Agency Voice: The Government Accountability Office’s Charles Young and John Bielec

MuckRock chats with the agency responsible for keeps Congress informed

Written by Beryl Lipton
Edited by JPat Brown

For Congress to get the background and facts they need to consider legislation and oversee the operations of the executive branch, it relies on the Government Accountability Office. Their most recent report, an annual audit of Defense Acquisitions, was published yesterday.

Earlier this week, MuckRock had the opportunity to speak with Charles Young, Managing Director of Public Affairs, and John Bielec of the GAO Office of General Counsel. The following is a lightly-edited version of that conversation.


To begin with, what is the responsibility of the Government Accountability Office?

Mr. Young: People aren’t always aware of where we stand in the federal government and what our role is. So I appreciate this opportunity to help people understand how we approach things based on where we sit in the federal government.

The first thing that people need to understand is we’re not part of the administration. We’re not part of the executive branch. We actually work just for the Congress, and the Congress uses us for its oversight of all of the executive branch agencies, so we report just to the Congress.

As such, we do two kinds of things, basically - there’s a third one I’ll get to in a minute - but the primary thing that I think most of your readers are interested in are the two kinds of audits we do.

We do financial audits, sort of what people used to think of when they think of the general accounting office. How’s the money being spent?

Then, the other thing we’ve done a lot more of over the past 20 years or so, as government grew, is performance audits. Is the program working or not working? What needs to be done to improve the performance of a particular program?

We call them both audits, but some are financial and some are performance audits. Those are sort of the two primary tools.

This is all done by a workforce that is almost entirely civil service. There are no political appointees, because all of our work is non-partisan, fact-based. We’re a non-partisan resource that either side of the aisle can turn to for information.

There’s technically one political appointee: the head of the organization, the Comptroller General of the United States. But he is, in fact, nominated by a bipartisan, bicameral commission, so both houses - House and Senate, Republican, Democrat - have to approve that person. They essentially put together a list of people and then the president has to choose from that list. And that only happens once every 15 years, because the Comptroller General gets one of the longest terms in government, specifically to keep GAO out of the back-and-forth about whoever controls government.

It’s all otherwise career employees and removed from a partisan nature, and whether you’re the Chairman of a Committee or a ranking member, we treat Republican or Democrat, House or Senate, those requests exactly the same. So if we get a letter from the relevant committee signed by the Democratic ranking member and other Democrats, or we get a letter from the Chairman of the relevant committee and only other Republicans, we’re going to do the work.

Or sometimes we get bipartisan requests - we actually get a fair amount of bipartisan requests - signed by both the relevant chair and the ranking member and members from both sides of the aisle.

Being the factual buffer between Congress and the Executive and their policies must require a lot of coordination. How many people are working at GAO? How do you decide the order in which requests get done?

There are roughly 3000 people that work at GAO - like I said, all civil servants. About 2000 of those are here in Washington and the other 1000 are spread in 11 field offices around the country, including in Boston. Aren’t you in Boston?

Yep!

Mr. Young: Yep, we’ve got one up there too.

So that’s the workforce. I’ll say, it’s one of the things that impressed me when I joined, we have a lot of people who are experts in their field, in their particular area of study.

We’re divided up internally just to handle, you know, a Natural Resources and Environment Team, a Financial Markets and Community Assessment team, a Defense and Capabilities Management team, and we have people who have worked here for decades that know their particular areas very well.

So how do we prioritize? Two things.

Some of our work is mandated in legislation. So Congress has written into the law that GAO has to look at a particular topic. One example of that was Dodd-Frank. When that passed, I think there were 40 different mandates that came out of that legislation for GAO to look at different aspects of the law and how it was or was not working as it rolled out. So that’s sort of first priority: if it’s a mandate, it’s written into law, we definitely have to do that.

Second priority are the requests I mentioned from the relevant Congressional committees. So long as the committee has oversight over a particular area, then generally we’ll do it, although there are a few exceptions I’ll delineate in a moment. And so those move forward, they’re assigned to the team, and there’s a queue; you know, they’re wrapping up one piece of work and then they begin the next one, so you know, once we accept it and it goes to the team, it could be a few months before it starts, or you know it could be longer than a few, it could be five or six, depending on how soon the team is going to be done with the work that it’s doing and ready to move on to the next one.

Does there need to be any internal shuffling or handling if you get a law with dozens of mandates?

Mr. Young: Sometimes there are hundreds of people on a team, so we’ll move people around within the team to do particular jobs if another request comes in, and we need to start that one. We can move people from something else that’s wrapping up, so you know, there are internal assignments within these different teams to make sure we get to things as we need to.

Now one of the first things when a request comes in is to determine the scope of what we’re going to cover. I’ll give you an example. Last week, we agreed to do a request on the Orphan Drug Act under the FDA. So I think it’s going to be a few months before that starts. But the first thing that we’ll do is determine the scope of exactly what we’re going to cover and the methodology that our team will use to cover it and then once we have that together, then we can come up with a time frame.

Our policy is once we accept a request, we’ll share with the media that we’ve accepted it and let them know that that scope and methodology process is beginning.

Then once we’ve determined the scope and the methodology, so we know how much we’re going to cover and how long it’s going to take, then we have a timeframe, so at that point, we’re also willing to share publicly who requested it, what the timeframe is, when we expect to issue the report.

What we do not release during the work is what we’re finding as our teams are out doing the work. We don’t release that publicly until the work is done and being issued. Then we make the whole report public.

I would say about 95 percent of our work is public. There is a classified aspect to some our work - the defense area, international affairs - but even then we post on our website the name of that report, even if it is classified, so that people can see it and follow up with us and find out if there’s going to be a public version.

We don’t do the classifying. The agencies do. For example, we recently did something on the littoral combat ship and some of that work has been classified. And the Navy says, well this particular aspect of it is classified, you can’t release that publicly, you know, it’s under classification for security reasons. Then our team goes back and after the classified version is done up, they try to redact information, take out what the Navy deemed as classified, and issue a public report. For the report involving the littoral combat ship, there was a classified version, and then a few weeks later we issued a public version with the parts the Navy objected to removed.

We do try to issue public versions of classified reports when possible. The vast majority of our work is public. A lot of reporters rely on it for where to turn to for stories. They can sort of see through our work where a program is working, where it’s not working, and then file their own FOIA requests with the agencies for additional information to try to ferret deeper than our report may have gone.

Unless a committee requests an investigation or there is a legislative mandate in place, then, your office doesn’t have to conduct an audit, then? Do you go through old programs and audit those, or do you deal just with the requests as they come?

Mr. Young: There are sometimes what they call “recurring mandates” written in the law, stating that, for example, GAO has to do a report every two or three years; they recur every few years.

There is one other small category that we sometimes work under, and that’s under the Comptroller General’s authority. That’s usually something where there’s a wide amount of interest across the Congress, not just from one or two committees but from multiple committees, and then we’ll do that. For example, a lot of work on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was under the Comptroller General’s authority because there was so much interest across multiple committees. Rather than report to one committee, we’re going to report across the Congress and do it under the Comptroller General’s authority.

For the work regarding, for example, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there seems there would be overlap with the Inspectors General.

Mr. Young: So that’s one of the things I mean when I say we do most of the work requested from a relevant committee.

When a request comes in we’ll look at a few things. Is there an Inspector General already doing work in that area? We wouldn’t want to duplicate that. Can we get access to the data we would need for a particular request? Is this issue already tied up in the courts and we can’t get the sorts of information we need?

Those are some of the questions that we routinely run through. And if an IG were already doing work on it, we coordinate with them to make sure we’re not duplicating anything they’re already doing. Usually our work is conducted broadly, across multiple agencies or programs, as opposed to just one aspect of one agency that the Inspectors General generally look at.

Do other agencies have some sort of responsibility to actually respond to you?

Mr. Bielec: Yes. When we request certain information, they will either provide it or we’ll have to negotiate what we want. And usually, we will be given the information from the agency.

Mr. Young: And the fact of the matter is we work for the Congress, and if an agency is not being cooperative, the Congress, the committee, can put some pressure on the agency to make sure that it cooperates with Congressional oversight.

If the data you think would be useful isn’t available or doesn’t exist, what recourse do you have? Do you have to get creative?

Mr. Bielec: If the data doesn’t exist, it doesn’t exist. There’s nothing we can do. If the data exists, but it exists in six parts, then if we get it from all six parts, so it can serve our needs. Actually, it was recently made clear in the law that GAO has certain rights to records and procedures it can follow if an agency doesn’t give us the documents that we are seeking.

Mr. Young: There was an instance back under George W. Bush: Walker v. Cheney. The vice president at that time had a commission of some sort set up looking at energy policy, and we wanted the records of that. The Vice President’s office would just not provide them, so we ended up taking it to court to try to access the records.

And now, in fact, in this most recent legislation that John mentioned that was only passed in Congress in December, it really clarifies that we have the right to access information across the executive branch. It was passed in December and signed by President Trump in the first few days of the new administration, because it was worked out in the last Congress, but actually ended up on his desk right after the inauguration.

So let me tell you a little bit about the FOIA stuff. Since we are not in the executive branch, FOIA does not apply to us.

However, we try to follow the spirit of the law anyway, because we’re all about accountability and try to make sure that we can provide the information. So even though it doesn’t technically apply to us, we do have a FOIA-like process, and we explain it all on the website about how people can file a request and what happens.

The big picture is … say that we get information from the Department of Commerce about the census. If the agency created that information, we’re going to send you back to the agency that created the information. That is the place that reporters would first have to try to get it.

But if we created the information, if it’s a GAO analysis, what happens then is - because we do this work for the congress and we do this work under the request of certain committees - we have to go back to that committee, we have to say, “This report we did last year. We now have a FOIA to release this information, this data. Is that allowable? Do you agree? Because you, the committee requested this.” And they have to agree. If they don’t agree, we can’t release the information, but if they do agree, we can release the information. And that, in a nutshell, is how it works around here.

Mr. Bielec: Once we get authorization, there are a few other caveats. One is that is if it’s an ongoing job, we will not release any information regarding that ongoing job. We’re fact-based and objective arm and perform very thorough, detailed analysis of certain programs and processes within the federal government, and so one of the fundamental ideas is that once the engagement has begun, we don’t open it up to the public and provide information on an ongoing basis. We do our work, we do the investigation, we get the facts, and only after the report is finalized is the information contained in our files subject to a public request.

Mr. Young: Because when we’re collecting the data, it still goes through a very thorough quality control process here to make sure that our analysis is nonpartisan, is fact-based, can stand up to scrutiny from any outside organization, so that takes some time, so we’re not going to release bits and pieces here and there, we’re going to release the final report with our full conclusions.

Mr. Bielec: And once we have congressional authorization, once the job is done and the report has been issued, then we would treat it as a FOIA request, meaning we would apply the applicable FOIA exemptions.

Of course, if it had personal data, classified information, any trade secret information, that would still not be available to the public, because it would not be available under the FOIA exemptions. But otherwise, we follow the spirit of FOIA, we would make a careful review of the documents, and if no exemptions apply, then we’d release the documents in their whole. If some apply, then, of course, they are partially redacted, and we provide the reason why we partially redacted those documents.

And, as Chuck indicated, documents that originated in another agency, we would send the requester back to that agency for those documents.

So, how many people usually work on a FOIA request?

Mr. Bielec: That depends on what’s being requested. Usually what happens is we get a FOIA-like request - say a public request for a particular job we did for committee X.

The first thing we do is go to the team that worked on the job and ask, “Is the job done?” And if they say yes, then we go to Committee X and we ask, “Will you authorize release of this information?” And the committees often say, “Yes, we authorize release of this information.”

The “FOIA” office will then consult with the team, and the team will go through the documents, because a lot of documents, as you can imagine, are quite technical - medical bills or DoD files, for example. So we need people who are knowledgeable to review the documents and tell us, “Are any of the exemptions applicable?” And it’s the same people that wrote the report and did all the work and handled all the data that review the documents.

We will then take a careful look and draft a letter and put it all together to respond to the public requester, and I’ll take a look at it too to make sure that exemptions have been applied properly and consistently, and then we go ahead.

We could have three people involved or you could have 20 people involved. It just depends on the scope and nature of the request.

So what happened with the Trump transition team request that Michael Best submitted a FOIA to your office about?

Mr. Young: We received that request. It’s not an instantaneous yes or no. We have to go through those questions. Can we get the kind of data we need to do this job? Is there an Inspector General or the Office of Government Ethics already doing this? Does it fall within GAO’s statutory authority to be able to do it?

That takes a few weeks, sometimes a couple of months, to make a determination, and so that particular request to look at the transition and how the funds were spent went through that process, and we accepted it. We’re doing that work right now, so we’re underway, but it wasn’t under some quick, compressed unusual timetable; it went through our usual process so we could ensure quality, to ensure we could do the work before we would tell the committee that yes, we would do it, and then we did tell the committee “yes,” and it’s moving forward now. So it’s going back and looking at the expenses and how things were financially handled during the transition.

There’s a lot of work going on to find out if we could do the work, to ensure that we could access the data, and that can’t be done overnight, that usually takes a few weeks. Then GAO is extremely thorough, so even when we accept the job, and we get back to committee and say, “Yes, we are going to do this,” then it can take many months for the work to actually be conducted and for the final product to actually come out.

We, in fairness, want to make sure we handle any request from either side of the aisle in the same manner, and so that’s what we did here, to make sure we treated everyone fairly in the same manner we would with any other request we get. It went through the process and we agreed to do it, so that work is underway.

So your agency’s work generally may be comparable to another agency’s FOIA operations?

Mr. Young: I would say we’re different compared to other agencies.

First, virtually all of our reports, except for a few classified, are public and posted on our website and released to the public so that anybody can read them. Congressional Research Service reports are not public. When we audit an agency, and we have the draft report written up, in fairness, that report goes to the agency that we audited so that they can provide comments. They can say we agree or we disagree, and we attach their comments to the file report and it all gets issued, so they have the opportunity to say, “Nope, GAO’s wrong,” or “GAO’s right, and we’re going to follow these recommendations.”

I think the bottom line, all of the work in our reports can range from a 5-page testimony to our annual high-risk list of programs that are at high risk for waste, fraud, and abuse or mismanagement which was more than 600 pages, and that all becomes public. So in that sense, we’re providing the results of our investigations to the public.

Then when reporters want the data underneath we turn it over to the FOIA office.

But if people want to know, has there been a request? Are you doing the work? Who made the request? When is it going to be done? Has it been determined the scope and methodology you’re going to be looking at? We share all of that information while the work is going on. The only thing we don’t share is what we’re actually finding as it’s going on. That has to wait until the end.

Are there parts of your workflow that other agencies could learn from?

Mr. Young: I think one of the key things, from a public affairs standpoint, is we make our experts, who lead the work and write the reports, available to talk to the press.

You can talk to anybody who’s leading our work once it’s published about how they did the work, what they looked at, etc. It doesn’t have to go through public affairs. We publish in every report the email address and the phone number of the author. These people are the experts. I’m the head of Public Affairs, but I’m not the expert. So reporters can call the number on our one-page highlights summary and talk to them about the work and what they found and get ideas about if they want to dig deeper. I think we’re very transparent and our reputation is good, because we make our experts available.

The summary for GAO’s recent Defense report is embedded below, and you can read the rest on GAO’s homepage.


Image via Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under CC BY 3.0