Transforming Government to Meet the Challenges and Capitalize on the Opportunities of the 21st Century

GAO-07-813CG: Published: Apr 25, 2007. Publicly Released: Apr 25, 2007.

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This speech was given by the Comptroller General before the New School audience in New York, New York on April 25, 2007. To capitalize on our opportunities and minimize related risks, all organizations must be mindful of the big picture and the long view. Organizations that endure tend to periodically rethink their missions and operations. World-class organizations understand that innovation requires change. One must change in order to continuously improve. The simple truth is an organization that stands still today is going to get passed by and, ultimately, it may not survive. I'm going to focus on the long-term challenges facing our nation and the federal government, though many of these issues are relevant to other sectors of society. I'm going to talk about the need for federal agencies to adopt a long-term perspective and transform their organizations and operations to better meet the needs of today and tomorrow. I'm also going to talk about the transformation efforts at my agency, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). At the start of the 21st century, our country faces a range of sustainability challenges: fiscal, health care, energy, the environment, Iraq, and immigration, to name a few. Unfortunately, our government's track record in adapting to new conditions and meeting new challenges isn't good. Much of the federal government remains overly bureaucratic, myopic, and narrowly focused, clinging to outmoded organizational structures and strategies. Efficient and effective government matters. Transforming government and aligning it with modern needs is even more urgent because of our nation's large and growing fiscal imbalance. Simply stated, America is on a path toward an explosion of debt. And that indebtedness threatens our country's, our children's, and our grandchildren's futures. With the looming retirement of the baby boomers, spiraling health care costs, plummeting savings rates, and increasing reliance on foreign lenders, we face unprecedented fiscal risks. To put it simply: our population is aging. Despite increased immigration, growth in the U.S. workforce is expected to slow dramatically during the next 50 years. Like most industrialized nations, the United States will have fewer full-time workers paying taxes and contributing to federal social insurance programs. At the same time, growing numbers of retirees will be claiming their Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits. The problem is that in the coming decades, there simply aren't going to be enough full-time workers to promote strong economic growth or to sustain existing entitlement programs.

By now, you're probably wondering how we can turn things around. Obviously, a return to fiscal discipline is essential. We need to impose meaningful budget controls on both the tax and the spending sides of the ledger. Members of Congress also need more explicit information on the long-term costs of spending and tax bills. But if our government is to successfully address the range of challenges I mentioned earlier, government transformation is also essential. Every federal agency and every federal program is going to have to rethink its missions and operations. Unfortunately, once federal programs or agencies are created, the tendency is to fund them in perpetuity. Washington rarely seems to question the wisdom of its existing commitments. Instead, it simply adds new programs and initiatives on top of the old ones. GAO has been doing its best to bring attention to the problem. To get policy makers thinking, we published an unprecedented report that asks more than 200 probing questions about mandatory and discretionary spending, federal regulations, tax policy, and agency operations. Our hope is that policy makers and the public will think more strategically about where we are, where we're headed, and what we need to do to get on a more prudent and sustainable path. The American people need to become more informed and involved when it comes to the problems facing our country. They also need to become more vocal in demanding change. When I become Comptroller General nearly nine years ago, I made GAO's own transformation a top priority. "Leading by example" became one of GAO's main objectives. GAO is an independent agency in the legislative branch. We're sometimes called the "investigative arm of Congress" or the "congressional watchdog" because GAO helps Congress oversee the rest of government. We're in the business of helping government work better and holding it accountable to the American people. To this end, GAO provides Congress with oversight of agency operations, insight into ways to improve government services, and foresight about future challenges. Most GAO reports go beyond the question of whether federal money is being spent appropriately to ask whether federal programs and policies are meeting their objectives and the needs of society. We started our transformation efforts by putting together a strategic plan. GAO's strategic plan is a road map that guides the agency's work. The strategic plan defines our mission, lays out the key trends and themes that GAO will focus on, and outlines the agency's goals and objectives. In 2001, we trimmed our organizational units from 35 to 13, reduced the number of field offices from 16 to 11, eliminated an entire management layer, redistributed resources, and encouraged internal teamwork and external partnerships. The strategic plan is also a touchstone for our budgeting and spending decisions. GAO isn't perfect, and no agency can be. My hope is that other federal agencies, as well as entities outside of government, can learn from our experience and apply what's useful to their own circumstances.

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