Government Accountability Chief Leaving Post

For 10 years David Walker has been in charge of the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. The agency is often described as the government's watchdog. Walker is leaving the agency to work for a think tank and takes time to look back on his tenure.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

Here in the U.S., David Walker once described the scope of his work as virtually everything the government is doing or thinking about doing anywhere in the world. For the last 10 years, Walker has run the Government Accountability Office - the investigative arm of Congress. The GAO is often described as the government's watchdog. Wednesday was Walker's last day on the job. He's going to work for a foundation, and he's come into our studio to look back on his tenure.

David Walker, welcome.

Mr. DAVID WALKER (Former Head, Government Accountability Office): Good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: Looking back at the reports that came out of GAO during your tenure there, did you see certain patterns of waste and mismanagement?

Mr.�WALKER: You know, the U.S. government is fortunate because it doesn't have a lot of fraud, but it's got a huge amount of waste, and one of the fundamental problems that we have is that a vast majority of the federal programs and policies, functions and activities, we don't have outcome-based indicators that we're using to try to assess whether or not the programs and policies are working or not.

SHAPIRO: What do you mean when you say outcome-based indicators?

Mr.�WALKER: Well for example, I mean if you talk about health care, what are we doing to cover more people? What are we doing to control cost? What are we doing to improve outcomes? I mean, these are the things that we need to be focused on.

What ends up happening in Washington all too often is when somebody wants to show they care about something, they spend more money, they create a new program, but they're not focusing on what we really need to focus on, and that is are we getting results?

SHAPIRO: Have you found Congress and the White House to be responsive to your oversight?

Mr.�WALKER: We are fortunate in that over 80 percent of the recommendations that we make are ultimately adopted, even though nobody is required to adopt our recommendations.

SHAPIRO: But at the same time, there's been some very public pushback to some of the GAO's reports. When you look at Iraq reconstruction or post-Katrina FEMA activities along the Gulf Coast, often GAO would publish a report, and the White House would come back and say that's wrong, it doesn't apply, the wrong question is being asked.

Mr.�WALKER: You know, reasonable people can and will differ. You know, everybody tends to be for accountability until they are the ones being held accountable.

SHAPIRO: One of the must-public clashes that you had was over Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force. He refused to give you some document that you wanted. You filed a lawsuit and lost, and then you chose not to appeal that lawsuit, and some people criticized you for that decision.

Looking back, do you still think it was the right decision (unintelligible)?

Mr.�WALKER: I think it was the right decision on both counts, and let me tell you why. First, it was the first time in the history of the GAO that we ever had to sue somebody for records access, much less the vice president of the United States.

Secondly, we did it because we were absolutely stonewalled, and my concern was they were trying to redraw the lines on separation of powers, and if we had not shown our resolve, that we would have faced a proliferation of records-access problems throughout the entire government.

Ultimately, I decided not to appeal for several reasons. It was a situation involving the White House, which is not something that we end up dealing with quite a bit. There was another case that was going all the way up to the Supreme Court on similar issues. For those reasons, I felt that it was prudent not to do it.

Here's the good news. We've not had to issue even one demand letter for access after that suit. We've faced delays but no denials.

SHAPIRO: Do you find that the delays are worse in some areas of government than others?

Mr.�WALKER: Oh sure they are. I mean, where people think there are a lot of, quote-unquote, sensitive things going on. But I found in my job that when somebody says something is sensitive, it normally means it's probably embarrassing.

SHAPIRO: So who are the worst offenders?

Mr.�WALKER: Historically we've had more of a problem with, you know, Homeland Security or State, but it's getting better.

SHAPIRO: Was there any one moment you can recall that you looked at a report that was going to be released by GAO, and you said my God, I can't believe our government actually did whatever it is that was in that report?

Mr.�WALKER: I can't narrow it down to one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr.�WALKER: There have been a number. What we have in government today is an accumulation and amalgamation of a bunch of programs, policies, functions and activities that may or may not have made sense when they were put in, but a lot of them clearly dont make sense today.

SHAPIRO: Do you want to name any specific programs that, to you, seem outdated, irrelevant and unnecessary today?

Mr.�WALKER: You know, when the federal government gets into a business, let's say electrification of rural America, you know, many times it will end up setting up an agency or agencies to do that, but once the mission has been accomplished, it still keeps the agency.

SHAPIRO: Does that actually exist today?

Mr.�WALKER: As a matter of fact, it does.

SHAPIRO: David Walker was the comptroller general for the Government Accountability Office, and he joined us here in studios in Washington. Thanks very much.

Mr.�WALKER: Good to be with you, thank you.

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