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Q&A With Former Comptrollers General Charles Bowsher and David Walker

The experts weigh in: questions and answers with Charles Bowsher, comptroller general from 1981 to 1996, and David Walker, comptroller general from 1998 to 2008.

What makes the comptroller general position unique among all leadership positions in Washington and the federal government?

BOWSHER: The 15-year term of office. Unlike other lengthy terms (e.g., the Federal Reserve Board of Governors or the Supreme Court), at GAO the term applies to a single individual. This works well and results in agile leadership and direct responsiveness to Congress.

WALKER: The CG position has the longest term of any term-based position in the federal government. The CG has the ability to take a longer, broader and more integrated view in connection with a range of important and emerging government issues. The CG also has the ability to speak truth to power. The CG’s role can be particularly important when one party controls the White House, the Senate and the House.

What’s the secret to working effectively as comptroller general with the Congress? What tips would you give the next CG?

BOWSHER: Working across Congress and finding out “what can the GAO do for you?— This is accomplished in private meetings, serving as a sounding board and helping to think through a strategy to address specific issues. More can always be done.

WALKER: Being a highly qualified and respected professional, nonpartisan and nonideological, is also critical. The CG must be willing to do what he/she thinks is right regardless of political popularity. Important to consult with relevant key Congressional leaders on major issues and to avoid surprises.

Should the comptroller general be a CPA?

BOWSHER: No, it is not essential. Three of the six comptroller generals have been CPAs. More essential than being a CPA is that the CG possess deep experience and knowledge in financial management.

WALKER: It’s preferable because GAO audits the consolidated financial statements of the U.S. government and the CG should not sign the related audit opinion unless he/she is a CPA. However, it is more important to have a person with the right skills and attributes than having any particular degree or professional credential.

What makes having a deep fiscal and budgetary knowledge of the government central to the job of comptroller general?

BOWSHER: It remains a core part of GAO’s mission from both the audit standpoint and the still-evolving financial and fiscal crises.

WALKER: It is the dominant subject matter knowledge for the CG, who is uniquely qualified to address key sustainability and cross-governmental challenges.

What will GAO’s most important role be for the next comptroller general?

BOWSHER: The current and still-evolving financial crisis and America’s recovery and stabilization.

WALKER: Help Congress address key policy and operational challenges, including transformation reforms facing the government.

Is the GAO High-Risk Series still relevant, and how can the GAO work more effectively with Congress and agencies to get off the list?

BOWSHER: Yes, the GAO High-Risk is still very relevant, and there are a number of examples including at IRS where landing on the High-Risk List is what caused leaders to finally pay attention to problems.

WALKER: Yes, it is an important focus. Many key items require action by both the Congress and the executive branch in order to achieve sustainable success. OMB should continue to work with GAO to require action plans by agencies to get off GAO’s High-Risk list as soon as feasible.

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