Transforming Government to Meet the Demands of the 21st Century

GAO-07-1188CG: Published: Aug 7, 2007. Publicly Released: Aug 7, 2007.

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This speech was given by the Comptroller General before The Federal Midwest Human Resources Council and the Chicago Federal Executive Board in Chicago, Illinois on August 7, 2007. 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. The Federal Executive Boards (FEB) could be an important part of that transformation effort. As GAO's own work has shown, FEBs are uniquely positioned to bring government agencies together to work on common challenges. Increasingly, government is being called upon to address issues that require federal agencies to work closely together--responding to natural or manmade disasters, for example. And increasingly, the federal government has to work closely with states and communities, and with the private and not-for-profit sectors to meet these challenges. Because FEBs bring together all these players in your communities, you can provide linkages that the rest of government is going to have to work hard to create. I'm also going to talk about the transformation efforts at my agency, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). GAO is in the vanguard of adapting innovative approaches and best practices. And many of our efforts are, in fact, transferable to other organizations inside and outside of government. At the start of the 21st century, our country faces a range of sustainability challenges: fiscal, health care, energy, education, the environment, Iraq, aging infrastructure, and immigration policy, to name a few. These challenges are complex and of critical importance. Some younger people here today may have no first-hand memory of the Cold War or the Iron Curtain. Your world has been defined by more recent developments, such as the invention of the microcomputer, the spread of the AIDS virus, and the mapping of the human genome. The challenge before us is to maintain a government that is effective and relevant to your generation and to future generations. Unfortunately, our government's track record in adapting to new conditions and meeting new challenges isn't very good. Much of the federal government remains overly bureaucratic, myopic, narrowly focused, and based on the past. There's a tendency to cling to outmoded organizational structures and strategies. Many agencies have been slow to adopt best practices. While a few agencies have begun to rethink their missions and operations, many federal policies, programs, processes, and procedures are hopelessly out of date. Furthermore, all too often, it takes an immediate crisis for government to act. After all, history has shown that Washington is a lag indicator!

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. Long-range simulations from my agency are chilling. If we continue as we have, policy makers will eventually have to raise taxes dramatically and/or slash government services the American people depend on and take for granted. Just pick a program--student loans, the interstate highway system, national parks, federal law enforcement, and even our armed forces. Lately, I've been speaking out publicly about our nation's worsening financial condition. Beginning in 2005, I started going on the road with a broad-based coalition that includes representatives from the Concord Coalition, the Brookings Institution, and the Heritage Foundation. We're called the "Fiscal Wake-Up Tour" and so far we've made appearances in 25 cities and 21 states across the country. Importantly, our nation's financial problems are undermining our flexibility to address a range of emerging challenges. For example, America's population is aging. Tens of millions of baby boomers, and I'm one of them, are on the brink of retirement. Many of these retirees will live far longer than their parents and grandparents. 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. 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. Another ominous trend: American companies are cutting back the retirement benefits they're offering to workers. This means all of us are going to have to plan better, save more, invest more wisely, and resist the temptation to spend those funds before we retire. Beyond fiscal imbalances, the United States confronts a range of other challenges. Globalization is at the top of that list. Markets, technologies, and businesses in various countries and in various parts of the world are increasingly linked, and communication across continents and oceans is now instantaneous. This new reality was made clear by the recent drop in stock markets around the world. Clearly, U.S. consumers have reaped many benefits from globalization. From clothing to computers, you and I can buy a range of foreign-made goods that are cheaper than ever. But there's a catch. In many cases, lower prices have been accompanied by losses in U.S. jobs. Globalization is also having an impact in areas like the environment and public health. The truth is that air and water pollution don't stop at the border. And with today's international air travel, infectious diseases can spread from one continent to another literally overnight. To preserve its ability to address these and other emerging trends, America needs to return to fiscal discipline and focus on the future. At both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and on both sides of the political aisle, we need leaders who will face these facts, speak the truth, partner for progress, and make tough choices. We also need leadership from our state capitols and city halls and from businesses, colleges and universities, charities, think tanks, the military, and the media. So far, there have been too few calls for fundamental change and shared sacrifice.

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