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Time to give GAO a big job

After three long years, the Government Accountability Office finally has a new Comptroller General, Gene Dodaro. Dodaro was Acting Comptroller General so long that he could have joined the Screen Actors Guild.

Now that Dodaro is officially in charge, he ought think hard about what GAO might do to be a more aggressive player in reshaping the federal bureaucracy. With Congress and the president searching for ways to cooperate, GAO could be the swing player in actual progress.

GAO already has a prominent role in investigating bureaucratic performance. Its 3,500 employees conduct hundreds of studies a year, and its high-risk list should be required reading at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Over the years, the list has become the go-to document for horror stories about failed programs, broken systems and an increasingly sluggish bureaucracy.

As of November 2009, when GAO released its last biannual update, there were 31 agencies or programs on the watch list--including time-honored favorites such as improper payments, food safety, wasteful contracting and the Defense Department's financial management. The Internal Revenue Service has been on the list since 1995, and continues to flounder in modernizing its financial and technology systems.

Dodaro's biggest challenge is to create a sum greater than the individual reports GAO produces. Yes, there are big problems at specific agencies. Yes, there is great value in autopsies of recent breakdowns. But GAO has vast knowledge of the underlying problems that make breakdowns almost inevitable.

GAO almost certainly knows what drives the vulnerability. Its employees have seen every bureaucratic failure known to humankind--needless paperwork, unqualified political appointees, bloated hierarchies, lousy technology, sloppy management, outrageous duplication and overlap, lazy workers, needless make-work, and program after program that was unmanageable the day Congress passed it into law.

Now is the time for GAO to extract this knowledge as Congress and the president desperately seek solutions to the budget crisis. GAO could survey its own employees about needed reform, pore through its archives in search of common themes, and look past the trees at the forest of systemic problems that plague the bureaucracy.

The other option is to wait for the next round of the president's SAVE award, which invites federal employees to submit their ideas for Securing America's Value and Efficiency (get it? SAVE). The finalists for the 2010 award weren't bad per se: stop delivering empty sample containers by express mail, require mine operators to submit their quarterly reports online, post Customs Bureau notices of property seizures online and force Americans to read the Federal Register online.

But really, why wasn't this being done already? Why do so many SAVE proposals involve things such as double-sided copying, electronic paycheck deposits and video conferencing? GAO knows the answer.

GAO could put an end to the silliness by launching its own SAVE award. Only this one would be based on recommendations by its own employees on how the bureaucracy should be trimmed, reorganized, realigned or busted down to improve performance and save money.

GAO could easily ask that all entries save at least $1 billion. I'd bet that Dodaro would get 500 ideas right away. He could then feed them into a deliberate process for sorting out the big-ticket items and scoring them for real budget savings. Congress should give the order right away. Instead of requesting yet another study of a tiny program, Congress ought to give GAO the time and resources to mount a yearlong analysis of what it has learned about making government work through its countless studies over the years.

And while I'm on the issue of how to score management reform for budget savings, Congress should also give Dodaro authority to determine the cost savings of reform legislation. The Congressional Budget Office currently has that job, but not the staff or expertise to do it. Hence, management reforms that could produce billions in increased productivity invariably earn a big, fat zero. It's time to turn over that scoring responsibility to an agency that knows what bad management costs and how much good management can save. Congress should give that job to GAO.

By Paul Light

 |  January 13, 2011; 4:48 PM ET |  Category:  Change management , Federal government leadership , Public leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: The problem with our presidential appointment process | Next: Government Reform: Business unusual in Washington

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