The constant gardeners

5 Jul 19

Independent information is crucial to helping policymakers sow the seeds of good government and weed out bad practice

Good government is driven by facts and public audits help drive those facts. Auditors shed light on difficult issues by bringing together evidence-based reports that are crucial in the overseeing of government programmes and the allocation of resources to better serve the public.

In the US the oversight provided by public audit is more critical than ever given the opportunities and challenges facing the nation, including governmental fiscal health, national security and public healthcare.  

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is the supreme audit institution in the US. We are an independent, non-partisan professional services agency in the legislative branch of the federal government. Commonly known as the investigative arm of Congress or the “congressional watchdog”, we examine how taxpayer dollars are spent and develop non-partisan, objective and reliable information to help lawmakers and agency heads make government work better.

‘If our reporting was not objective, it would not provide the unique information needed by lawmakers and agency heads to... operate the government effectively’

To be useful, our reporting needs to be fact-based, non-ideological, fair and balanced. Public auditors evaluate and verify information that is assembled in evidence-based reports. These reports inform the decision making of elected officials and their staff. As a public audit institution, the GAO is committed to maintaining its integrity, objectivity and independence. These principles allow auditors to serve the public interest and maintain the credibility of public audit. If our reporting was not objective, it would not provide the unique information needed by lawmakers and agency heads to make decisions and operate the government effectively.

The US federal government is one of the world’s largest and most complex entities; about $4.1trn in outlays in the fiscal year 2018 funded a broad array of programmes and operations. Public audit therefore needs to provide information to assist lawmakers and agencies in prioritising actions. In the fiscal year 2018, we issued 633 reports and testified 98 times before Congress.

The high-risk list

One of the GAO’s key bodies of work is our high-risk list. This identifies government operations vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement, or needing broad transformation. Every two years with the start of each new Congress, GAO issues an updated list describing the status of high-risk areas, outlining actions needed to ensure further progress and identifying new areas needing attention by Congress and executive branch officials.

The high-risk programme continues to be a valuable tool for congressional oversight, one that yields tangible benefits for the American people. Lawmakers use the high-risk list to help set oversight agendas and the findings have formed the basis for both agency-specific and government-wide solutions. The financial benefits to the federal government in addressing high-risk areas over the past 13 years (fiscal years 2006-18) stands at nearly $350bn, or an average of about $27bn per year.

Areas cited on the high-risk list include: Department of Defense financial management and business operations; Medicare (health insurance for persons aged 65 and over) and Medicaid (a healthcare programme for low-income and medically needy individuals); veterans health care; postal operations; enforcement of tax laws; and the management functions at the Department of Homeland Security. The list also highlights areas where the government faces potentially large financial liabilities, such as billions of dollars in flood insurance claims, pension system guarantees and disability claims. The list also includes a number of areas that have a direct impact on the health, safety and wellbeing of the American people, including the control of toxic substances, food safety, oversight of medical products and protecting the nation’s cyber critical infrastructure.

The audit report

Another key GAO product is our annual audit report, required by Congress, on how to reduce fragmentation, overlap and duplication in federal programmes, agencies, offices and initiatives, as well as lowering costs and increasing revenue. The imbalance between revenues and spending means federal government is on an unsustainable long-term fiscal path.

Addressing this problem will require broad fiscal policy changes, but our reports have identified a number of areas where improvements can be made in the near term. Resulting action taken by Congress and executive branch agencies, from 2011 to 2018, has led to about $262bn in financial benefits – $216bn through 2018, with $46bn more expected.

Elected officials and the American public rely on the GAO’s work because it is fact-based and independent. Our high-risk list and annual report, as well as hundreds of other reports and testimonies on day-to-day government operations, are useful precisely because of our reputation for integrity and objectivity.

‘By suggesting improvements to federal agency operations, we help increase their spending effectiveness and enhance taxpayers’ trust in government’

By suggesting improvements to federal agency operations, we help increase their spending effectiveness and enhance taxpayers’ trust and confidence in government. When the GAO proposes change, federal agencies do listen: in 2018, 77% of our recommendations were implemented. However, Congress is concerned that some agencies need to do more.

In 2019, to spur progress, the GAO made public the letters we send to federal agencies with our recommendations to help improve the management of government programmes and operations, improve public safety and security, and achieve significant cost savings. Congress has also passed a law requiring each federal agency, in its annual budget justification, to report on any GAO recommendations that have not been implemented and their status.

To continue to meet Congress’ growing need for information, the audit profession also needs to enhance its capacity in emerging fields. For example, we recently combined and enhanced our technology assessment functions, and science and technology evaluation into a single, more prominent office. This will expand the GAO’s support to lawmakers on topics such as artificial intelligence, regenerative medicine, 5G wireless communication and quantum computing.

It is important for public audit to continue to provide fact-based information and reports, and for the GAO to strive to be a model government agency. This helps to enhance the profession’s set standards for integrity, objectivity and independence. Moreover, the GAO by leveraging its domestic and international partnerships can build collaborative networks to share best practice with the wider audit and accountability communities.

The focus of our profession must continue to be providing evidence-based, independent reports. Maintaining independence is key to providing policymakers with objective information necessary to make decisions. These good practices can drive results to one overarching goal – effective and efficient government for the benefit of our citizens. 


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