Excelling in oversight, GAO official becomes finalist for Heyman award


Orice Williams Brown is one of five finalists for the 2013 Career Achievement Medal, one of the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals awarded every September to exemplary federal workers by the Partnership for Public Service. (Bill O'Leary/THE WASHINGTON POST)
July 10, 2013

Orice Williams Brown is a fact-finder. A truth teller. A number cruncher.

She drives down the middle of the road while many in Washington careen left or right.

Brown is the Government Accountability Office’s managing director of financial markets and community investment. She and her team of 130 supply Congress with independent analysis and oversight of the U.S. financial regulatory system — a heightened responsibility after the recession struck in late 2007.

For her work at the agency for more than 20 years, Brown is one of five finalists for the 2013 Career Achievement Medal, one of the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals awarded every September to exemplary federal workers by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.

“It says a lot about her ability to achieve results on behalf of the American people,” said Gene L. Dodaro, U.S. comptroller general and GAO head. “I rely on her tremendously in a very, very complicated, high-profile area.”

Brown’s portfolio covers a wide range of topics, including financial markets, housing, community and economic development, and small-business issues.

Recently, she has overseen GAO reports monitoring the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) and helped to audit the Federal Reserve’s credit facilities after the recession. In 2012, Congress reformed the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s $3.5 billion National Flood Insurance Program after a report by her team predicted the program’s financial shortfalls.

The GAO says it saves $105 for every $1 invested in the agency, and Dodaro said Brown’s work alone has saved the government billions of dollars.

Brown is quick to point out that she works in a team-based organization whose mission is to ensure that taxpayer dollars are well spent.

“We really do exist to ferret out waste and inefficiency in government,” she said.

Brown and her team’s projects — which she calls “engagements” — usually begin in the Capitol. Laws often mandate independent GAO investigations, but members of Congress can also request audits.

“We try to help manage expectations up front,” Brown said. “So when we interact with staffers, we make it very clear to them that, ‘Yes, you’ve asked us to do this work, but GAO will decide how we’re going to scope the work and how we’re going to go about doing the work.’ ”

The team dives into engagements through research, fact-finding, interviews and numerical analysis before coming to a nonpartisan and unbiased conclusion, Brown said.

“We kind of go in neutral in terms of the issue,” Brown said. “We don’t go in with thoughts about what the answer’s going to be.”

Dodaro said that impartiality has earned Brown and her colleagues high praise — including from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke.

“I’ve had agency officials and others say that ‘even if we don’t agree with where you ended up on a report, that we always walk away feeling that we were heard,’ ” Brown said.

Public service wasn’t originally in the cards for Brown. She had hoped to work on Wall Street after finishing her graduate degree at Virginia Tech in 1990, but an economy still rebounding from the 1987 crash forced her to switch gears.

“There were plenty of folks with market experience and MBAs, so I needed to come up with a plan B,” she said.

Enter the GAO, which was recruiting on campus. Hoping to stay close to home, the Spotsylvania County native originally applied for a position with the Norfolk office, but she was steered to the organization’s headquarters in the District.

She took the job, thinking it would be a slight detour before aiming for the financial sector again.

Her first engagement, in which she studied a tax-exempt municipal bond program, forced her to reevaluate her future plans. “Just the nature of the work, the constant learning mode, really tapped into something,” she said.

That was more than 20 years ago. She never made it to Manhattan.

“I was hooked,” she said.

At 47, Brown has worked at the GAO for nearly half her life. Her fellow finalists for the award — which credits a federal employee for his or her “significant accomplishments throughout a lifetime”— have between 30 and 50 years of public service.

Brown joked that she feels like “Beasts of the Southern Wild” star Quvenzhané Wallis, who at age 9 is the youngest actress nominated for an Academy Award.

“I was absolutely overwhelmed that I was even in their company,” she said, recounting when she met the other contenders at an event in May. “It made the honor even more substantial from my perspective.”

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