The Government Accountability Office aims to save the federal government $40 billion next year through its work as Congress’ watchdog agency, but it also is worried about whether it will have the funds to carry out its mission.
The GAO released its performance plan for fiscal 2009 last week, outlining its goals for investigations, budget increases and internal operations. In it, officials reiterate much of what they’ve said over the past year: The agency needs more money and it’s losing experienced staff.
“We try to keep new people coming in, but we have to do less of that if we have less of a budget,” said Tim Bowling, chief quality officer for the GAO. That means analysts sometimes have trouble keeping up with Congressional requests, he added. “We do have a backlog that exists. We would very much like to do more, but without sufficient resources to start growing, it does constrain the amount of work we do.”
Like most of the legislative branch, the GAO has had a close-to-stagnant budget for three years. This year, it got a 4 percent boost. But officials say that doesn’t close the gap between increasing Congressional requests and dwindling available staff.
The agency needs to hire more employees to do the extra work, according to the performance plan. For 2008, the agency has 3,100 full-time employees — the fewest this decade. It hopes to hire 150 employees in fiscal 2009 to return to a staffing level not seen since 2002.
Just completing the demands of Congress could prevent the GAO from meeting its performance targets, the report says.
“Over time, the consistently high performance that the Congress expects of us will simply be unsustainable if our workload continues to grow while our resources continue to lag,” the plan says.
Employees are feeling the extra workload, and the agency’s union is hoping to address the problem, said Ron La Due Lake, a GAO specialist and member of the GAO union’s interim council.
“One of the things we are concerned about is our workload and how we can sustain that,” he said. “I think it’s something that all of us at the agency share, specifically, the ability to continue to provide credible work that stands up to our values.”
It’s also a problem of experience: More than 42 percent of GAO analysts have less than five years of agency experience. A hiring freeze in the mid-1990s prevented the agency from replacing its retiring staff. Now that it is hiring, more and more of the staff is young and inexperienced. To make up for this, the GAO has restructured its training program, and its 2009 plan calls for the implementation of a development program for potential managers.
Despite these difficulties, the plan reports that the agency has done well in the last few years. In 2007, the GAO estimates that it saved the government almost $46 billion through recommendations laid out in its reports. And those reports were released in a timely manner 94 percent of the time (based on a survey given to Members).
But Congress has requested more reports each year, and with that increase, more reports are put on a waiting list. In fiscal 2007, the GAO received 1,217 requests and hadn’t started 441 of them by the end of the year, according to information provided by Bowling. In fiscal 2005, the agency got 1,036 requests and hadn’t started 337 of them.
Bowling said the agency works with Members to determine what reports are most urgent. Since many requests come from committee chairmen and ranking members, they often are able to work with a committee to prioritize its requests.
The GAO also is guided by its four strategic goals, tweaked only slightly for the 2009 plan: addressing challenges to the well-being and financial security of the American people, responding to changing security threats and the challenges of global interdependence, helping the government transform how it does business to meet 21st-century challenges, and making the GAO a “model federal agency.”