GAO needs a strong replacement for Bowsher
You know the old chestnut. Question: What's the biggest lie in town? Answer: We're your
auditors, and we're here to help. Among events that strike fear in agency managers'
hearts, GAO setting up shop in your office ranks highest.
Yet a debate over GAO's future is coming to a head, in both the legislative and
Charles "Chuck" Bowsher, a former assistant secretary of the Navy in a
Republican administration, held the post of comptroller general, with distinction, for a
full 15-year term. He retired last September.
Bowsher navigated GAO through difficult waters, presiding over the agency's
unprecedented growth in the 1980s and its downsizing in the 1990s. He managed his
fractious congressional clients well. Choosing his successor is bound to trigger debate.
Always evolving, GAO grew from a bean-counting audit agency before World War II into
one with far more elaborate systems-audit capabilities to help Congress keep the imperial
presidencies since the Vietnam era in check.
In the final days of the Democratic Congress, particularly in 1992 and 1994, GAO was
occasionally under scathing attack from Republican members for allegedly tilting towards
the Democratic leadership's agenda. But GAO's hour of maximum political danger came and
went during the transition from 40 years of unbroken Democratic House rule to the current
Now GAO is being used by a Republican Congress to investigate a Democratic
administration, and Republican chairmen are discovering hitherto unappreciated virtues in
GAO's findings and capabilities.
In recent years, the agency has pulled back many employees from long-term assignments
working directly with-and as substitutes for-Hill staff.
Reorganized, downsized and occasionally demoralized, GAO has continued to be a
respected voice at Hill hearings, fawned over by presiding chairmen because its findings
provide grist for the mill of public policy, offsetting the all-is-OK talk of executive
GAO's continued probity and integrity is correctly, if grudgingly, respected by friends
and foes. It remains a highly graded agency with bright and well-intentioned workers. A
coterie of personnel who head major groups at GAO would be successful anywhere.
Most times, GAO's steady plugging advances public policy. On occasion, GAO has taken
strong and courageous stands long before they became publicly popular, demonstrating this
or that government program was a Potemkin village with a nice facade but no substance. On
much rarer occasions, GAO has squandered its carefully built credibility by hectoring some
programs relentlessly, without offering solutions. Perceived grandstanding by auditors is
never palatable to those forced to dine again and again on the same piece of crow.
Increasingly, GAO's work in the information technology arena has become a lightning rod
for disagreement, because IT deals with big dollars and big problems.
But the next leader of GAO will need to take the office to a new place. Why?
First, the inspector general community provides executive branch audit and
investigative capability that did not exist 25 years ago. Fundamentally, a new look is
needed, not just at preventing overlap between the inspectors general and GAO but ensuring
oversight is spread around adequately. Although the inspectors general and GAO serve
slightly different masters, no one can afford the disruption and distraction of multiple
audits of the same project. Good efforts are under way to prevent this problem.
Second, the age of databases is changing the traditional comptroller function.
Third, GAO retains a major role in award protests, subjecting it to continued scrutiny.
Fourth, and most important, the next comptroller general will have to preserve GAO's
core credibility. That's a tall order, given that members of Congress are always seeking
stronger and more pungent testimony, findings and reports.
Stephen M. Ryan is a partner in the Washington law firm of Brand, Lowell & Ryan.
He has long experience in federal information technology issues. E-mail him at email@example.com.