GAO is tainting its fact-finding mission with advocacy, evaluation says

October 17, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON — .TC WASHINGTON -- The government's watchdog agency, the General Accounting Office, has strayed from its original fact-finding mission and tarnished its reputation for objectivity by becoming an advocate for policy changes, an independent evaluation of the agency says.

The study, in effect an audit of the government's top auditors, was issued last week by a panel of experts from the National Academy of Public Administration, a nonprofit organization chartered by Congress to increase the effectiveness of government.

Lawmakers continually cite the accounting office's findings in deciding whether to create, abolish, cut or revise programs. But in recent years, lawmakers of both parties have expressed concern that the agency sometimes seemed more eager to make policy pronouncements than simply to provide information.

Republicans have complained that the GAO has become a tool of Democrats in Congress.

The agency issues reports on many volatile issues, including health care, immigration and trade.

It alerted Congress to problems in the savings and loan industry long before most people were aware of them. It has documented problems in weapons programs such as the Bigeye chemical bomb, the B-2 bomber and the Seawolf submarine.

Federal agencies accept three-fourths of its recommendations, and Congress follows more than half of its suggestions for legislative action.

The head of the accounting office, Comptroller General Charles A. Bowsher, defended the agency's independence and said, "We always strive to present our findings in a balanced manner." He added that the agency's recommendations were never based on "political or ideological considerations."

The study described the accounting office as an invaluable institution and found "no evidence of deliberate partisan bias" in its work.

But the study said the GAO "seems to be exceeding its appropriate role" by venturing into the analysis and development of public policy.

"Some in Congress have expressed concerns, which the panel shares, that GAO has on occasion moved too far into advocating policy, pushing into policy formulation more appropriate to elected officials," the study said.

The report was requested by the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs.

The report found "no evidence that GAO has been steering its research toward satisfying particular policy or partisan interests." But it said the accounting office "should not risk its reputation for objectivity by moving into policy advocacy."

In essence, the report faulted the accounting office for a failing the agency itself has often cited in government programs: a slow expansion of its mission into areas beyond its expertise.

The report recommended that the agency be more selective about the kind of work it takes on and said that Congress should be more careful about the kinds of requests it makes of the agency.

With 4,581 employees, 26 field offices and a budget of $443 million this year, the accounting office is busier than ever. It issued 1,115 reports and 4,200 legal rulings last year. It estimates that it has saved $107.6 billion for the government over the past five years.

The agency was created in 1921, but traces its roots to 1789, when Congress established a comptroller in the Treasury Department to "examine all accounts" of the government.

The accounting office does most of its work in response to requests from Congress. It accepts assignments from the ranking Republicans on congressional committees and subcommittees, but they have not requested as much work as the Democrats.

Mr. Bowsher acknowledged that "there is always room for improvement" at the GAO. He said that he had taken some steps to address the panel's concerns and that he would take others to guarantee that audit reports met "stringent standards for objectivity, fairness and accuracy." For example, he said, he has ordered regular "peer review" of the agency by outside experts.

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