, less than 15 percent of the agency focuses on traditional financial accounting.

Yet the perception off the Hill that GAO does little more than financial audits persists. And Walker thinks that “expectation gap” hinders the agency in attracting the best and the brightest to work at the multifaceted agency.

The comptroller general also realizes that perceptions on the Hill are equally as important, maybe more so.

“We collectively have done a number of things over the last several years to try to address what were the expectation gaps, what were some of the concerns of Congress, what were some of the concerns of GAO, to try to aggressively deal with that. In some cases it was making more clear and transparent what we did and how we did things,” he said.

But some of the chaffing between the agency and Congress is an issue of culture.

“We try to do all of our work in accordance with a set of professional standards and core values. Integrity means we try to do our work professional, objective, fact-based, nonpartisan, nonideological, fair, balanced. When I told a very high ranking member of leadership that, they said that doesn’t exist in Washington, D.C.,” Walker said.

“My comeback was, ‘I know that doesn’t exist up here on the Hill. And I know that doesn’t exist elsewhere in large parts of this city. But I think we need to strive to do our best to try to make sure to the best of our ability that our work is true to that. Because if our work is not true to that, the value of what we do and what we say becomes diminished over time.’”

Much of those differences in perspective came into play when the GAO filed suit against Vice President Cheney and again more recently with the request by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and John Dingell

(D-Mich.) for an investigation of energy giant Halliburton.

As for the latter, Walker said investigating just one company with a contract for Iraq reconstruction was too narrow and could too easily be perceived as partisan.

“They had a legitimate issue: What kind of procedures are being followed for awarding these contracts in Iraq? [But] I wanted to do it generically. My concern would be — if we would have done the work and we just focused on Halliburton, no matter how legitimate the work was — think about it, Dingell, Waxman, Cheney.”

When GAO brought suit against Cheney’s office for not disclosing times, dates and participants of meetings formulating the administration’s energy policy last year, the reaction from Hill Republicans was either muted or critical. That disappointed Walker, who thought of the action as merely enforcing legislative branch prerogative. One “very high ranking member,” whom Walker refused to identify, even issued what he deemed a thinly veiled threat.

“We tried very hard after we filed suit to make sure that people understood that this was not Dingell and Waxman versus Cheney,” said Walker. “This was the institutional interests of the Congress. This was reasonable transparency and accountability in government. And unfortunately on the Hill, they didn’t ever really see it that way.”

Because less than one-half of 1 percent of the work GAO does deals directly with the immediate office of the president as well as the widely held perception that it was a partisan matter, Walker didn’t appeal. This wasn’t the one to take up, he decided.

“One of the reasons, frankly, that we went to court to begin with, is not because what they ended up arguing once we got to court, but what they were arguing before we went to court. They argued that we really

shouldn’t even exist. Then they argued that we shouldn’t be able to do work beyond just the narrow financial auditing area,” Walker said. “Some of the people hadn’t read the statute since 1950 because the statute has been modified. And part of that comes back to what I started out with, our name. Our name is a real problem. It’s caused us problems in situations where it shouldn’t.”

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