Watchdog unveils government reform priorities for next administration

By Robert Brodsky

October 20, 2008

The next presidential administration should focus on making the government operate more effectively and with greater accountability, openness and honesty, a Washington watchdog group said in a set of recommendations published on Monday.

The seven-page priority list was the first of its kind issued by the Project on Government Oversight. The nonprofit sent a copy to the transition teams of Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., on Friday.

The recommendations cover everything from boosting the pay of federal employees to rescinding the use of signing statements -- a tool that allows presidents to challenge the constitutionality of provisions in laws.

"I sense we are going to have a giant culture change, no matter who wins, in the direction of these kinds of reforms," POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian said. "I don't know that either candidate has focused to this level of detail on these issues. But, it's important to be raising them now so they are thinking about them before they go too far."

The recommendations center on improving the operational and management capacities of agencies and federal workers.

For example, POGO said oversight offices throughout the government have been underfunded and co-opted by political appointees with a partisan agenda. The report recommended that all organizations with oversight responsibilities -- from inspectors general offices to the Defense Contract Audit Agency -- be "afforded the resources, authority and incentives" to complete their missions.

The watchdog recommended that the next administration begin converting some of the government's 4,000 political slots to civil service status to enhance senior-level institutional memory. The government also should increase the pay scale of federal employees to better compete with the private sector, institute an agency honors program, pay the student loans of new hires in return for a period of civil service and allow retired federal workers to keep their pensions if they are rehired by the government, the report stated.

"This might sound like we are talking about spending more money," Brian said. "But we believe through our experience that those functions will actually save money in the long run."

Noting that some agencies are "no longer accomplishing their mandated mission," POGO proposed that within the first 100 days of taking office, the next administration hold a public comment period and regional town hall meetings to allow people to air grievances and suggest improvements in government operations. The transition team also should assemble teams of veteran civil servants, former political appointees from both parties and key stakeholders to determine the state of all agencies, the group stated.

To increase accountability and transparency, the group called for the next president to post all new government-generated or government-collected information, including documents released through the Freedom of Information Act, on agency Web sites. Task and delivery orders, requests for proposals and contract justifications should be added to, the government's contracts and grants database, the report recommended.

McCain and Obama both have pledged to improve transparency and to make government information more accessible.

POGO also echoed calls by some members of Congress and advocacy groups to strengthen the protections of federal whistleblowers. The watchdog recommended that the 44th president issue an executive order spelling out strict administrative, civil and criminal penalties for officials who retaliate against employees who report waste, fraud or abuse. The order would include rewards, both monetary and otherwise, to employees who disclose wrongdoing.

A major portion of the report focuses on reforms to the acquisition process and to the government's increasing use of federal contractors, which Brian said is "an important undercurrent of most of what is going on in the government."

She recommended that the next administration identify instances where inherently governmental jobs were outsourced improperly and return those positions to federal workers.

To close the revolving door between the government and contract jobs, POGO suggested the next president prohibit employees who leave the government from working for or representing industries they used to regulate or oversee, for at least three years. Top government officials currently are subject to a one-year cooling-off period, limiting the contacts they can have with their former agencies after leaving government.

Other recommended procurement changes included limiting the use of sole-source awards, eliminating contract bundling -- where the delivery of often-unrelated goods and services is sought under one large contract -- and beefing up the size of the federal acquisition, accounting and auditing workforces.

By Robert Brodsky

October 20, 2008