Incoming presidential administrations get more advice and lists of recommendations than they can swing a cat at. But the Biden team is probably listening closely to one source: Transition information from the Government Accountability Office. GAO has a lot of online resources not only for appointees but also for new members of Congress. Federal Drive with Tom Temin got a rundown from the GAO’s chief operating officer, Kate Siggerud.
Tom Temin: Kate, good to have you back.
Kate Siggerud: Good to be here Tom. Thanks for the invitation.
Tom Temin: And tell us about what there is online there available to people coming into the government and elected levels and appointed levels, or even Schedule C levels.
Kate Siggerud: Sure. So the Presidential Transition Act does state that GAO staff can provide assistance to the presidential transition team. And so we do that in two ways. One is by a website that you just mentioned, we put information on our website with a specific link that is labeled as being for the new Congress and the new administration. And of course, we also offer briefings to the transition team members that are associated with various agencies. We’ve often met with them in the past, and the offer to meet has gone out and those meetings are happening over the course of the next week and until the inauguration. The website link has been available now for a few weeks. And it’s organized around the major issues facing the new administration and the new Congress that will come in in January. Probably not a surprise that the major issues that we highlight are the coronavirus pandemic, race in America and the federal government in its response to economic downturns. And we, of course, have links to a variety of sources in GAO that provide more detail in all those areas.
Tom Temin: But then, of course, GAO has much more detailed lists of real problems across the federal agencies and the operation of the government itself. Does that get a lot of attention also? I mean, racial issues, and the pandemic and so on are kind of obvious for incoming people. But there’s a lot of nitty gritty things, which of course, we all, you and I delight in. But what about those incoming people, do they care to learn deeply about the government itself?
Kate Siggerud: I would think so. And we are ready to provide whatever level of detail may be helpful to new members of Congress and to the incoming administration. So we talked about those three main areas. But as you just pointed out, a successful approach to reform or taking on those problems in new and better ways really depends on the federal government’s ability to manage itself to in fact, make progress. So we talk about federal agencies needing basic building blocks in order to carry out these reforms. A couple of things that GAO has talked about a lot in the past, the first being that the federal government needs to have the human capital necessary to manage federal programs and implement reforms. We need the numbers of people, we need key skills, we need to understand where our skill gaps are and we need to be nimble in hiring. So this is an issue around workforce planning and having the right people in the right place. It has been on GAO’s high risk list for years. We also focus a lot on it. So acquiring and managing it efficiently is, of course, a core requirement for managing anything in the government. And at top of mind this week is also having our cybersecurity posture in good shape as well. I’m sure we’re all thinking about that, in light of the news about the breaches in both the federal government and in the private sector that have occurred over the past few months. And that were revealed over the weekend and early this week.
Tom Temin: When people are newly elected to Congress, I imagine that’s a really bewildering experience the first time you actually come into Washington, and there’s all sorts of symposia and briefings and training sessions they have. Over the years, have you found that they’re even aware of the GAO as a function and a property of Congress that can be extremely useful to them?
Kate Siggerud: Well, we take steps to essentially make sure that they are aware into be helpful, to the extent that they want to follow up with us in anything. So the Comptroller General of the United States, who is the head of the GAO typically records a greeting and a video for members to tell them how to make the best use of GAO and the many products that we have. And of course, we have notified the entire Congress of the availability of the website that I’ve been talking about today. And we always make it a point to reach out very early in the new Congress, to new members and to committee leaders to understand their priorities and interests for the coming to congressional terms.
Tom Temin: I imagine that a lot of the newer members would come to GAO, once they know their committee assignments and figure I better learn about what this committee is dealing with. And if they can do just a quick search, they’ll probably find the GAO has vast numbers of research reports on whatever the particular committee is dealing with the topics.
Kate Siggerud: Absolutely. And actually, that’s one of the reasons we set up the website and the link related to the transition. I kind of think of this as a curated list of topics and reports, because as you well know Tom, there are thousands of reports and topics you can find at GAO. We wanted to curate them and make it easier for them to navigate both on these three major challenges we talked about, as well as nitty gritty management issues that are opportunities for them to conduct oversight of federal agencies. One of the things we do on the website that I think is really important is that we also highlight major bodies of work that GAO will be releasing early in calendar year 2021, that can also be helpful to them. Probably the most obvious is GAO’s high risk series that will be issued at around the middle of February. And Congress has occasionally referred to this as Congress’ oversight agenda. So based on committee assignments and personal interest, I think members will find the update of the high risk report in middle of February to be very helpful. Another very helpful resource, we think, is priority recommendation letters. These are letters that GAO sends to agencies every year that has significant, non implemented recommendations from GAO. So what our website now you’ll find a link to last year’s letters, and we plan to issue those again late this spring. And then finally, early in a calendar year, we will be issuing our federal fiscal update. So this is a root part we’ve been doing for several years that draws on the latest information from the financial statements from CBO, the president’s budgets, the trustees of the medicare and social security trust funds, among others. We talked about the state of the deficit and the debt, and what are the major drivers. Now we do acknowledge that for the current moment, as we try to fight the pandemic and help the economy recover, that now is not the time to be focusing on an immediate solution to our fiscal challenges. But we do emphasize that in the long run, a plan will be needed.
Tom Temin: I was going to say that’s something some areas that the GAO doesn’t quite get enough credit for maybe is that knowledge of the fiscal area. And of course, there’s the Congressional Budget Office here, smaller but more focused sister agency, and the other bank of knowledge that the GAO has is legal. There’s long treatises on what happens during lapses in appropriations and what agencies can and cannot do. I guess you could throw the contracting protest function into that legal area too. Do you get much interest in that at all?
Kate Siggerud: Well, I think that we do from new members who are first of all not aware that GAO has that appropriations law expertise. And as you pointed out, the bid protest expertise. So this is something that we will talk about in doing any kind of orientation or initial brief we’re asked to by new members or by congressional committees, the appropriations law expertise is particularly important. And we play a very important role in supporting the appropriations committees. And as well responding to federal agencies that have questions about how to make sure that they comply with appropriations law of particular interests in the past year has also been our work around federal vacancies. And that’s always of interest as we go into a new administration and the administration starts to make nominations, and the Senate considers confirming those nominations. So the legal expertise is very significant. And we will do want to make sure the members are aware of that as a resource. Also, on GAO’s website, we have a find an expert link, which people can click to find these specific executives in GAO that have subject matter knowledge in different federal programs and agencies.
Tom Temin: Sure. And I guess if they’re really lucky, they get an audience with Gene Dodaro, who is encyclopedic in his ability to recite chapter and verse of everything that’s going on across the programs. But many of the reports that GAO does are statutory and required year after year or at some interval. And then members can also request how much comes in from the newbies that request things of GAO.
Kate Siggerud: Well, the protocols that GAO has for devoting our resources to developing new reports are primarily focused on those statutory requirements that you mentioned, Tom, along with requests that we get from leaders of committees. We support both sides of the aisle in terms of leaders of committees, but new members can make requests to be briefed on our issued work, and to talk to any expert in GAO. And they also, of course, can team up with a committee leader to request work from GAO as well. So that is most commonly how we help new members by making our experts available and working with them and their committee leaders to respond to committee priorities.
Tom Temin: Well, it’s an exciting time I guess for the government every two years, every four years. We’re glad you’re on the job. Kate Siggerud is chief operating officer of the GAO. Thanks so much for joining me.
Kate Siggerud: Thank you Tom.