The United States faces a range of economic, security and other challenges that threaten its future position in the world and its domestic tranquility at home. As a result, it is more important than ever that federal government organizations engage in effective planning, organization, technology, execution, and other activities. This includes the need to make major transformational changes, when necessary.
When I became Comptroller General of the United States and head of the current U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 1998, the federal government was in surplus but the agency was in need of major transformational change. It had been involuntarily downsized by 40%, including imposing a five-year hiring freeze, and was at risk of being downsized at least another 25%.
I worked with the top career executives, agency staff representatives, and selected external contractors, to develop the agency’s first strategic plan, re-organize the agency, develop and publish agency core values and operating protocols, right size the field office structure, update technology and knowledge sharing practices, and modernize a range of human capital policies and practices. One of the key elements was to get the agency to focus on its client (i.e., the Congress), its people (i.e., agency personnel), its external partners (e.g., Inspectors General), and on achieving real and outcome-based results.
As a result of the above actions, the agency more than tripled its annual financial savings for taxpayers, increased its productivity measures by 50-100%, achieved a 95% client satisfaction rating, and was rated as the second best place to work within the entire federal government. All this was achieved while reducing the number of field offices by 33%, total agency personnel by 13%, eliminating a layer of management, and reducing the number of internal organizations from 35 to 13. Importantly, the agency’s human capital policies and systems were focused on skills, knowledge and performance while placing additional emphasis on improving opportunity and inclusiveness within the agency.
All of the above actions are transferable and scalable to other governmental organizations at all levels. The federal government has a particular need to engage in these activities since it still does not have a government-wide strategic plan, and has gone from experiencing large and growing surpluses when I became Comptroller General to huge and growing deficits today. In addition, public trust and confidence in government has also declined significantly since 1998. As a result, the time for action is now!
David M. Walker formerly served as Comptroller General of the United States and is a current Distinguished Visiting Professor (Crowe Chair) at the U.S. Naval Academy.