Conversations: Gene Dodaro, U.S. comptroller general

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 29, 2010; 7:45 PM

Gene L. Dodaro was confirmed by the Senate last week as the government's eighth comptroller general, a job he has held in an acting capacity since 2008. The comptroller general runs the non-partisan Government Accountability Office, which has served since 1921 as Congress's watchdog. Dodaro is the first career civil servant to be appointed to the post, having risen through the ranks from an entry-level auditing job he started at the agency in 1973.

The GAO's staff of 3,200 produces more than 1,000 audits and reports each year on the management of the government. Its budget during the last fiscal year was $557 million.

Dodaro, 59, lives in Alexandria. He holds a bachelor's degree in accounting from Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa., which he attended on a basketball scholarship. A Pittsburgh native, he's an avid Steelers fan. After the GAO, he says his passion is his family - his wife, Joan, three adult children and a 2-year-old grandson.

The Post chatted with him Wednesday.

Q.How will your background as a career civil servant help you navigate the agency's relationship with Congress?

A. Previous people who held this job came from the executive branch and the private sector. Certainly I have a lot of insights into the aspirations of the staff, and knowledge of our work processes. Many people I've hired and promoted work here. Over the years, I've worked with a number of people in the executive branch, and with members of Congress from both parties. That's the advantage of being a career person.

Q. What should the public know about the GAO they might not know already?

A. They need to know that we operate in the best interest of the American public. The taxpayer is at the heart of all we do. We're trying to make the government more efficient and effective, and help Congress make informed policy choices across a wide range of issues. We're not only an organization of professionals, we're independent, nonpartisan and fact-based.

Q. With such a vast array of federal agencies, how do you decide where to devote your resources?

A. We work for every standing committee of Congress, preparing strategic plans for serving Congress and looking out five years at areas they want us to focus on. We listen to their priorities. Most of our work is either statutory - for example, the law reforming Wall Street has 43 requirements for studies by the GAO. We're required to audit financial statements, the [Troubled Assets Relief Program] law, the stimulus. We have hundreds of requests from chairmen and ranking members. We also have a hotline where anyone can call in, plus areas where we address broad-based interests of Congress over time, such as natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the early stages of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Q. What role do you expect the GAO to play in the debate over reducing the deficit and the size of the federal government?

A. I'm very encouraged by the attention that's being paid to the need to reduce the long- range deficit. For years we've been trying to get attention to this matter. There will be a lot of shared sacrifices that will be needed.

We have a new requirement to produce an annual report on overlap and duplication in the government. For example, we've reported on $290 billion in back taxes the government has not collected. The new mandate was approved earlier this year in legislation that increased the debt ceiling. We're focusing in on discretionary programs first in defense and civilian agencies. In future years, we'll look at mandatory programs and tax expenditures. They don't get the regular reviews and oversight they should. We'll be helping Congress understand the tradeoffs and policy choices among various changes to programs and activities. We don't make policy, but we help the policymakers understand the tradeoffs.

Q. You've got a closely watched "high-risk" list of agencies and programs. Can you describe this?

A. We've been producing this list since 1990. It's one of the longest-running good government efforts. We produce it at the beginning of each new Congress, to help them develop their oversight and legislative priorities. In 2009 we took the FAA off the list but added three new areas, calling for better oversight of medical products and financial regulation and recommending an inventory of toxic chemicals.

The list started out addressing fraud, waste and abuse, but it has evolved to include areas in need of broad-based transformation. In January there will be areas coming off and areas that we consider for new efforts. Currently there are 31 areas on the list.

Q. Describe the staff that works for you. They're not limited to auditors, right?

A. We have a highly professional, multi-disciplinary workforce. We have financial auditors, and most people think of the GAO in that area. But we also have economists, attorneys, public policy specialists, actuaries, civil engineers. We have as many different professional disciplines as any organization, and we need to. We have a chief scientist. We look at an increasingly sophisticated array of weapons and satellite systems, so we have experts there. The solutions to a lot of challenges in government lie in the applications of science and technology, so we're building our workforce in that area.

Q. How is the GAO different from the inspector generals that serve as watchdogs for individual agencies?

A. We're an independent agency in the legislative branch, while they're in the executive branch. Their scope is within individual departments and agencies. Our scope is broader. We coordinate our work with them. They have more resources devoted to investigative work, whereas most of our work is performance audits, where we look at how programs are working and how they can work more effectively. We sometimes refer things to the inspector generals, and they'll report them to the Justice Department.

Q. Does your staff ever hit roadblocks getting access to information they need to conduct their audits?

A.We have subpoena powers, if need be, for federal contractors. From the agencies we generally get very good cooperation. Sometimes we have access issues, though. There's a bill in Congress that passed the House but not the Senate that would have clarified our legal standing . . . if we're not able to gain access. This came up after we brought litigation against [former vice president] Dick Cheney to get access to his energy task force. A district court ruled that we didn't have legal standing. We hope this bill passes the next Congress.

Q. Have some administrations worked better with your staff than others?

A. I'd say we have a pretty good record, regardless of the administration, in getting our recommendations implemented. Eighty percent get adopted within four years. That's been relatively consistent over time.

Q. You've said one of your goals as comptroller general is to improve the government's ability to help Americans understand their finances better. How will you do this?

A. One thing we're doing is studying various financial literacy programs offered by the government, to find out which are more effective than others. Our world is becoming more complex, with complex retirement systems and investment choices. One of the things the federal government is always committed to is promoting better information to empower people to make better choices.

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