Doing What's Right

GAO-06-1036CG: Published: Mar 17, 2006. Publicly Released: Mar 17, 2006.

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This speech was given by the Comptroller General before the Conference on Public Service and the Law at the University of Virginia Law School in Charlottesville, VA on March 17, 2006. Soon after I came to GAO in 1998, the agency officially adopted a set of three core values: accountability, integrity, and reliability. These core values supplement the requirements established by law and by professional standards, such as the Code of Professional Responsibility for our lawyers and Generally Accepted Government Auditing Standards for our auditors and analysts. Accountability describes what GAO does. Simply put, we help to ensure the accountability of executive branch programs and agencies to Congress and the American people. Integrity describes the character of GAO's people. On every assignment, GAO employees are required to be professional, objective, fact-based, nonpartisan, nonideological, fair, and balanced. If fact, they have to certify this on every job. Reliability refers to the quality of GAO's work. Reliability is why members of Congress from both sides of the aisle regularly use GAO reports and other products as the basis for hearings, press conferences, floor debates, and legislation. Anyone who reads a GAO study can and should have confidence in the facts and analysis it contains. In fact, two recent peer reviews have cited GAO for its outstanding work and quality assurance procedures. Discussions about accountability in government all too often focus on infuriating cases of waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement. We've all read news accounts of federal workers who abuse their government credit cards or contractors who overbill the government. It's also become obvious that the government has been issuing far too many contracts and assistance payments for Hurricane Katrina relief that just don't pass the "straight-face" test. Today, our world is vastly different from what it was 50 years ago or even 20 years ago. We face serious long-term challenges in several areas, some of them unprecedented in their size, scope, complexity, and potential impact. Unfortunately, several of these issues are getting too little attention, provoking too little concern, and prompting too little action. Way too much of government is on autopilot and based on social, economic, national security, and other conditions that existed when Dwight Eisenhower and Jack Kennedy were in the White House. GAO has a large and growing body of work on the government's relief, recovery, and rebuilding efforts. In fact, we now have nearly 40 different jobs under way in this area. Katrina and Rita put the capabilities of many government entities to the test. A few of them came through with flying colors, but many of them, notably Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), fell far short of getting even a passing grade. This is particularly disturbing given that many of the current response problems GAO has identified are very similar to ones that we identified back in 1992 following Hurricane Andrew. These include problems in vital areas like emergency communications and supplies and equipment. Any government that values ethics and integrity needs to have a system of checks and balances. On the federal level, GAO plays an important oversight role. By providing Congress with the best available information on government programs and policies, GAO's actions help to ensure that these programs and the officials running them comply with the law and that every government official must answer to the American people. The final topic I'd like to address tonight is the importance of public service. The simple but powerful truth is that effective and responsive government requires a first-rate workforce. To tackle current and emerging issues, government needs top talent at all levels, men and women who are able to think strategically and creatively while acting decisively, ethically, and with compassion.

In the very near future, our aging population will begin to put enormous strains on our nation's pension and health care systems. Other emerging trends that warrant close scrutiny are globalization, new security threats, rapidly evolving technology, and a range of quality- of-life concerns affecting everything from education and health care to energy and the environment. More urgently, America now faces four serious interrelated deficits--a budget deficit, a balance-of-payments deficit, a savings deficit, and a leadership deficit. In particular, our growing fiscal imbalance threatens our future economic growth, our future standard of living, and even our future national security. In recent years, America has been heading in the wrong direction on all four deficits. We have a window of opportunity to turn things around, but we need to act and act soon because the miracle of compounding is working against us. Nothing less than a top-to-bottom review of all major federal programs and policies is needed to determine if they are meeting their objectives. GAO's results are preliminary, but some of the key lessons learned from this disaster are already clear. First, it's critically important that leadership roles for natural disasters are clearly defined and effectively communicated as early as possible. Second, our National Response Plan needs to be clearer and more consistent and use more commonsense approaches to natural disasters. Third, strong planning, training, and exercise programs are vital to ensuring that government is ready to act when it's needed most. Fourth, a risk management decision-making approach is necessary to build the nation's capabilities and expertise to respond to natural disasters within current and expected resource levels. Fifth, given FEMA's performance, questions have been raised about whether the agency should be disbanded and its functions moved elsewhere or whether it should be made an independent agency again. As Comptroller General of the United States, I take seriously my responsibility to speak out on a range of complex and sometimes controversial issues. It's not always an easy job, and sometimes people don't like what we have to say. Let me give you two recent examples of GAO's continuing commitment to transparency and accountability in government. First, as many of you probably know, back in 2002 we sued the Vice President over access to the records of his energy task force. So far, we haven't needed to issue another demand letter since that suit was filed. We hope we're never put into the position of having to go to court again. But candidly, if we're stonewalled in our attempts to get information that Congress legitimately needs to carry out its oversight and other constitutional duties, GAO is fully prepared to issue another demand letter and back it up with legal action. In closing, as we seek to address the many challenges and capitalize on the opportunities of the 21st century, we need more leaders in government and other sectors of society who embody four key attributes: courage, integrity, creativity, and stewardship. We need leaders who have the courage to state the facts, to speak the truth, and to do the right thing, even if it's controversial. We need leaders who have the integrity to lead by example and practice what they preach. We need leaders who are able to innovate, develop new solutions to old problems, and help show others the way forward. Finally, we need leaders who understand that they have an obligation to others and are dedicated not only to maximizing results today but building a better tomorrow.

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