WASHINGTON — Congress established a small accounting office 100 years ago to keep an eye on the disbursement of federal funds. But as the Government Accountability Office celebrates its centennial, the agency’s main purpose has gained clout, making recommendations to Congress on how to better run the government while still keeping an eye on spending.
According to three current and former GAO executives who spoke with Federal Times , GAO evolved over the past two decades in particular in three key ways: it built trust with Congress and federal agencies, strengthened its culture of collaboration and became one of the most forward-thinking branches of government.
How does GAO work?
Lori Rectanus, the former director of GAO’s Physical Infrastructure team, hesitates to agree that the agency should be called influential, because GAO is a nonpartisan branch under Congress. However, GAO the office is somewhat of an “arbiter of truth,” she said.
Each year, GAO produces roughly 1,000 reports at the request of Congress. The agency proudly touts that for every $1 of its budget, it has saved the government $158.
These performance audits are carried out by GAO’s 15 teams, each with a different area of expertise. For example, Rectanus’s Physical Infrastructure team oversees everything from transportation to telecommunications to federal property management.
After a report is complete, Congress often will hold committee hearings to discuss its findings, calling on top GAO officials to testify.
As congressional priorities can change every two years with each new Congress, GAO has increasingly adopted a more long-term view of the machinery of government, developing its own recommendations about how to improve efficiency and effectiveness, so that Congress now often turns to GAO for guidance in addition to oversight.
“Our job is to provide Congress with information,” said Rectanus,. “We’re here when they’re ready to do the right thing.”
Trusted and transparent
Congress was not always so reliant on GAO – in fact about two dozen years ago, there was little trust in the agency from lawmakers on the Hill. GAO was accused of partisanship, because its process for accepting report requests was opaque and often favored whichever party was in power.
By the time David M. Walker took the helm during the Clinton administration, Congress had downsized the agency’s workforce by 40% and was on track to cut it by another 25%.
“Coming in, I wanted to build a proactive relationship with Congress rather than a reactive one,” said Walker, who served as the comptroller general from 1998 until 2008. At the time, GAO mostly interacted with Congress when responding to complaints.
President Bill Clinton nominated Walker for the top post in 1996 on the recommendation of a bipartisan group of 10 high-ranking members of Congress, including the Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, both Republicans, as well as the Democratic minority leaders of both chambers. After his unanimous Senate confirmation, it was this group of House and Senate leaders to whom Walker reached out first.
“They became a de facto board for GAO,” said Walker. From then on, when lawmakers wanted to request a report from GAO, they could negotiate with the agency and come to an agreement on the scope and timeline of investigations, ensuring that the agency would not become overstretched.
Walker then wanted to repair GAO’s relationships with the agencies that it audits.
Since 1992, GAO has maintained a High Risk List of government programs that are prone to “waste, fraud, abuse or mismanagement.” For years, however, GAO did not have a standard system for producing the High Risk List.
“I met with a group of senior staff and asked them, ‘what are the clearly defined, transparent criteria to determine when something goes on or off the list?’” Walker recalled. “All I got back were blank stares.”
By implementing clear criteria for the High Risk List, federal agencies could understand what changes GAO wanted to see. GAO began to provide support to agencies it believed needed help, and occasionally that meant standing up to Congress on their behalf.
“Sometimes, the [reason a program was failing was due to] Congress itself for not supporting the program enough, and we would note that. Congress may be our client, but it’s the truth,” said Walker.
As a result of decades of building trust and transparency, Walker said, the agency’s role has drastically expanded beyond its original responsibility of financial audits. Today, Congress rarely questions the quality of GAO reports, and the agency commands respect from officials in the federal government.
GAO’s culture sets the agency apart
Nick Marinos, director of GAO’s Information Technology and Cybersecurity team, was intimately familiar with the agency’ reputation. But after meeting a GAO recruiter at a job fair, Marinos’s father convinced him to pursue a career at the agency.
“My dad, who worked for a federal agency, wasn’t always pleased when it was his turn to be audited by GAO,” recalled Marinos. “But he respected them as an institution.”
Marinos heeded the advice and joined after college, and like many others at the agency, has spent his career there. While GAO externally built relationships and trust over 20 years, Marinos said the agency’s internal work culture was already great then and is even better now.
“At GAO, nothing is done on your own,” said Marinos, who now leads the team that monitors cybersecurity issues across all federal agencies,. “Collaboration is the most important part of GAO.”
At Marinos’s first meeting on the job, his boss and other team members interviewed a federal agency leader as part of their audit. “I was invited to the table to ask questions. I had just finished college, but [the GAO team was] already asking for my thoughts,” said Marinos.
Rectanus, who also joined GAO straight from college, said, “When you come onto a team, you’re on the same level as everyone else.”
From 2004 to 2009 she oversaw staff development of often decades-long careers at GAO.
“How do we build in professional development and not treat it as something separate?” This question pushed Rectanus to help develop courses so employees could become even stronger experts in their fields. For example, before Marinos began to audit the 2020 census, he spent a week studying the inner workings of the U.S. Census Bureau.
While GAO supports its employees, Rectanus says that its employees also push the agency forward in a feedback loop she calls “synergistic evolution.”
“When you hire people who look at things and ask, ‘How do we make this better?’ – that applies inward, too,” said Rectanus. She argues this positive feedback loop has helped ensure the agency is the best place to work in the federal government, backed up by consistently high rankings in the Partnership for Public Service’s Best Places to Work.
Thinking far into the future
“Oversight, insight, and foresight” was Walker’s catchphrase as head of GAO.
Oversight describes the original job GAO was given by Congress in 1921: to financially audit federal agencies. For example, leading the Physical Infrastructure team, Rectanus oversaw all of the government’s property: “Everything from the buildings to the desks, computers, and pens… we go anywhere the federal dollar goes.”
By the time Walker became Comptroller General, GAO also provided insight through performance audits of those agencies and making recommendations to Congress for ways to improve them.
Out of the “oversight, insight, and foresight” that describes GAO’s work today, “foresight” is the most recent – and the one that sets the agency apart, Walker said.
With a new Congress every two years and a presidential election every four, Walker said the legislative and executive branches often fail to think about the long-term strategic plan for the functioning of government.
“Congress has realized over time how important cybersecurity is, but this is something we were thinking about long ago,” said Marinos.
“When I started [on the cybersecurity team], only a few [Congressional] committees cared about it,” he continued. “But now, we work with all of them; they all want to know how cybersecurity will impact their field – whether it’s agriculture or energy.”
Rectanus said this is why GAO goes as far as to prepare transition reports for new presidents and Congresses, explaining to incoming lawmakers what the agency believes some long-term priorities should be. After 100 years of evolution and growth, when GAO offers advice to Congress and the rest of the federal government, they listen.