GAO Releases Blueprint For Federal Operations

Posted April 6, 2007 at 6:20pm

Consider it the 185-page memo on how the U.S. government should operate — or at least how the Government Accountability Office thinks it should be run.

Last week, the agency released its “Strategic Plan,” a detailed document highlighting everything from homeland security to day care centers. Comptroller General David Walker, who runs the GAO, described the plan as a policy blueprint designed to guide Congress and the executive branch in upcoming years.

But a big chunk of the document focuses on how the GAO itself will operate, important because the agency is considered a leader in how other government agencies should be run.

Part of those plans involve expanding the agency’s controversial market-based, performance-driven employee pay system, a program that has drawn ire from some GAO employees who argue it has created a culture of secrecy and has disenfranchised minority and veteran staff.

And the new system has become the impetus for a unionization effort among the agency’s 1,500 analysts, a movement supporters say is gaining momentum and should lead to a union vote by the end of the spring.

“Their profession is analysis and critical thinking, and data-driven and well-researched, transparent decision making,” said Julia Akins Clark, general counsel of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, the union leading the effort. “The concern they have is … the way that the agency’s personnel systems are running fails to live up to GAO standards in terms of the way public policy decisions should be made.”

Analyst concerns are getting some support from Capitol Hill, as a bipartisan selection of Members have sent Walker correspondence seeking details about the pay structure and the way it was established.

But Walker maintained in an interview last week that the change has been positive for the majority of GAO workers and that only about 5 percent of employees are unhappy.

“There were a lot more winners in our new system than people who don’t deem themselves to be winners,” Walker said. “You’re going to take some flak, and you can’t make everybody happy.”

Clark countered that while only a small number of the agency’s analysts were negatively impacted by that system, many more are upset because “the manner of the way decisions are being made is not transparent.”

“The majority of analysts are unhappy about that, even though they personally were not hurt,” Clark said. “This agency is, more than any other, held to very high standards for personnel management and indeed holds itself out to be a model.”

According to the plan, the GAO will work to make improvements to the pay progam to better link performance and market rates to worker salaries.

The agency also will promote similar pay systems and human capital programs at other agencies. The Defense and Homeland Security departments already have begun their own pay-for-performance evaluations, Walker said.

But Walker added that most government agencies do not yet have the infrastructure in place to make such changes.

“They don’t necessarily have the right type of safeguard and controls in place in order to provide reasonable assurance that people are being treated fairly,” Walker said.

Walker argued that employers must take into account things other than pay structure to improve employee morale, and added there are a number of other employee initiatives the GAO will undertake in upcoming years.

One challenge — also facing a slew of other government agencies — is the recruitment and retention of younger workers.

It’s something the GAO already is focused on, Walker said, as the agency undertakes aggressive recruiting efforts. But the GAO’s budget has not allowed them to hire the number of employees needed, Walker said.

(Last year, the GAO hired about 400 new workers; it can hire only about 200 this year, he explained.)

It’s especially unfair, Walker argued, because the GAO makes a tremendous return on its investments, producing $105 worth of work for every $1 appropriated to the agency.

“Our appropriations system does not do a good job of matching resources to results,” Walker said. “And that’s got to change.”

In the meantime, the GAO is striving to keep its younger workers happy, Walker said. The GAO is among the top three government agencies in using student loan repayment programs, for example.

Plus, the agency has doubled the size of its day care center to serve its newer employees.

“They’re younger, and they’re establishing families, and that means you have more needs in regard to day care facilities,” Walker said.

There are plans to assist more veteran workers as well, including helping them move between different departments and projects so they constantly stay challenged.

“I’m reaching out to all of our employees all the time,” Walker said. “I have town hall meetings, I meet with individual teams.”

Aside from improvements at the GAO, the strategic plan looks at the areas where the agency is most likely to spend time critiquing for Congressional clients.

Health care, defense, employee benefits, natural resources, infrastructure and fiscal security — Walker’s personal favorite — all have been labeled in the plan as major challenges facing the country in the years ahead.

Walker’s ultimate goal is to shrink — or at least make a significant down payment on — the nation’s growing debt. He said he’s “cautiously optimistic” about that one.

“Congress and the executive branch are going to need to start looking longer range, looking broader, looking at taking more in,” Walker said.