Reestablishing Integrity, Transparency and Accountability in Government

A credible framework already exists for sound management, transparency, responsibility, and accountability — it just needs to be implemented effectively.

In the wake of the “most corrupt administration in modern history,” how will the Biden administration keep its promise to “guarantee government works for the people?” How will it ensure a uniformly ethical environment in which sound, best business and government practices deliver results according to strategic goals and objectives? How will it implement such a system across the breadth and depth of the U.S. Government, a global enterprise that is woefully and fiscally imbalanced — in FY 2020 the federal government spent $6.5 trillion while bringing in $3.4 trillion, a record $3.1 trillion deficit? How will it implement such a comprehensive system in an operating environment challenged by the crises of COVID-19, the ensuing economic downturn, and urgent social issues?  

The good news for the American people: The system exists. In June 2016, then-President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget updated and broadened its Circular No. A-123, arcanely titled Management's Responsibility for Enterprise Risk Management and Internal Control. Supporting “the Administration’s commitment to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of Government,” the new A-123, based on common private/public sector management principles, manages risk ‘toward achieving its strategic objectives and … its activities and operations.”  Principles include: commitment to integrity and ethical values; establishment of responsibility, accountability and oversight; management of risk; communication; and continuous improvement. A-123 “requires Agencies to establish and foster an open, transparent culture that encourages people to communicate information about potential risks and other concerns with their superiors without fear of retaliation of blame.” Additionally, each executive branch agency conducts an annual review of its system, culminating in a “Statement of Assurance,” which attests to the President and Congress that an agency has evaluated its management controls and that they comply with A-123 standards. Critically, the Statement also must address material weaknesses and other significant deficiencies that could jeopardize the agency’s mission. These components comprise a soup-to-nuts management system worthy of President-elect Biden’s goal of “restoring faith in American government.”

But, there’s a catch: A-123 is poorly implemented and requires enforcement and oversight, particularly by OMB. For example, the State Department’s Office of Inspector General in 2015 (then led by the now-fired Steve Linick) examined that agency’s internal control system, using the Statement of Assurance as an indicator. Its report indicated that the Department’s “guidance for performing comprehensive reviews on the full range of activities,” such as “political and economic sections, and foreign assistance programs” was deficient. The report issued eight recommendations, couched in bureaucratese, but critical of key A-123 management control aspects in the department. Astoundingly, State Department OIG inspectors reported its agency’s internal control reviews found only one issue during the examined 3-year period that rose to the level of a reportable material weakness. Examination of 2012-2014 Departments of Labor, Education and Energy Statements of Assurance found those agencies were similarly lax in applying A-123 standards. 

The Trump administration took steps that further weaken an already struggling system. First, it sought to politicize OMB by removing longstanding employment protections designed in part to ensure the stability, objectivity, and competence of those who oversee A-123. Second, President Trump fired five inspectors general who, in accordance with the Inspector Act of 1978, have broad responsibilities for auditing and overseeing executive branch agency programs and operations for efficiency and effectiveness.

A-123 is by no means a silver bullet, particularly in the way agencies currently apply it. But, it is the existing and credible – if unevenly implemented – framework for sound management, transparency, responsibility, and accountability. It is the U.S. Government’s means for achieving results according to strategic plans and objectives, but only if agencies understand its value, implement it meaningfully, and their inspectors general continuously review and assess it, and OMB and the Congress hold agencies accountable when they fall short. Moreover, if rigorously applied across all executive branch agencies, A-123 could become the government’s common management solution. Results of annual assessments – along with identifying significant deficiencies and challenges – already must be reported to the president and Congress, thereby including them in the system of accountability. And, transparency (and media reporting, as a subset), as always, ensures accountability to the American people.

Ralph Kwong served five overseas and two domestic tours of duty as a Foreign Service Officer, including senior management inspector and division director in the State Department’s Office of Inspector General. He also served on active and reserve duty as a U.S. Army Field Artillery and Foreign Area Officer. 

Ambassador (ret.) Don Hays served nine overseas tours, from Saigon to Sarajevo, during his 41-year Foreign Service career, including Deputy High Representative in Bosnia.

Ambassador (ret.) Kenneth C. Brill served as an ambassador in the Clinton and Bush Administrations and was the founding Director of the U.S. National Counterproliferation Center within the ODNI.