GOP presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz has been an outspoken critic of federal agencies on the campaign trail.

GOP presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz has been an outspoken critic of federal agencies on the campaign trail. Paul Sancya/Associated Press

Politicians’ Angry Rhetoric Harms Feds, Panelists Say

True accountability involves transparency and data analytics that move agencies from merely tracking spending to preventing misuse of funds in advance.

Presidential candidates and lawmakers demanding accountability from federal officials would do better to cut back on the theatrics and provide more positive reinforcement, current and former officials said during a panel discussion on Tuesday.

Angry rhetoric on accountability “will have a long-term effect on civil servants’ ability to do their job, including their willingness to take risks to move innovation,” David Mader, controller at the Office of Management and Budget, said Tuesday at a forum convened by the National Academy of Public Administration. “It’s a disservice to the civil service.”

As part of planning for a presidential transition, the panel of current and former officials and academics evaluated the state of the government’s accountability efforts at a time when the ongoing and often undramatic presidential management agenda gets overshadowed by saturation media coverage of politicians lambasting officials involved in wrongdoing at agencies such as the Veterans Affairs Department and the Office of Personnel Management.

Earl Devaney, former Interior Department inspector general who also ran the post-recession Recovery Board, said, “presidential candidates like to talk about waste, fraud and abuse and our $19 trillion debt, which voters love to hear,” he said. “But if we were able to eliminate all waste, fraud and abuse, it wouldn’t make a dent in the deficit. That doesn’t mean we stop trying,” he said. But true accountability involves such tools as transparency and data analytics that move agencies to greater collaboration with IGs to go from merely tracking spending to preventing misuse of funds in advance. “I’m encouraged by what has happened in the IG community in the last few years,” he said. They’re more ready than ever to play a role on the accountability stage.”

Comptroller General Gene Dodaro cited four themes around which the government should be working to improve performance and accountability: leveraging information technology to reduce wasteful procurement, managing finances to improve auditability, adapting to change such as newly globalized markets for food and medicine, and securing the human talent required to offset the coming retirement wave.

He warned of retrograde motion in the Obama administration’s efforts to curb improper payments in such programs as Medicare and Medicaid. Governmentwide improper payments rose the previous three years from $105 billion to $124 billion to $136 billion in 2015, he said, “and will likely get worse before they get better,” Dodaro said. “We still don’t have a definition of a federal program and an inventory,” he added, noting that this long-sought project has been deferred.

The GAO chief criticized agencies for not consulting with Congress on their program goals, as required under the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act. But he commended them for ongoing meetings with his staff and the Office of Management and Budget on how to get programs off GAO’s high-risk list. “A third of programs have come off” since the list started in 1991, Dodaro said. “It’s an urban myth that no one can.”

Barbara Romzek, dean of American University School of Public Affairs, bemoaned the way “elected officials have used the opportunity in the public arena to score political points by calling for accountability,” which, she said, “is used as a weapon to bludgeon an agency or individual they’re unhappy with.” She described accountability as a dynamic process and called for more positive forms of accountability, such as road maps toward solutions and awards or other non-monetary forms of recognition for federal employees.

Paul Posner, a longtime GAO official who now directs of the graduate public administration program at George Mason University, said the reform movement for greater accountability has been “institutionalized, with Congress now as the linchpin,” he said. “In the old days, the accountability people wore black hats and went to lunch on a different schedule than the program managers. But there’s been a paradigm shift toward not just preventing problems but understanding them,” in a collaborative and multidisciplinary approach, he said.

Mader defended the Obama administration’s seven years of efforts, in an age of resource limits, to use evidence and data to “make sure investments of taxpayer monies are the wisest.” He anticipates the community of inspectors general combining efforts to make their reports searchable governmentwide. Within 60 days, he added, OMB will roll out new procedures on internal financial controls to aid agencies in risk management. And the White House and Treasury Department within 45 days will finalize improved guidance on how agencies can implement the 2014 Digital Accountability and Transparency Act.