A Conversation With David Walker, Former Comptroller General of the United States

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Chances are, when David Walker graduated from Florida's Jacksonville University 35 years ago, he didn't look ahead and see that his accounting degree was the first step to landing one of the top jobs in the United States. But looking backwards, it shouldn't have been hard to predict. A long record of increasingly responsible private sector accounting for three of the nation's biggest CPA firms, years of high-level public service, and a commitment to nonpartisanship and solid values were all key factors that led to his unanimous confirmation as Comptroller General of the United States in 1998. While there, he succeeded in uniting the staff around a set of core values, raising the image of the agency, and changing the name of the General Accounting Office to better reflect its mission. Now that he has left government for the not-for-profit sector, the AICPA recently recognized his many contributions by awarding him their 2008 Gold Medal Award for Distinguished Service... another confirmation of a job well done.

His Background

While still in school, David Walker married Mary, his college sweetheart. In the 37 years since then, the Walker family grew to include two children -- James and Carol -- and three grandchildren -- Christi, Gracie, and Danny.

His accounting career started after graduation when he went to work as an auditor for the national firm which was then known as Price Waterhouse. Later he moved over to Coopers and Lybrand, first as an auditor, then in practice management. Later he led a HR consulting and executive search consulting practice in Washington, D.C. Each new job added to an already impressive resume that caught the attention of government officials. After 21 years in the private sector, he was recruited into leadership of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, and then accepted an appointment by President Ronald Reagan to be the Assistant Secretary of Labor, overseeing private pension and employee benefit plans.

Eventually, he returned to the private sector, to run the worldwide human capital service line for Arthur Andersen. While there, President George H.W. Bush appointed him to a part-time position as public trustee for Social Security and Medicare. The part-time nature of that job allowed him to continue his work at Arthur Anderson.

The Appointment

In 1996, Chuck Bowsher completed his 15 year term as Comptroller General. With this top auditing job vacant, Walker was surprised to find that many people both in and outside of government were looking in his direction. The consensus was that he was "uniquely qualified for this job." After all, he had decades of experience in the public and private sectors, including financial management, human capital management, and change management. He had run a global line of business as well as two federal agencies. He had a solid understanding of Washington and knew how to deal with Congress and the press, and, he and a reputation for nonpartisanship that was rare in D.C.

The actual selection and confirmation process was long, says Walker, since the position came open at a time when President Clinton was distracted with other issues. It took a year and a half, but eventually President Clinton picked him from a list of qualified candidates and sent his name to the U.S. Senate, where he was unanimously confirmed as the new Comptroller General of the United States. By some estimates (including the Washington Post) this is one of the top five jobs in the nation, and one of only a handful of positions that contains the official wording "of the United States."

Walker knew that if he was to accomplish his goals in his new position, he had to be independent, professional, and continue his record of taking a fact-based, nonpartisan, non-ideological, fair and balanced approach to his work. It's not enough to follow the law, he says. That which is lawful should be viewed as the minimum requirement. "Institutions and individuals need to have a higher calling to help them achieve more than the minimum," says Walker. So the first thing he did was rally people around a set of non-negotiable core values.

  • The first value was accountability. In other words... what was the GAO actually doing?

  • The second value was integrity. Who was doing what, and were they acting in a professional, nonpartisan, non-ideological fashion?

  • The third value was reliability. Walker wanted the public to know that the GAO could be counted on to be a watchdog without regard to political leanings and not beholden to any person or political party.

    Clear definition and communication of those values was Walker's focus with his staff and with the public. That's why one of his goals was to change the name of the agency. From 1921 to 2004, it was known as the General Accounting Office. But, says Walker, that was a misnomer. GAO didn't do accounting for the federal government. Instead, the GAO is all about auditing and analyzing for the purpose of improving government performance and assuring accountability. Keeping the same acronym, he succeeded in persuading Congress to change the name to the Government Accountability Office, a much better reflection of what the organization was supposed to be. That, he believes, is one reason why, while the public has taken a dim view of the overall federal government in recent years, the GAO has still been held in high regard.

    After the GAO

    Though Comptroller General is a 15 year appointment, Walker left after about 10 years, to return join the not-for-profit sector. Now he is the president and CEO of the
    Peter G. Peterson Foundation
    (PGP) in New York City, NY, an organization with the primary focus of addressing the major fiscal and other challenges that face the country without the distortion of politics.

    Why did he leave government service? He had already accomplished the goals he could best achieve as Comptroller General. To go farther, he had to be on the outside. Now at PGP he can advocate for specific solutions, create coalitions, and help educate the public in order to pressure Congress to act on a more timely basis, and he can hold elected officials accountable for their actions, or their failure to act. If he had done those things as Comptroller General, he says, he would have put the agency as risk. Instead, he will work from the outside to initiate necessary change.

    In addition to his work at PGP, he also serves as the chairman of the United Nations Independent Audit Advisory Committee and a board member of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and the Partnership for Public Service. His focus, he says, is on creating a better future. Walker is the central figure in the critically acclaimed feature documentary movie entitled I.O.U.S.A. part of his nonpartisan "Fiscal Wake- Up Tour," to alert the country to its looming fiscal crisis.

    Specifically, Walker says, we need more federal fiscal responsibility. He wants to press for budget controls, entitlement reform, health care reform, and tax reform. "We have a dysfunctional democracy," he says, but it's not just at the government level. Too many Americans don't know how to manage their own finances and they don't know how to effectively participate to help make our democracy work for both today and tomorrow.

    In his view, we are in a recession and we must avoid something worse. He believes that the decisions that are made, or not made, in the next five years will profoundly affect our standard of living and international standing. Barack Obama will have to focus most of his energy and efforts on turning around the economy, he says, in addition to dealing with the challenges in Iraq.

    "Our federal financial problem is much bigger than people realize," says Walker, "and if it isn't dealt with by the new president, the consequences to our grandchildren will be enormous. The president needs to get the American people to understand that this country needs to make tough choices if we want the future to be better than the past. We must immediately get a process in place to get the economy back on its feet and also start a process that will set the stage for a range of much needed and long-overdue entitlement, spending and tax reforms."

    He worries that we are mortgaging the future of our children and grandchildren rather than investing in them. As a father and a grandfather, he's intensely aware of this burden. "Many of the people who will pay the price for the failure of today's leaders are too young to vote, and some are not even born yet." That, he says, is the true meaning of taxation without representation.

    Maintaining your principles in Washington D.C. may be unusually hard, but for Walker, it was the only option. That may be why, over the course of his career in and out of government, he has received more honors than he can enumerate, the most recent, and most prestigious of which was the AICPA's Gold Medal for Distinguished Service... a meaningful symbol of a job well done. His career path has been long and varied, and he's not done yet. Wherever his desk is, he's still working to raise standards, hold government and individuals accountable, and leave the world a better place.

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