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The Watchdog That's Off and Running
By Nicholas Thompson
An excerpt from an op-ed from The Washington Post, Sunday, August 3, 2003, Outlook Section
It's no secret that the federal government has a terrible time recruiting young people. To Generations X and Y, Uncle Sam is an old fuddy-duddy who doesn't publicize, doesn't pay and doesn't promote. That's too bad, because this is a particularly bad time for America's youth to be disengaged from what's arguably the most important organization on earth. Within five years, half the current federal workforce will be eligible for retirement. Someone's going to have to fill those jobs, and the country should hope that Uncle Sam can bring in top talent. Because, as we learned on Sept. 11, 200l-which might have been prevented if there'd been more imagination at the FBI, the CIA or the INS-bureaucrats matter.
Unfortunately, the stereotypes are true: Most agencies of the federal government are truly inept at recruiting, hiring and nurturing talented people. But there is one shining exception. Earlier this year, I worked on an investigative project on what the government needs to do to address its personnel and hiring woes. One surprising answer kept coming back with remarkable frequency from experts: The whole government, they said, should emulate the GAO.
That's right, the General Accounting Office. If you think of this as the place staffed by rows upon rows of guys in shirtsleeves wearing green eyeshades, think again. The GAO may possess the least inspiring name in the federal government. It may be housed in possibly the ugliest building in the city: a drab concrete slab originally designed for document storage. It may look and sound like the kind of place that would leach all aspiration out of ambitious young people. But the truth is that GAO is the federal government's happening agency, attracting young recruits with a new, updated message and offering opportunities to match the private sector's. For young management wannabes, it's the government version of top management consulting firm McKinsey.
''Bottom line, GAO offers the rest of the federal government a model of how to recruit right," says Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit organization that leads efforts to solve the civil service's people problem.
Technically, GAO's mandate is to serve as the investigative, auditing and evaluation arm of Congress; the uncharitable interpretation is that its job is running errands for the legislators on Capitol Hill. But the folks at GAO don't see it that way. A lot of them think of themselves as something of a cross between Upton Sinclair and Lara Croft—rooting out waste and fraud while having a heck of a good time doing it. It's where people scour government programs such as Medicare and farm loans for waste and inefficiency, bust soldiers who use Pentagon credit cards to pay for lap dances, and even sue the likes of Vice President Dick Cheney over the records from his energy commission.
This derring-do-gooder image seems to have swept onto college campuses, where the most talented students used to wrestle each other in line at the consulting-company booths while frowning at government recruiters. "[GAO] is really creating a buzz," says Phyllis Brust, director of career services at the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy. She said GAO has successfully recruited more people on her campus than any other private or public organization for three of the past four years.
"They do the best job by far," agrees Alexandra Bennett, the assistant career director at Syracuse's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, who says she talks to representatives from GAO 25 to 30 times a year. In comparison, her contacts with representatives from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), for instance, have only recently increased to "maybe two or three times" a year.
Last year, there were about 20 applicants for every entry-level analyst opening at GAO, a significantly better number than that for the many other federal agencies that simply post their job openings online and wait for applications to come in. Many other government organizations don't even recruit on campus, having lost any recruiting skills they might have had over nearly a decade of hiring freezes and a couple of decades' worth of presidents bragging more about the government jobs they've cut than the great government jobs people could get. So given Uncle Sam's dismal image as a potential employer, how does GAO do it?
Part of its success is admittedly due to a structural advantage. The agency's head, the comptroller general, serves a 15-year term. This means that the interns who come in with him have the potential to be his trusted advisers by the time he checks out. Most Cabinet heads, by contrast, are on the job two-maybe four-years; their low-level recruits stand little chance of becoming valued top-level assistants. Furthermore, in 1980, Congress exempted GAO from much of the government's civil service legislation, allowing it to offer bonuses to top performers and to hire without regard to many of the legal hindrances built into the several-thousand-page federal civil service code.
This is not an uncontroversial issue—money spent to attract new workers means less money for pay raises, bonuses and cost of living adjustments for longtime workers. And civil service and its protections attract people to government service too. But I think the tradeoff is well worth it. People who come in because they want challenge and opportunities seem more likely to succeed than people who come, and stay, simply because they'll get a raise each year no matter what they do. Our government needs hires with an attitude like Jonathan Meyer, a new employee who joined GAO right after college. He says he always wanted to work for the government, but was attracted to GAO because it doesn't have to follow the lockstep system that mandates that government pay raises and promotions be tied almost exclusively to experience. "You get promoted faster if you do good work here," he says.
Such exemption from civil service rules-some of which the new Department for Homeland Security shares and which other agencies, such as the Department of Defense, are battling to get-has also allowed GAO to accelerate its hiring process, limiting the endless series of steps that slow down government hiring to a rate many applicants find intolerable. A June GAO report cites one human resources director of a different major federal agency as saying that processing applications took so long that only one in 20 of the selected candidates were still interested when the agency finally notified them. In contrast, in this fiscal year, more than 75 percent of those selected have taken the jobs GAO offered them…
(c) 2003 The Washington Post, used with permission
Will the winning bid come from Joe from Appleton or Ivan from Grozny?
An editorial from The Oregonian, Monday, April 14, 2008
One of the coolest jobs in government must be working for the Government Accountability Office, which carries out research requests by Congress. GAO staffers develop expertise on everything that government cares about, from maritime security to the census. A subcommittee somewhere develops a curiosity about something and, if the answer isn't readily available, it asks the GAO to discover the answer. Weeks or months later, the GAO produces a report, often making news along the way.
Sometime last year, a congressional subcommittee on national security began to wonder whether some of the government's most sensitive materials and information were escaping into the public domain. So it asked the GAO to be a sort of secret shopper for military items on eBay and Craigslist.
The GAO delivered its findings last week, and they confirmed that the Pentagon has a shrinkage problem and that spies and terrorists no longer must buy hardware in dark alleys or underground garages. They can use PayPal and UPS instead. In about a year of undercover shopping, GAO investigators bought some trivial things, such as Meals Ready To Eat, many from active-duty soldiers, Marines and airmen, most of whom had pilfered them to offer them for resale.
But the investigators also found some items with more serious implications, including antennas for F-14 fighters, night-vision goggles that give U.S. troops a steep advantage in the Middle East, infrared tabs that allow aircraft to identify friendly troops, body armor, helmets and full military uniforms that an enemy could use to infiltrate U.S. positions, as occurred in Karbala, Iraq, last year.
Many of these items were offered by active-duty service members, but many others were offered by secondary dealers who seemed to have little concern for their misuse. One dealer's auctions of Kevlar helmets were won by buyers with addresses in Costa Rica, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Thailand.
The sale of F-14 parts is especially troubling, because it means that the ultimate buyers probably were Iranian. The United States no longer flies the F-14, but Iran still has a fleet of the aging fighters, purchased when the shah was still a U.S. ally. The military policy for disposing of such items is to destroy them, rather than let them fall into hostile hands.
The GAO also learned a little about the fraud and theft policies of eBay, which has a team devoted to stopping the sale of prohibited items and another devoted to preventing fraud. While the company's teams don't catch everything, they actively refer illegal or stolen items to authorities.
Craigslist, though, is a leaner site that relies mostly on users to flag inappropriate items. And it does not proactively call issues to the attention of law enforcement, the GAO reported. It cooperates with them upon request but won't provide seller information without a subpoena.
This is the world we live in now. From the comfort of your living room, you can watch movie trailers, play in virtual worlds, find your perfect romantic partner -- and meet real-life arms dealers.
(c) 2008 The Oregonian, used with permission