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Government Accounting Office

Biography of David M. Walker, Comptroller General of the United States

High Risks and Major Challenges. A speech delivered by David M. Walker, January 25, 2001, at the Association of Government Accountants Federal Leadership Conference.

Entering the 21st Century: Opportunities and Obligations A presentation by David M. Walker on December 14, 2000 to participants in the Kennedy School of Government's program for new members of Congress.

GAO's Role in Addressing Trends and Challenges for the 21st Century presented by David M. Walker, September 27, 2000.

Managing in the New Millennium: Shaping a More Efficient and Effective Government for the 21st Century. Testimony presented on March 29, 2000. Accompanying presentation

Saba Software

Developing and managing human capital is a strategic imperative not only for commercial enterprises, but also for public sector institutions striving to become more productive, accountable, and attractive to the next generation of workers in today’s “war for talent.” Some would say that public sector institutions face an even greater challenge than other organizations because the pace of change of the New Economy has forced them to play an even more arduous game of “catch up.”

On behalf of LiNE Zine, I recently had the opportunity to participate in a conversation on public sector human capital management with David M. Walker, the U.S. Comptroller General and head of the General Accounting Office (GAO), and Bobby Yazdani, CEO of Saba Software, provider of human capital management technology solutions. Appointed in 1998, Walker has been an outspoken champion for change—“to bring modern human capital management practices into the U.S. federal government.” He has made landmark speeches on the topic over the last two years and testifies frequently in Congress on the subject. Yazdani, whose company is the founding sponsor of this ‘zine, has been developing a vision for the future of human capital management based on hundreds of conversations with senior executives in large commercial organizations, as well as an increasing number of governmental entities and defense agencies. The meeting, which took place Feb 21, 2001 in David Walker’s gracious office, was an interesting exchange of public and private sector perspectives. Walker’s and Yazdani’s comments provide yet another set of insights about the opportunities and obstacles faced by leaders looking to bring their organizations into the next generation of managing people in the knowledge age.

Yazdani: David, what’s been your special interest in driving an agenda about human capital management?

Walker: I’ve been in and out of government during my career. GAO is the third federal agency I’ve headed. Before I came here, I was head of the human capital services practice at Arthur Andersen—so I’ve seen a lot and I have a lot of passion for this topic. The GAO’s mission is to maximize the performance and assure the accountability of the federal government for the benefit of the American people. As Comptroller General of the United States, I’m effectively the “Chief Accountability Officer” for the U.S. Government. The GAO has made a lot of positive changes for the government over the years, but it hasn’t done much about the people issue until recently. The policies the federal government has in place for managing people are just not sensible anymore in a knowledge-based economy, and they need to change.

Manville: Which policies specifically?

Walker: All over. Rewards and promotions are currently based more on the passage of time and they are inflation adjustments rather than for an individual’s skills, knowledge and performance. The government uses language about “performance,” but it’s not competency-based or results-oriented. Too often, it’s like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, where “everybody is above average.” Government has all too often treated its people as a cost to be cut instead of an asset to be valued, something that many progressive companies in the commercial sector figured out a long time ago.

Yazdani: Well, yes, but there are still Fortune 500 companies that haven’t really made the shift, either. We’re seeing the interest in competency-management and structured approach to performance management growing, but it’s not as universal as it needs to become. Companies are at different stages of maturity; only the best are really thinking holistically about overall human capital management and development.

Walker: Still, relatively speaking, the private sector is way ahead. The government needs a major paradigm shift, to bring in modern business practices for managing its performance and people. The government has the major disadvantage of “big P” politics—every four years, a new administration, people come in, try to make their mark, change things—but, there’s little to no continuity to take on the tough issues like “change management.” This requires sustained attention by top management over a period of years.

We’ve put strategic human capital management on our high-risk list, to shine a spotlight on the seriousness of the problem. In the next five years, one-third of all federal workers will be eligible for retirement, and one-third of the senior executives are likely to leave, as well. There have been reductions in the size of the workforce in the past, but without any strategic plan, and little succession planning. Short term and politically popular policies have ended up mortgaging the future.

Manville: Corporations went through some of the same problems as a result of excess reengineering in the 1980s—which ended up spawning a lot of the “knowledge management” initiatives in the following decade.

Yazdani: We think the time is right for bringing together various dimensions of this challenge, people, processes, and technology. Our view is we need to take an integrated approach.

Manville: What do you see to be the most important reforms for the government?

Walker: The government needs an entire cultural transformation. Certainly, integration among efforts is part of it. Many government organizations are hierarchical, process oriented, siloed, and internally focused organizations. We need more “partneurial,” results oriented, integrated, and externally focused entities.

Yazdani: How’s the GAO itself changing?

Walker: I’ve insisted that we lead by example so we’re changing our own workplace. We’ve developed a strategic human capital plan, prepared an electronic inventory of the status and knowledge of our people, and are moving to a new competency based performance appraisal system linked to our overall strategic plan. We’ve also put in place a mentoring program, employee feedback mechanisms, an employee relations committee, and stepped up our recruiting, college relations, and training efforts. We’re giving employees a voice and a share in our strategy, and helping to build them up with the capabilities to deliver on it. We also have a much more transparent and participative environment.

New legislation has allowed us to create career paths based on knowledge and competencies, and to help re-align the agency based on the skills, knowledge, and performance of individuals involved. These represent huge changes in how the government and this agency have historically operated.

Yazdani: We see competency-management and the linkage to performance and workforce planning as a critical program in the leading companies that we work with. Your vision is very similar to that of the best senior executives who are our customers. As a taxpayer, this is also “music to my ears”!

Manville: How much of this is really a paradigm shift, as opposed to just more of the trends that have been building?

Walker: This is not just about automating or improving antiquated processes. Looking back, I see distinct eras where we’ve gone from “personnel” to “human resources” and now we need to talk about “human capital.” Human capital is truly strategic, not administrative. It’s high value added, not low value-added like HR and personnel functions have tended to be.

Manville: How do you tackle the enormous change implied in all this?

Walker: Well, a lot of it is classic change management: small wins, build momentum, get alignment with key leaders, and so on. I’ve done this in the private sector, and I have time on my side—since my appointment is for a fifteen year term, so people can’t wait me out! Also, the GAO is in the legislative branch, so it’s easier for Congress to give us the leeway we need.

Actually, the vast majority of what needs doing can be done without changing laws—but we have to fight a lot of behind the scenes battles with various parties who don’t want change.

The overall target for government is pretty clear: we need less hierarchy, fewer but better-skilled government workers, earning higher pay based on their knowledge, skills and performance.

Manville: What’s the top of your agenda for your overall change program?

Walker: First, get Human Capital management on the radar screen of top leaders across the government—the OMB (Office of Management and Budget) and the secretaries and deputy secretaries of every cabinet agency. Second, we need to do some basic things that are successful—moving from “rules to tools,” empowering people, and linking overall agency strategic planning and goal setting with individual performance measurement and reward systems

Eventually this will take off, if we have a few leaders showing the way. We at GAO intend to lead by example and to help others help themselves in this important area.

Yazdani: What’s the role of unions in the government? We find, in places like Ford where we’re working and also in a big government project we have in Norway, that unions are now collaborating with management about human capital development.

Walker: Organized labor, in general, has less clout than it used to, but in the government, things are going in the opposite direction. They’re getting more powerful in the federal setting. They’ve tended to be wary of performance metrics, but in fairness, they’ve had to face a lot of vague and fuzzy systems that were overly subjective.

My view is that employees and their authorized representatives must be included in the change process. In general, people are more likely to buy into change if they can really participate in the development of the process and metrics. We all have a stake in the related outcomes and hopefully, by working together in a constructive manner, we can share many successes.

Yazdani: In the customers we work with—which by the way, now include some federal agencies and also some countries such as Norway, and the Netherlands—we’re seeing a real shift from “learning” to “learning and performance.” Twelve months ago, the conversation was really only about learning—everything was “a training problem,” whereas now it’s much more about “How do I develop the right workforce for the challenges I face? Do I have the skills and competencies I need?” The objective for us is to bring together learning and performance to create the right experience for the knowledge worker as well as for the manager. If you build the systems right, it’s a win for both. We need to take both an individual perspective and an organizational perspective in this new world.

Walker: We are certainly doing that here at GAO. We’re setting real performance targets and involving all our people throughout the process—thinking both about our overall institution and the individuals who comprise it.

Manville: Well, it certainly sounds as if both government and business are moving towards greater focus on human capital development and management. I suspect the coming years will provide opportunities for both sectors to continue to learn from one another.

David M. Walker is Comptroller General of the United States, and head of the U.S. Government’s General Accounting Office. Bobby Yazdani is Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Saba Software, a leading provider of human capital development and management software. Brook Manville is the Publisher of LiNE Zine.



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