Connecting the past and the present

In a building in Washington, DC that fills almost an entire block between 4th and 5th Streets, NW, a ground floor hallway connects the north and south lobbies.  At the two ends of corridor are display cases.  In my job as a Federal historian at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), where I worked until January 2016, I curated several displays, including ones for agency anniversaries and celebrations of women’s history month.

Notice how the yellow book stands out in the lobby case.  Hold that thought because there’s a reason I featured it.  And keep in mind that members of the public as well as GAO’s employees saw the exhibit.   We put up the displays at a time when outside visitors still came into the building not just for scheduled meetings, but to spontaneously drop in to use the ground floor cafeteria around the corner from the exhibit hallway, as well.

Historical photographs from Record Group 121 (Public Buildings Service) at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) show the construction of the GAO building between 1949 and 1951.   (In addition to looking at records at NARA, I also did research in the Washingtoniana division of a District of Columbia public library.)  If you walk on the 5th Street side of the GAO building by the loading dock, you still see a sign for G Place, which once ran east-west through the block near St. Mary’s Church.

In the 1940s, government planners abandoned their initial plans to acquire the church property at 5th and H Streets, N.W.  Opposition in the surrounding neighborhood, once home to many German-Americans, later the site of a so-called “Chinatown,” played a part in the decision in the 1940s to leave the church intact.   A reminder that at times community voices, inside or outside a workplace, may affect what happens.

When I worked at GAO, how did I know what to highlight when curating exhibits, responding to internal research inquiries, writing analytical studies?  Learning through reading documents and publications. Walking the floor. Listening.  During formal events and informal conversations in their offices or hallways, I talked to the people who worked in the building.  And asked questions.  It’s the best way to connect the written and unwritten rules at any workplace. And the past and the present.

In a presentation about GAO’s history to new hires, I used a 1981 photo of the agency head, Comptroller General Gene Dodaro (2008-present).  It shows him as an auditor (then called evaluator) in its General Government Division.  The image is from a public program handed out to employees, families, and friends at an annual awards ceremony.  After my history talk, I told the Comptroller General (pictured with me right before I left my GAO job in 2016) in a hallway conversation that I had used the picture.  And shared why I did it and how new employees reacted.

Explaining organizational history in training classes for agency employees provides context.  It also reminds listeners that what had happened long ago once was the present.  With the future, its opportunities or challenges, unknowable.  As a researcher and writer, including in my history of GAO from 1981 to 1996, I’ve focused on examining what happened and why in structural and human terms, especially in operational and workforce issues.

I’m also interested in how internal and external elements affected choices made by GAO employees, from the head of the agency to the director of facilities management, Mallory Andrews, who oversaw an asbestos removal and building renovation initiative.  Dan Packa, a facilities manager who worked with Andrews, came to GAO from the National Archives and Records Administration around 1990.

Dan and I often shared good stories about NARA.  I learned a lot about HVAC and engineering issues at both agencies from him.  He was a key employee at the National Archives when it regained administrative independence after being a part of the General Services Administration from 1949 until April 1, 1985.  You see him receiving an award at a GAO ceremony in the Pension Building (National Building Museum), which previously served as the headquarters of the then General Accounting Office from 1926-1951.   Dan worked at GAO during a time of physical and cultural changes in the workplace, including the move to a smoking-free building.  A NARA RG 121 photo shows GAO’s Law Library in the 1950s.  Notice the ash trays–yes, in a library!

Some GAO ceremonies at the National Building Museum (NBM) featured my history narratives,  in exhibits or multi-media displays.  A 75th anniversary ceremony in the NBM included a video Doug Manor, GAO video expert, and I produced together.   Among the guests attending, my twin sister, Eva, then a Supervisory Archivist at the National Archives.  Comptroller General Charles A. Bowsher, who served from 1981 to 1996, also is a twin.  He and his brother Jack posed for a photo with Eva and me in the NBM after the ceremony.  As Chuck Bowsher put it, “Only twins allowed in this picture!”

Although it isn’t available online, later GAO videos have used elements of my script for the 75th anniversary video, which began by looking at the scope of the agency’s work:

The U.S. General Accounting Office is the nation’s financial watchdog. It serves Congress and the public interest by keeping a close eye on virtually every federal program, activity, and function. Its highly trained evaluators examine everything from missiles to medicine, from inventory control to arms control, from outer space to the inner city. . . .

As GAO’s Historian, I did “fatal flaw” reviews of external products to ensure historical accuracy.  Researched issues for policy makers. Provided historical context for changes in GAO’s work.  You see it with sports (Walter Johnson pitching for the Washington Senators) and cultural information (silk stockings on sale for 65 cents at a department sore on F Street) at the beginning of a 90th anniversary video released in 2011.   The video reflects the two nonpartisan agencies at which I’ve been employed during my archivist and historian career–in various sections you see scenes filmed inside the National Archives, where I once worked and which I now support as a Volunteer.

To understand how people see the agency, I’ve read many books, theses, and articles about GAO.  Perspectives vary, depending on the academic training, experience, interests, and goals of the writers.  The B.A. thesis of undergraduate Justin Oberman, More Bang for the Buck:  The Tenure of Comptroller General Charles Bowsher, provided an unusual look at Congress and GAO as it experienced downsizing in 1996.   A highly respected scholar of public administration, Frederick C. Mosher, analyzed The GAO: The Quest for Accountability in American Government in 1979.

Roger Sperry’s inside look at the Office, in GAO 1966-1981: An Administrative History, includes a useful appendix for outside readers.  It examines the agency’s independence and what then were referred to as executive functions using information from contemporaneous archival materials.

Occasionally, former GAO employees, such as Winslow Wheeler, who later worked as a staffer on Capitol Hill, offer their take in articles or books on issue areas in which they worked.  Wheeler sometimes refers to staff conversations in the GAO cafeteria as he shares his perceptions of GAO management.  Reading some of his commentaries, I’ve thought, what would I have contributed to the employee break-time conversations, had I been at the table?   I probably would have looked for opportunities in random conversation to connect the past and the present.

My work as GAO’s historian included issues such as how the agency handled change.  How and why it moved from voucher auditing to comprehensive auditing after World War II.  The causes and impact of Congressional hearings in 1965 which examined GAO’s reports on defense contracting matters.  Why Comptroller General Elmer B. Staats, who took office in 1966, believed in achieving results without “hitting people over the head.”  And why he spoke about the importance of GAO’s independence even after leaving office.

The impact of the release by Rep. Dante Fascell (D – Florida ) of a GAO report on the Mayaguez incident (the seizure of a U.S. merchant vessel by the Khmer Rouge in 1975) at a key moment during the 1976 presidential campaign.  And why that led during Staats’s tenure to a new GAO  30-day rule for the agency itself releasing disclosable audit reports.

How to report findings as a historian when the recollections of officials differ, some matching contemporaneous records, others not.  (As with GAO’s audit reporting, fairness is a key element in analyzing different perspectives and disparate facts.)  What records at NARA’s presidential libraries show about deliberations in the White House about GAO during the Nixon and Ford administrations in the 1960s and 1970s.

How and why GAO issued Standards for Audit of Governmental Organizations, Programs, Activities & Functions  (the so-called Yellow Book) in 1972.  (There’s a Nixon White House angle to that.)  GAO employee reactions to upwards mobility and equal opportunity issues and lawsuits during the 1970s and 1980s.  And different perspectives on changes in pay and performance during the 1980s and 1990s.   How GAO’s clients, appropriators, and oversight officials on Capitol Hill saw the agency and its work through the years.

During my career, I represented GAO’s policy office and the history function in a focus group for developing a training course on GAO’s Core Values and Culture.  While I can’t discuss the focus group’s conversations, GAO’s aspirational values and culture stand out in the section in the 2018 edition of the Yellow Book on professional judgement, ethics, and independence.

Over the Christmas holidays, I had a chance to talk to several present and former GAO employees over lunch in Washington.  You won’t find them on Twitter.  I attribute that to a culture of restraint and underlying respect for the agency that the employees I know personally reflect, even in retirement.  Because I find such cultural sensitivity admirable, the best way for me to introduce them to my readers here is by using images from the Yellow Book.  And by sharing what their boss, Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, told students about GAO  in 2015 at The LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas (Austin).

His wide-ranging talk with Q&A reflects the great scope of GAO’s work, its relations with the Congress, and how Gene views the Federal agencies and departments GAO audits.  Look for his lighthearted recognition of how nobody welcomes an audit.  And his thoughtful description of GAO’s relationship with executive branch agencies during his tenure as “not antagonistic” but collaborative and respectful.  How GAO used to be criticized for pointing to problems but not offering solutions.  And why it works to include recommendations in its audit reports.

One of my mentors in Federal service once said that it can take two or three years to understand the culture of an agency or department.  It helps if you’ve previously worked in a related field where you used the same or similar job skills and shared the same ethos.  (Internship programs at GAO and at NARA provide opportunities to see what it’s like to work in both organizational cultures.)  Success depends in part on approaching what you don’t yet know with humility and openness to learning.  Accepting that you’ll never know everything.  And that you can contribute to others’ success just as they contribute to yours.

I’m grateful I’ve had the chance to work at two nonpartisan agencies in Washington, NARA and GAO.  Seeking to understand each agency, one executive branch, one legislative branch, has led me to better understand both, a process that involves continual learning.  And to respect cultures of restraint, respect, fairness, which eschew reductive or antagonistic framing.  Seeing the willingness by so many in both agencies to display grace as they handle complex duties in public service in complicated circumstances is inspiring.  Mission and workplace outcomes don’t just depend on rules and regulations or academic learning.  But on intangibles, including the inherent qualities in the best people, up and down the ranks, whom I’ve known and know now in both agencies.

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This entry was posted in Archival issues, Cultural competence, History, People issues. Bookmark the permalink.

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