Streamlining Management Control

Recommendations and Actions

SMC05: Improve the Effectiveness of the General Accounting Office Through Increased Customer Feedback


One important duty of Congress is to oversee the operations of the executive branch. Congress has several formal mechanisms to conduct its oversight. These include hearings, agency reports, and audits and evaluations by agency Inspectors General and its own General Accounting Office (GAO).

According to the Comptroller General, "The GAO assists the Congress in its legislative oversight of the executive branch. We see our mission as seeking to achieve honest, efficient management and full accountability throughout government. We serve the public interest by providing Members of the Congress and other policymakers with accurate information, unbiased analysis, and objective recommendations on how to best use public resources."(1) By implementing this mission, GAO plays an important role in assuring and improving the leadership and management practices of the executive branch.

GAO, under the leadership of Comptroller General Charles Bowsher, began a formal Total Quality Management (TQM) initiative almost three years ago.(2) "The agency's commitment to quality is the single most important principle governing its work. We define high-quality work as (1) objective and independently derived; (2) accurate, timely and meaningful; and (3) presented in a way most useful to responsible officials."(3) This initiative, with its strong focus on customers and continual improvement, has already pointed the organization in a direction to achieve these goals.(4) For example, GAO recognizes the importance of crediting and publicizing best practices during an audit as well as documenting problems. Another example is that it intends to develop and institutionalize feedback loops from the executive branch. This feedback would give it information that it needs to improve its value-added contribution to better government.

Need for Change

GAO is perceived by many managers in the executive branch agencies as being less effective than it could be in providing useful oversight that leads to constructive changes. For example, GAO audits have often documented only negative findings. These audits often did not report best practices when they were uncovered, in part because staff believed they were not encouraged to report success.

A root cause of the perceived effectiveness gap is that GAO currently lacks an institutionalized feedback loop from the executive branch agencies, either individually or collectively. A feedback loop--such as a questionnaire or interviews on the effectiveness of a GAO review--would provide GAO management with information on how useful its reports and reviews have been in pinpointing and solving problems. Currently, GAO does not collect the information it needs to continually improve the value and impact of its services. GAO's "Yellow Book," which sets federal auditing procedures and standards, clearly recommends describing "noteworthy accomplishments," as part of audits, but it only partially addresses the need for feedback loops.(5)


Improve GAO documentation of best practices and use of feedback loops. (1)

The President should work with the congressional leadership to encourage GAO to document best practices when found. GAO should also encourage agency management to spread best practices and institutionalize them. As part of GAO's ongoing TQM initiative, it should accelerate the process of developing feedback loops to GAO from executive branch agencies. In addition, it should revise the "Yellow Book" to further develop the concept of feedback loops.


1. U.S. General Accounting Office, The Role of the General Accounting Office, GAO/T-OPP-93-1 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. General Accounting Office [GAO], June 10, 1993).

2. Ibid, pp. 16-17.

3. Ibid, p. 2.

4. U.S. General Accounting Office, Quality Improvement Plan: An Update, "Continuous Improvement: The Quality Challenge," March 1993.

5. U.S. General Accounting Office, Government Auditing Standards (Washington, D.C.: GAO, 1988 Revisions), pp. 7-10 and 7-11.

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