Recounting how far GAO has come in 100 years

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The Budget and Accounting Act is 100 years old, and so is the Government Accountability Office — formerly called the General Accounting Office. The agency, part of Congress, has come a long way from its origins in bean counting. Federal Drive with Tom Temin got a brief overview from the GAO’s Chief Operating Officer Kate Siggerud.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Kate, good to have you back.

Kate Siggerud: Glad to be here, Tom. Thanks.

Tom Temin: And, of course, GAO is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. And we’ve talked to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro on that topic. But from your knowledge, the General Accounting Office days really did have that financial and budgetary orientation – didn’t it?

Kate Siggerud: It did. So yeah when the budget and accounting act created GAOin 1921, it did a couple of things. It created today’s appropriations and budgeting process by having the president prepare a budget and establishing the bureau of the budget, which is today known as the Office of Management and Budget. But for GAO, we were created as an independent agency to look at the overall spending by the executive branch and audit the functions and audit certain claims that came to the executive branch. So we were there to help Congress understand how dollars appropriated by the Congress for being spent by the executive branch.

Tom Temin: And I think it’s fair to say that whatever else has happened in 100 years, Congress has kept its political tentacles off of GAO, which remains one of the, I think, beacons of nonpartisan oversight.

Kate Siggerud: Yes, that’s certainly true, Tom. So we started as sort of a voucher checking and claims organization, and Congress was happy to have us perform that service. But over time, Congress came to expect more of us in terms of the performance, economy and efficiency of the federal government. But we have maintained a nonpartisan and objective approach to all of our work from 1921 through 2021, and had become a very relied upon source of information in terms of government performance.

Tom Temin: And people think of GAO as the program oversight now, because there are so many reports that come out on the management of programs, the efficacy, the outcomes of whether they’re correct, but the financial accounting and the vouchers, if you will, to use the older term is still a really big part of GAO – isn’t it?

Kate Siggerud: Right. We started as a voucher checking organization. And even though that overall process, went back to the executive branch in the 1950s, financial auditing has remained a really important part of what we do. So in addition to the work that we do reporting on efficiency, compliance, best practices in terms of performance of government programs, we are also the auditor of the federal government’s annual financial statements, and in fact issue and overall report on that every single year.

Tom Temin: How closely do you think that the practices of the GAO mirror those of public accounting firms that look at corporations and try to audit and verify their statements? Because that’s a big function is the the financial statements and the verification of them. Is it similar or does it vary to the degree that government finance varies from private sector finance?

Kate Siggerud: Well, certainly we talk a lot to each other between the private sector and the public sector accountants in how we do our work. But GAO does have responsibility for setting what’s called the government auditing standards, also known as the yellow book. And we began that in 1972. So we have a set of auditing standards focused on both financial statement audits that we’re talking about, as well as performance audits, those that are focused on in economy and efficiency. And we have been establishing those standards now since 1972 and updating those every few years. So there’s a lot of conversation back and forth between the private sector and government accountants, but there are basic differences in how that work is done and they are laid out in those accounting standards.

Tom Temin: I’d say the average person probably doesn’t understand the intricacies of accounting or the fact that in many ways, it’s as much art as science and subject to interpretation because it’s complicated. And I look at it almost like playing a musical score, as opposed to just simply operating an adding machine. Is that a fair way to put it?

Kate Siggerud: I would say so. When we think about what what a performance on it is, and that is the majority of the work that GAO does these days – we really evolved into doing that kind of work in the late 60s when the great society programs were established, and Congress was interested in how they were working. So that led us to have to develop a set of practices with a wide variety of skills and experience in terms of the people that we hired to do the work. So in addition to accountants which were common in GAO at that time, in the 70s we began hiring experts in the fields of science, actuarial science, computer science, healthcare, public policy, etc. – so that we could listen look at the broad array of federal programs that exist, we could look at what they were expected by law to accomplish, what they’re respected by regulation to accomplish, and then determine if they wer, in fact doing that, and then making recommendations. And I’m sure as you know, Tom, that the majority of our reports today have recommendations to the executive branch to improve their overall functioning of those programs.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Kate Siggerud, she is the chief operating officer of the Government Accountability Office celebrating its 100th year this year. And how does the people at GAO maintain the optimism and the good cheer they generally seem to have, even when looking at programs that have gone pretty far astray?

Kate Siggerud: Oh, well, it’s nice to hear that you think of our reports that way, being optimistic and having good cheer. But we are always optimistic that government programs can be improved. And I would be remiss if I didn’t say that GAO had just been named the best place to work of midsize agencies by the Partnership for Public Service last week for the year 2020 when that survey was last done. So I think that as we look at what federal agencies are meant to accomplish, and try to accomplish, it’s good to have an optimistic outlook, that we can get there and that overall, everything can be improved, and made to serve the American people in the taxpayers in even a better way than they do currently.

Tom Temin: I imagine there’s a sense of camaraderie in the workforce there, which probably helps make it the best place to work in government. It would be too much to say us versus them attitude, but all the employees do have that shared activity of looking at things and trying to frankly find the fault with them. And that must breed a certain I don’t know, well, camaraderie is the word I would pick.

Kate Siggerud: That’s a nice way to put it Tom, I don’t know if it’s so much finding the fault, but looking for improvements. And the fact is, we have a multidisciplinary workforce. And all of the work that we do, every single report we issue in GAO is a team effort where we go to folks in GAO or sometimes external experts, when we need them to determine what is the best way to evaluate a program, and what criteria would be appropriate for judging it. And so we do need a very multidisciplinary workforce, including, as I mentioned, attorneys, economists, social science, research, actuaries, etc. – all focused together on evaluating federal programs and determining how they could be improved.

Tom Temin: And given that diversity of types of things that you look at from, again, program efficacy to financial management to whether the outcomes are correct. And science, technology agencies, financial agencies, benefits agencies,. What’s the common quality do you think that makes the best type of GAO employee regardless of the particular mission they’re looking at?

Kate Siggerud: Well, that’s interesting question, Tom. So I think people that are curious and that like to learn, and that are focused on solving problems often can be very effective in their work at GAO, and enjoy the kind of work that we do. So we are looking for improvements. And we’re trying to understand sort of a critical thinking approach to how best for the government to serve the American people and the taxpayer and deliver on the many expectations that people have of the federal government. You did mention science and technology, and I want to mention that GAO established our new team, the science technology assessment and analytics team in 2019. That’s our newest overall mission team and GAO. And it does build on efforts over the last two decades to have a technology assessment capacity, and a foresight function to identify major trends that should inform our work for Congress. But we are seeing a lot of interest from Congress as they focus on technology challenges and science challenges, to use GAO as an expert source to understand what the policy options and challenges are with regard to science and technology. So that’s a new effort for us. And we’re proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish in the last two years in that regard. And finally, do you have an internal list of agencies that you’d really like to deal with? And

Tom Temin: Are there those that you say to yourselves, oh gosh, we got to look at these jerks again?

Kate Siggerud: Well, Tom, I’m not going to touch that one. But I will say that every two years, when there is a new Congress established, including this year in January of 2021, we issue a high risk report. And this goes through and lists programs and agencies that we are viewed as having high risk of fraud, waste, abuse, or mismanagement within their programs, or that are in need of fundamental transformation. And so I think, taking a look at that program that we have in our biannual reports on that will give everyone a good sense of where we think the greatest needs are for improvement in terms of the functioning of federal programs.

Tom Temin: And just a final question on Congress as much as they bash each other. My understanding is that they tend to be fairly respectful of the GAO and that that relationship is a good one, on a nonpartisan basis.

Kate Siggerud: I would say that that’s largely to time, GAO remains respected as a nonpartisan and objective source of information. For the Congress, we work very hard to maintain that reputation, and to be supportive to the Congress in ways that are still as I mentioned, non partisan and objective. And so it’s a great relationship we are having on July 14, what we’re calling a capstone event. And this will be a series of recorded and live videos that will feature members of Congress, along with our current Comptroller General and several of his predecessors. And anyone in the public who would like to see that on YouTube can see it on July 14, or later. And we’re really pleased to have members of Congress support us in that effort. And finally, I would like to say that the Senate passed a resolution last week, recognizing our 100th anniversary and GAO has many accomplishments over that century.

Tom Temin: I guess the members of Congress in 1921 that did pass that Budget and Accounting Act could never have imagined the idea of YouTube though – could they?

Kate Siggerud: I imagine not, we would have had to go and talk to them in person.

Tom Temin: All right. And those covered wagons and peanuts. Kate Siggerud is chief operating officer of the Government Accountability Office. Thanks so much.

Kate Siggerud: Thanks for the opportunity Tom.

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