Katz: Congress Needs to Change GAO Hiring Process

Posted February 5, 2010 at 1:07pm

The second anniversary of the vacancy for the comptroller general of the United States, who heads the Government Accountability Office, is about to toll. Comptroller General David Walker resigned on March 15, 2008, and Congress has been required by statute, through a bipartisan commission, to transmit a nonbinding list of at least three nominees to the president. Yet, in an era when Monster.com has redefined how organizations fill positions big and small, Congress is handling the GAO selection as if it were Dinosaur.com.

[IMGCAP(1)]Thirty years ago, Congress wanted more say in how the head of the GAO, a legislative branch agency, was named. The role of the Congressional Comptroller General Commission was born. Now, the need to change how the commission operates is obvious to everyone but Congress. The current commission search for a head of the GAO, and the previous one completed in 1998, each have taken at least two years. The current commission was not established for seven months; the application and search process has been permeated by politics; and the commission has demonstrated an intrinsic indifference to conducting a professional competency-based executive search to fill the job. Less well-known is that the same statutory process is required to name a deputy comptroller general at the GAO, and yet Congress and the White House have never filled the deputy position — ever!

An Executive Search

Congress should adopt a new approach. The commission should operate as a board of directors and hire a nationally recognized executive search firm. Like any board of directors, the commission would be responsible for ensuring that the search is well-run, but not for running it or using Hill staff to run it. An executive search firm would be utilized in same way that boards of major companies and nonprofits, including universities, hospitals and major think tanks do in order to find top executives. This would include clearly defined time deadlines and professional standards for the search. The law could also be amended to require that every outgoing comptroller general submit a succession plan and report to Congress. The Senate Rules and Administration Committee and the House Administration Committee have the necessary procurement authority and capability to assist. The policy goal is simple: Create a process that mirrors the politically independent, nonpartisan and professionally qualified nature of the GAO leadership. The commission would have greater integrity and produce better results.

GAO’s Role Has Evolved

The past 30 years have been some of the most important in the GAO’s history, and the GAO will celebrate its 100th anniversary during the term of the next comptroller general. Historically, the GAO has ranged from more than 10,000 employees with offices in Europe, Asia and across the United States, to a current staff of fewer than 3,500 housed in its headquarters building in Washington, D.C. However, the GAO has continually evolved and helped Congress in new ways. Comptroller General Elmer Staats steered the GAO to become a policy evaluation and analysis arm of the Congress. Charles Bowsher ushered in the modernization of federal financial management. David Walker worked to “right size” the GAO after many years of budget cuts and freezes, while focusing Congress on the federal human capital crisis and the deficit.

Today, the GAO has a focused, professional work force and is a popular recruiter at top graduate schools. However, those coming to the GAO are puzzled by the lack of an official agency head and the absence of a deputy, even though the GAO’s mission is to hold other organizations accountable and to have high managerial standards.

Few Applicants

Absent from the search process by Congress is not simply the semblance of a modern executive search process, but a lack of attention to the professional and personal competences required for comptroller general. There is a paucity of applicants qualified in the ways that the GAO has gained the greatest stock and continues in its professional prominence — accounting, financial accountability and management, fiscal impact of spending, and serving as the policy evaluation and analysis arm of Congress. This is why a professional firm capable of grasping, identifying and searching for qualified individuals is crucial.

Who among the applicants, for example, might have the professional presence and credentials of the past comptroller generals — the last two of whom were certified public accountants — and who could look a Senator or Representative in the eye during testimony or a meeting and respond directly — and stand up to the White House? Bowsher did so in a September 1988 New York Times opinion piece, when he stated bluntly: “It boils down to this: we must save money both by spending it more efficiently and managing it more wisely and we probably will have to raise taxes to restore a starved revenue base.” Bowsher gave the same advice in 1989 in a GAO transition report to President-elect George “No New Taxes” Bush.

All Politics Is Politics

Despite the GAO’s evolution, politics and the lobbying game have permeated the comptroller general search. This was true in 1998 when the search was taken over by House and Senate Republicans, who sent their own list of nominees to President Bill Clinton. Today, the House Democrats have dominated the process. The tone is more bipartisan and civil, but the result appears worse. The current commission established itself in 2008 on a Web site of the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. It contained little more than application instructions and a set of policy questions that were reworked from the 1998 search. An announcement was made in letters to several professional associations, but in total, fewer than 20 people applied to head the GAO. A rolling admissions atmosphere also prevailed after many understood that the deadline had closed, allowing several politically connected individuals to apply. This included Rep. Todd Platts (R-Pa.), who issued a news release after doing so, and the head of a Washington-based nonprofit who informed his staff of his efforts.

The GAO, Congress, the U.S. government and the American public deserve to have a more professional process and better results. It may just be needed for a nominee to rise above the mounting political dynamism and tension in Congress.

Steven L. Katz was a senior adviser to then-Comptroller General David Walker. He is also a former counsel to the then-Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, served in the Clinton administration and is the author of the book “Lion Taming: Working Successfully with Leaders, Bosses, and Other Tough Customers.”