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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Walker takes GAO from accounting to accountability

David Walker, comptroller general of the Government Accountability Office, is busy in the way only a man on a mission can be. In a town of BlackBerry-thumping, cell phone-addled, calendar-crazed, would-be world-changers, Walker is a multitasking reformer of the first order.

When he took command of GAO in 1998, the investigative arm of Congress was in a sling, hampered by budget cuts of 40 percent. Since then, however, Walker has expanded GAO’s reach well beyond its historical mandate to ferret out waste, fraud and abuse. Today, the agency routinely examines broad structural issues and the implications of government decisions — and indecision — for future generations.

As an agent of change, Walker has ruffled a few feathers.

Walker tells it like it is, his friends said, because he is a former Marine with a strong moral compass, a patriot, a dedicated public servant and a student of U.S. history. In 2004, several years into his tenure, Walker succeeded in changing the name of the agency from the General Accounting Office to the Government Accountability Office. The change is subtle, but it says much about the man and the direction he is taking the agency, his admirers said.

Walker said he’s not done yet. His intention is to use the remaining six-plus years of his time in office to pursue far-reaching reforms of a type may be his most ambitious yet.

In remaking GAO, Walker has striven to create a model of reform he hopes other federal agencies will replicate. An organization that had been divided into more than 30 discrete silos has been reorganized into 13 issue teams flexible enough to work on projects that cut across multiple disciplines. In many ways, the new GAO looks more like a private-sector consulting firm than an old-line government agency.

“We are a wholly owned subsidiary of the United States Congress,” said Sallyanne Harper, GAO’s chief financial officer and chief administrative officer. “We’ve gone from being a stovepiped, hierarchical, process-oriented, insular organization to being a much flatter, exterior-focused, partnerial, matrix organization.”

In his free time, Walker barnstorms the country like a latter-day Paul Revere, sounding the alarm of pending financial crisis. The government’s spending is accelerating at a clip that will outpace the growth of revenue, he tells audiences. The country is going broke, he said, and as baby boomers retire and health care costs escalate, the national debt will reach epic proportions. The economy cannot expand fast enough to keep up, which leaves spending cuts or tax increases — or both — as the only answers. While the country avoids taking action, he said, the options are dwindling.

-John Pulley, GovernmentLeader.com

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