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Presentation by the Honorable David M. Walker: 
Comptroller General of the United States:

Transparent Government and Access to Information: 
A Role for Supreme Audit Institutions:

The Seventh Global Forum on Reinventing Government: 
Vienna, Austria: 
June 26, 2007:

Today I'm pleased and honored to address you about the benefits of 
transparency and accountability and how they can improve government. On 
a domestic level, reasonable transparency is essential to fighting 
corruption, improving government performance, ensuring accountability, 
maintaining public trust, and a building a healthy democracy. On an 
international level, government transparency matters not just for 
domestic reasons but also to help build trust and promote convergence 
and cooperation because in today's world countries need to partner for 
progress on a number of current and emerging challenges.

From the industrialized world to the developing world, every nation 
faces a range of challenges. Some are long-standing and country-
specific. But increasingly, nations share a number of common challenges 
that transcend national borders, sectoral boundaries, and institutional 

Whether it's halting the spread of infectious diseases, or protecting 
the environment, or combating international terrorism, we have to work 
together to achieve real and sustainable results. No nation, including 
the United States, can afford to go it alone. Instead, all nations need 
to develop shared strategies and, in some cases, pool their resources 
and expertise. By "partnering for progress," we can maximize value and 
mitigate risk. Forums like this provide valuable opportunities to build 
bridges among sectors and among nations.

Just a year ago in this very city, I spoke on tsunami relief and 
reconstruction. Countries around the world gave generously to help the 
victims of this terrible tragedy. While the United Nations, the 
International Organization of Supreme Audit Institutions (INTOSAI), and 
others have taken steps to better monitor the use of tsunami assistance 
funds, much more still needs to be done.

To remain responsive to public needs in the 21st century, government 
bureaucracies around the world will need to reinvent themselves. That's 
certainly true for many federal agencies in Washington, D.C. But 
transforming what governments do and how they do business means that 
policymakers must first be willing to accept a reasonable degree of 
transparency and accountability. Policymakers must also be willing to 
challenge the status quo and engage in tough transformational change 
efforts, even though they may not be popular.

In the case of the United States, in recent years several major 
corporations strayed from the principles of transparency and 
accountability. Companies like Enron and Worldcom concealed their true 
behavior from government regulators and their investors. The result was 
a string of bankruptcies and restatements that have harmed countless 
shareholders, employees, and retirees. People lost their investments, 
their jobs, and their pensions. Public confidence in the integrity of 
corporate financial reporting process also took a big hit.

Transparency and accountability are especially important in the public 
sector. Around the world, government services directly affect the well-
being of countless citizens. But sound decisions on government programs 
and policies are nearly impossible without timely, accurate, and useful 
information. Furthermore, government employees hold a public trust that 
must be recognized, respected, and honored.

Obviously, government corruption reduces the ability to meet real 
societal needs. Reasonable transparency promotes government economy, 
efficiency, effectiveness, ethics, and equity. Transparency also helps 
to combat corruption. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once 
said, "Sunshine is the best disinfectant.":

In fact, when I met with Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji at his request a 
few years ago, he asked me for one suggestion to fight corruption, 
improve government performance, and promote transformation. My 
recommendation was, "Break China's long-standing tradition and make the 
reports of the Chinese National Audit Office public." And to Premier 
Zhu's credit, he did just that, and it has made a big difference.

Transparency also puts pressure on public officials to make difficult 
but necessary policy and operational choices. Politicians find that 
avoiding tough issues isn't so easy when voters and the press are 
looking over their shoulders. With greater public scrutiny, public 
officials are more likely to consider the bigger picture, the greater 
good, and the longer term. With greater public scrutiny, public 
officials are also less likely to shirk their stewardship 
responsibility to future generations.

As the head of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, I've learned 
firsthand how crucial it is to bring issues to light. Every couple of 
years, GAO issues its high-risk list of troubled government programs 
and activities. Many of these areas are vulnerable to waste, fraud, 
abuse, and mismanagement. Over the years, I've heard from a number of 
government ministers who were anxious to get programs and other items 
off of GAO's high-risk list. Several of these agencies have worked 
closely with GAO to address a range of shortcomings. And I'm pleased to 
say that GAO has been able to drop a number of items from its high-risk 
list over the years. Unfortunately, we've added more items than we've 
dropped, and our high-risk list now includes 27 areas, about half of 
which relate directly or indirectly to our Department of Defense.

The lesson here is clear: It's important to bring issues to light. 
History shows that with light comes heat, and with heat comes action. 
What's also at stake here is government credibility. Transparency and 
accountability can build public trust in government. Without openness, 
people tend to assume the worst, even when their skepticism isn't 

Now, you'd think that transparency and public access to information 
wouldn't be controversial subjects. After all, who could be opposed to 
openness in government? As Comptroller General of the United States, 
I've found that almost everyone is in favor of transparency and 
accountability until these notions apply to them. In fact, at one 
point, I had to sue the Vice President of the United States to get 
access to information on the White House's proposed energy policy. And 
GAO still encounters federal agencies that try to delay our access to 
so-called "sensitive" government documents. After almost nine years as 
Comptroller General, I've come to realize when government officials use 
the word "sensitive" in connection with information typically what they 
mean is "embarrassing." After all, in America no one is above the law, 
including the President and Vice President.

GAO has never wavered in its belief that the public deserves to be 
fully informed about all major aspects of government operations. After 
all, the U.S. government is one that's supposed to be of the people, by 
the people, and for the people.

In my view, independent, well-run, and adequately resourced supreme 
audit institutions (SAI) like GAO are essential to effective 
government. Strong SAIs help to ensure policymakers and the public have 
access to timely and accurate information. Strong SAIs also hold 
government officials and programs accountable for results. Any 
government that values ethics and integrity needs to have a strong and 
independent SAI as part of its system of checks and balances.

SAIs have traditionally been about government oversight. Clearly, 
financial audits and compliance reviews are an important check on 
waste, fraud, and abuse. Likewise, program evaluations and best-
practice studies can help improve government efficiency and 
effectiveness. But routine oversight of day-to-day government 
operations is only the most basic function that SAIs can and should be 
undertaking today.

I'm reminded here of the psychologist Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of 
needs. Maslow believed that people first need to meet "self-
preservation" needs like food, shelter, employment, and personal 
safety. Once these basic needs are met, individuals then want to 
satisfy higher needs. At the top of Maslow's hierarchy is self-
actualization. Those reaching this stage have made the most of their 
God-given abilities. These individuals have become the best they can 

When it comes to supreme audit institutions, there's a similar 
hierarchy. Envision a pyramid with six levels, each describing a 
mission. (See exhibit A.) At the bottom is the most basic mission every 
government SAI should hope to achieve--fighting corruption. It's 
essential that civil servants are honest and committed to the public 
good. A government run by thieves isn't going to accomplish much, other 
than picking the pockets of its own people.

The next level in the SAI pyramid is enhancing transparency, which 
helps to facilitate progress on all fronts. The third level is 
accountability, and I'd include here efforts like compliance and 
regularity reviews. This includes the idea that all aspects of 
government should be accountable to the taxpayers for the results they 
achieve with the resources they've been given. At a minimum, every SAI, 
whatever its budget, whatever its expertise, should be fighting 
corruption, ensuring transparency, and pursuing accountability.

The fourth level is enhancing government economy, efficiency, ethics, 
equity, and effectiveness. The fifth level is providing policymakers 
with options to make government work better, such as improving 
programs, consolidating redundant efforts, or adopting best practices.

The sixth and final level in the pyramid is foresight, a function that 
more mature and experienced SAIs should consider undertaking: I'm 
taking about providing policymakers with insight into the future. 
Today, government leaders need to have a long-term perspective and 
understand the big picture. Too often, however, it's the immediate 
crisis that gets all the attention. Policymakers find it easier to 
ignore issues whose impact may not be felt for several years.

With their reputations for independence, professionalism, and 
reliability, SAIs are uniquely positioned to alert public officials to 
emerging trends and future challenges. For example, most industrialized 
nations are going to have to develop better strategies to care for 
their aging populations, and address long-range fiscal imbalances. By 
encouraging action while problems are still manageable, SAIs can help 
their governments avoid crises down the line. Similarly, SAIs can also 
help educate policymakers about the long-term costs of various policy 

At every level of the pyramid, SAI work needs to be balanced and 
constructive. SAIs shouldn't simply point out what's wrong in 
government. It's also important to highlight policies and practices 
that are working well. By sharing success stories and describing best 
practices, SAIs are more likely to get their governments to transform 
how they do business. After all, a balanced and constructive approach 
to oversight is also more likely to build public trust and confidence 
in government.

Created by statute in 1921, GAO is a good example of a mature SAI. In 
recent years, GAO has made it a priority to provide Congress and the 
American people with information on future trends that should be 
addressed. For example, as Comptroller General I've been trying to 
raise awareness about my country's growing long-range fiscal imbalance 
and the need to reform social insurance programs like Social Security 
and Medicare, and our nation's tax policy.

GAO takes seriously its responsibility to speak out on a range of 
complex and sometimes controversial issues. It's not always an easy 
job, and some people don't like what we have to say, but as U.S. 
President Harry Truman once said, "If you can't stand the heat, get out 
of the kitchen." When it comes to key issues of concern to Congress and 
the nation, I can assure you GAO has no plans to stop speaking truth to 

GAO also seeks to lead by example on issues of transparency and 
accountability. GAO makes it a point to publicly report almost all of 
its work. Consistent with the values of a free and open society, GAO 
makes a vast majority of its work available not just to Congress and 
agency heads but to the public and the press via the Internet. 
Virtually every GAO report and testimony before Congress is posted on 
our Web site on the day it is issued. And the public does follow GAO's 
findings, conclusions, and recommendations. Every day, thousands of 
users access GAO's Web site and download our audit reports and other 

But most Americans learn about GAO's work through news stories. That's 
why GAO has worked hard over the years to build good working 
relationships with print and broadcast journalists. We at GAO 
appreciate the important role that a free press plays in making 
citizens aware of important operational challenges and policy choices, 
and in holding public officials accountable.

For 40 years, the Freedom of Information Act has guaranteed public 
access to U.S. government documents. GAO is in the legislative branch, 
so the act doesn't apply to us. But we strongly support this landmark 
legislation, and we voluntarily comply with the act's principles.

GAO is also committed to an appropriate degree of transparency about 
our own key policies, procedures, and criteria. Whether it's a member 
of Congress requesting a GAO report or an agency head responding to a 
GAO request for information, we want people to have confidence that 
when they're dealing with GAO, they're going to be treated fairly and 
consistently. This transparency is seen in our new protocols for 
dealing with Congress and the agencies we audit. These protocols are 
comprehensive and detailed, and I recommend them for other SAIs.

Finally, GAO holds itself accountable for results. For the past seven 
years, we've issued an annual report explaining what the agency has 
accomplished with the resources it has received. The report also 
describes our plans for the future and the overall themes our work will 
focus on. For example, last year, measurable financial benefits from 
GAO's work totaled a record $51 billion in U.S. dollars. That's an all-
time record $105 return for every dollar invested in GAO. We also 
reported significant nonfinancial accomplishments that improved 
government operations. In my view, this sort of straightforward 
performance measurement and cost/benefit reporting should be standard 
throughout the U.S. government.

With greater government transparency, average citizens will have a 
better understanding of the issues that matter. They may even make 
better choices at the voting booth. In my view, an informed electorate 
is more likely to accept leaders who are prepared to make difficult 
choices. An informed electorate is also more likely to accept shared 

The Danish physicist Niels Bohr said, "The best weapon of a 
dictatorship is secrecy, but the best weapon of a democracy should be 
the weapon of openness." Today, as nations struggle with shared 
challenges like climate change and economic interdependence, 
transparency and accountability have assumed a new level of importance. 
After all, successful partnering depends on trust, and trust is 
reinforced by transparency and accountability. In the future, our 
individual and collective progress will depend increasingly on our 
commitment to these vital principles.

Thank you for your time and attention.

Exhibit A:

Accountability Organization Maturity Model:

This figure is a pyramid with the following statements stacked from 
base to peak:

Combating Corruption;
Promoting Transparency;
Assuring Accountability;
Enhancing Economy, Efficiency, Ethics, Equity, and Effectiveness;
Increasing Insight;
Facilitating Foresight.

[End of section]

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protection in the United States. The published product may be 
reproduced and distributed in its entirety without further permission 
from GAO. However, because this work may contain copyrighted images or 
other material, permission from the copyright holder may be necessary 
if you wish to reproduce this material separately.