Congress’s watchdog on retirement issues

July 31, 2012

When Congress calls, Barbara Bovbjerg is ready with the answers.

As a managing director at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Bovbjerg oversees a staff of some 200 people who provide analysis and insight for Congress on issues involving aging, retirement security, pensions, elementary and secondary education, child welfare, employment and workforce policies.

“When we provide information to Congress, we want it to be accurate, timely and objective, and to answer the questions they need to know,” said Bovbjerg. “We want to make sure that when policy decisions are made, Congress has been supplied with the best and most sophisticated analysis.”

In a series of GAO reports and congressional testimonies, Bovbjerg has highlighted the plight of lower-income workers struggling to save for retirement, the barriers confronting older workers who want or need to work longer, the challenge of drawing down retirement assets to ensure long-term income and the urgency of addressing Social Security’s financial instability.

In laying out the range of retirement issues and the costs, Bovbjerg said her intent has been to present a fair picture of the problems and choices for workers, retirees, employers and the government. In doing so, she said, “We have helped the relevant congressional committees understand the issues and know the trade-offs.”


(Government Accountability Office)

Under Bovbjerg’s leadership, the GAO became one of the first to raise concerns about the lack of information regarding 401(k) fees charged to participating workers. As a result, the Department of Labor has adopted new rules that for the first time require 401(k) plan providers to supply details on the fees workers are being charged for managing their retirement savings. The new disclosures are expected to drive down costs and ultimately save consumers billions of dollars in fees and administrative costs that have served to erode retirement nest-egg returns.

“No one knew what they were paying in fees and there was no obligation to be told,” said Bovbjerg. “If we expect American workers to save for their retirement, they need to make wise decisions and they need information to make those decisions. We thought it was not fair that workers did not have information about the fees they were paying.”

Bovbjerg and her team also examined low 401(k) plan participation rates that led to legislation encouraging businesses to automatically enroll employees in retirement savings programs when they begin their employment.

Bovbjerg also has helped bring to light the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation’s (PBGC) precarious financial future, testifying repeatedly between 2009 and 2011 on the adequacy of the PBGC guarantee. Many retirees have expressed surprise and frustration when told they will not receive their originally promised benefits under PBCG guarantees. GAO made recommendations that prompted the PBGC to make benefit determinations and customer communications faster and clearer.

Stan Czerwinski, a GAO colleague, said Bovbjerg is “driven and committed to the issues and brings a passion to our mission and her work.” He said she has gained the trust and confidence of her staff and from members of Congress who know she is a straight shooter.

“We have worked on some politically sensitive issues that can be frustrating for members of both parties, but they respect her work and know they can take it to the bank,’ said Czerwinski.

Susan Irving, another colleague, said Bovbjerg has strong analytic skills and a deep understanding of the issues. She added that Bovbjerg combines a diplomatic approach to her job with honesty and trustworthiness.

A career civil servant for 28 years, six with the District of Columbia government and 22 with GAO, Bovbjerg said she was first drawn to public service at a Quaker high school when she did volunteer work on inner-city initiatives and learned the importance of helping others.

Bovbjerg said she takes great pride working at GAO, the congressional watchdog agency, because of her role helping lawmakers and federal agencies better serve the public.

“Even when I may not personally agree with a policy decision on a topic we’ve worked on, I know that the decision was made with access to the best analysis and all the facts,” she said.

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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