United States Comptroller General Gene Dodaro offers a window into the Government Accountability Office
Pictured, from left: Mark Taylor, Gene Dodaro and Barbara Snyder
Gene L. Dodaro, Comptroller General of the United States, was the recipient of this year’s Braden Award from the Weatherhead Accountancy Department. The award is named for Andrew D. Braden, a beloved accountancy professor at Weatherhead for decades, and each year it goes to an outstanding member of the professional accounting practice community.
Dodaro was nominated by President Obama in September 2010 from a list of candidates selected by a bipartisan, bicameral congressional commission to head the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). You might know the GAO as the General Accounting Office (the name was changed in 2004 to better reflect the organization’s wide-ranging responsibilities). Or you might know it as a “congressional watchdog” or the “taxpayer’s best friend.” We had the chance to sit down with Dodaro and learn just what that entails, as well as a little about his career path.
W: You are originally from Pennsylvania and went to college there. Do you have a connection to the Cleveland area?
GD: My main connection here is with Gary Previts [PhD, Distinguished University Professor and E. Mandell de Windt Professor of Leadership and Enterprise Development]. Gary has been a member of our Accountability Advisory Council for a number of years, and he has made valuable contributions to a number of issues, for example, auditing the federal government’s financial statements.
Most people don’t realize that it wasn’t until 1997 that the federal government actually prepared consolidated financial statements and had GAO audit them. And all of the major departments and agencies were first required to prepare financial audits in 1996, so it’s been relatively few years since the federal government has been subject to this discipline that had been in the private markets for a number of years, and also in state and local governments.
W: Our school places an emphasis on sustainability and how environmental issues affect business and vice versa. It was interesting to see climate risks on GAO’s 2013 High Risk List. This topic is new to the High Risk List. Was it a particular event that caused it to leap onto the list?
GD: No, it’s something we’ve looked at over time. We already had the flood insurance program on the high-risk list since 2006 following hurricanes Katrina and Rita; the flood insurance program is about $25 billion in the red to the Department of the Treasury.
We became increasingly concerned and had done more work looking at the federal government’s preparedness from an adaptation standpoint. We issued reports about the federal government’s preparedness to address the potential impacts of climate change. It wasn’t coordinated across the federal government nor set up to work effectively with the state and local levels. And the fiscal exposure that the federal government had was growing—not only in flood insurance but also in the crop insurance program that had doubled over time.
The government was also very exposed as a large property holder. The federal government actually owns 29 percent of all land in the U.S., and there are a lot of major installations, such as defense installations, along coastal areas. So we became concerned about that.
W: If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about how the federal government operates, what would it be?
GD: I would like to see the federal government do more long-range planning. It needs to do a better job strategically both from a fiscal policy standpoint as well as in a number of other areas. This is particularly important now that we’re in such a globalized environment. There are a lot of major economic, security and social challenges facing the country. I think better long-range strategic planning and stability over time is really important in a wide range of areas.
W: That feels like something that Congress is not doing a good job of right now. For example, we extend the debt limit for six months at a time and then have a big fight about it. That’s the opposite of the long-range planning you’re talking about.
GD: Right. We’ve recommended that Congress change the way they set the debt limit, and that they set it at the time they make appropriation decisions, up front. Hopefully someday that change will be made. We’ve also noted that the federal government needs to be put on a more long-term sustainable fiscal path.
W: What don’t people know about being the comptroller general? What would it surprise people to learn about working at the GAO?
GD: Two things, I’d say. One is the wide scope of the work we do at the GAO. People know us in one form or another, but we really do work across the full range of the federal government’s operations.
Secondly, that we have a role in the international auditing field as well: helping set international auditing standards, working with national audit offices of other countries, trying to help national audit offices in developing countries increase their capabilities. We also do coordinated audits with other national audit offices in other countries. We’re doing one right now, for example, with the Arctic Council. We also helped lead a working group of auditors from 25 different countries to work on financial modernization and regulatory reforms, both national and international, across the world.
So I think most people don’t recognize how prominent we are in the international auditing community and would be surprised.
W: Gary Previts mentioned that you went to college originally on an athletic scholarship and didn’t set out to major in accounting.
GD: It was a basketball scholarship. My first priority was to play for the Boston Celtics, and my second priority was to become a teacher and coach. And then I got sidetracked a bit into accounting. I liked it, and then I was offered a job right on campus by the GAO. I graduated in May and started working in June. I started as an entry-level auditor and worked my way up.
W: Your wife also worked for the GAO until about 15 years ago. Is she also an accountant?
GD: No, and in fact, most of the people we hire now are not accountants. Only about 10 to 15 percent of what we do is actually financial auditing or dealing with accounting standards. Most of what we do are program audits looking at the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of programs and activities and making recommendations, where appropriate, for improvements.
W: What piece of advice would you give a graduating college student who wanted to work at the GAO?
GD: One thing would be to try to apply for and get an internship. A great deal of our hiring comes through the internship program. We have both summer internships and year-round internships where people can get exposed to what we do and how we do it and see if they like it.
W: And there are all kinds of career paths you can take.
GD: Yes, and you can change subject matter. You could be working in housing programs at one time and defense programs or transportation at another. There’s a great diversity of subject areas and also technical disciplines. We’re a very multidisciplinary organization. We do have accountants and financial auditors, but we also have public policy analysts, economists, and a big legal department. We have information technology specialists, scientists and actuaries—the full range of the type of skills you need to tackle these issues that we undertake.
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