For A. Nicole “Nikki” Clowers, managing director for the health care team at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), there are “a lot of firsts right now.” She and her agency have been tasked with gauging the effectiveness and efficiency of the CARES Act and the $2.6 trillion in federal funds it has deployed in hopes of stabilizing the world’s largest economy.
Even if the tasks ahead of you and your agency aren’t as Herculean, the lessons Clowers shared in her conversations with Reuters Editor-at-Large Axel Threlfall in the webinar, “The CARES Act: The unique role the GAO plays in overseeing trillions of taxpayer dollars” still apply to your situation. The program in its entirety is available for on-demand viewing, but here are five key takeaways from the conversation:
To address the future, look to the past
Although the CARES Act — and the circumstances it’s meant to address — are unprecedented, the GAO has tackled gargantuan requests before. Clowers noted that after the financial crisis of 2008, the GAO had to scale up in order to monitor dollars that went out the door quickly. As such, the GAO is able to look back on what went well (and what didn’t) and calibrate its approach to the CARES Act accordingly.
For you, the lesson here is to look back on problems your team has handled effectively and draw from strategies that worked then. Even if it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, it’s better than trying to reinvent the wheel.
Draw from a diverse pool of talent
Clowers quipped that everyone thinks of the GAO as “accountants in green eyeshades.”
“People who aren’t familiar with the GAO may not be familiar with the diversity of our workforce,” she said. “We certainly have our financial accountants and they play an important role in our financial audits, but most of our workforce falls on the other side of the house — what we call performance auditors. In that workforce, we hire folks with public policy degrees, law degrees, science degrees, engineering degrees, and so it’s a great diversity of skill-sets that we bring to bear.”
The lesson to be learned: When it comes to talent and staffing teams, the obvious choices certainly have their value. But organizations looking to add depth, breadth of perspective, and problem-solving ingenuity need to bring a similar approach to their recruiting efforts.
Utilize technology to accelerate efficiency
During the conversation, Clowers noted that some organizations the GAO has worked with still use paper-based systems. Unsurprisingly, these groups suffer from the errors and cumbersome nature of managing information via physical documents. That simply isn’t an option for tackling CARES Act spending – or other large projects.
“The size of these programs, you can’t evaluate them manually,” Clowers said. “We need the latest technology to ensure that the latest safeguards are in place.”
There are some circumstances, like the GAO’s, where eschewing technology isn’t an option. In those cases, even when the financial investment is daunting, there are some tasks for which a low-tech alternative simply isn’t feasible or tenable.
Limit finger-pointing and blaming
Clowers spoke briefly about the natural tendency to look for an explanation as to why a given problem developed — and why that ultimately doesn’t help with productivity or solution-finding. In her case, certain agencies hadn’t followed the GAO’s past recommendations and others wanted to shift responsibilities to organizations with similar roles. She said she’s tried to limit playing the blame game so that everyone involved remains focused on reaching the larger goal.
You’d do well to follow her example in this regard. It’s not easy to persuade people to keep their eyes on the finish line, but any time spent blaming or finger-pointing is time not spent on achieving the ultimate objective.
Take stock early and reevaluate as needed
In their conversation, Threlfall and Clowers spoke about early audits for CARES Act spending and what they reveal. Clowers said she plans to use what these first audits show to guide her approach going forward – focusing on areas where fraud and waste seem especially troublesome and lightening up where they don’t.
In general, retooling your approach as you move forward in the interest of increased effect is a good idea. There’s a lot to be said for choosing an approach and sticking to it, but it shouldn’t be done so rigidly that there isn’t room to tailor and improve it.
If you would like to learn more, the webinar “The CARES Act: The unique role the GAO plays in overseeing trillions of taxpayer dollars” is available for on-demand listening.