The Evolving Role of Supreme Audit Institutions in Addressing Fiscal and Other Key Sustainability Challenges

GAO-07-1226CG: Published: Aug 31, 2007. Publicly Released: Aug 31, 2007.

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This speech was given by the Comptroller General before the "Future Fiscal Challenges and Performance Evaluation" Seminar audience hosted by the Korean Board of Audit and Inspection in Seoul, South Korea, on August 31, 2007. On so many fronts in recent years, from new technologies, to capital markets, to public health, the environment, and many other areas, we've seen profound developments. Many of them demonstrate a growing interdependency. And the pace of change and the degree of interdependence are increasing with the passage of time. My talk today is about the foresight role that more supreme audit institutions (SAI) and other key accountability organizations should be undertaking. In addition to our normal oversight and insight functions, SAIs like the U.S. GAO and the Korean BAI can and should educate government leaders about emerging trends and challenges. As independent, professional, fact-based, and nonpartisan organizations, SAIs are uniquely positioned to speak truth to power and help policymakers address key current and emerging challenges in a timely and informed manner. SAIs have credibility, in part, because of their independence. In addition, SAIs should have only one agenda: the public good. When it comes to supreme audit institutions, there's a similar hierarchy. (See attachment.) Envision a pyramid with six levels, each describing a mission. At the bottom is the most basic mission every government SAI should hope to achieve--fighting corruption. It's essential that civil servants be honest and committed to the public good. After all, any government run by corrupt officials isn't going to accomplish much, other than picking the pockets of its own people. The next level in the SAI pyramid is promoting transparency, which helps to facilitate progress on all fronts. The third level is accountability, and I'd include here efforts like traditional audits and compliance reviews. The fourth level is enhancing government economy, efficiency, ethics, equity, and effectiveness. The fifth level is providing policymakers with insight and options to make government work better by refining 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 helping policymakers focus on the future.

Government decisionmakers need to develop a long-term perspective, understand the big picture, and appreciate the collateral implications of their actions. Too often, 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, even decades. However, our government's historical "crisis management" approach to dealing with selected major public policy challenges is no longer viable. The stakes are simply too high. With their reputations for professionalism, objectivity, integrity, and reliability, SAIs are uniquely positioned to alert public officials to emerging trends and future challenges. By encouraging policymakers to face up to these problems sooner rather than later, SAIs can help their governments avoid costly crises in the future. Similarly, SAIs can also help educate policymakers about the true costs and potential benefits of various policy choices. At every level of the pyramid, SAI work needs to be balanced, constructive, and nonpolitical in its approach. 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. A balanced and constructive approach to oversight is also more likely to build public trust and confidence in government. Today, GAO is working hard to fulfill its foresight role. We're trying to help Members of Congress better understand the trends and challenges affecting the United States and its position in the world. As I noted earlier, many countries share many of these challenges, and as a result, we need to work together to solve them. GAO is also trying to help lawmakers grasp the long-term implications of current policy choices, especially when it comes to costs. Our goal is for Congress to expand its horizons and act more often in a timely, evidence-based, and integrated way. We want policymakers to better understand where we are, how we may look 40 or even 50 years out, and how various policies and programs can have ripple effects, across sectors and over time. Our current path in several key areas is both inappropriate and fiscally irresponsible. It's also alarming given the emerging challenges that I've been discussing today. Significant resources will be needed to address many of these areas. To this end, a top-to-bottom review of federal programs and policies is essential. Congress and the President need to decide which federal activities remain essential, which should be overhauled, and which have simply outlived their usefulness. Policymakers will be much better positioned to do so if they have the benefit of GAO's professional, objective, fact-based, nonpartisan, nonideological, fair and balanced work. Timely and reliable performance and foresight information can help enhance government performance, ensure accountability, improve the future, and strengthen democratic values. With better information about emerging trends, average citizens tend to have a better grasp of where we are, where we're headed, and how we compare to others. In my view, an informed electorate is more likely to support leaders who are prepared to make difficult decisions. An informed electorate is also more likely to accept shared sacrifice today to help build a better tomorrow for our children and grandchildren. Despite our many key sustainability challenges, America is a great nation and we have dealt successfully with many great challenges in its past. And in the end, I'm convinced America will do so again when it comes to our fiscal and other key sustainability challenges. Difficult public policy decisions are unavoidable, but SAIs can help elected officials make more timely and informed choices. Let's do our part, and hopefully others will do their part as well--and the sooner, the better.

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