Keeping score

Key indicators, accountability and progress

Maximising national progress and strengthening accountability in the 21st century will require both reflection and action. To begin and sustain this process, we will need to answer and continually improve our answers to several basic questions.

At the most basic level, are we as individuals and public servants doing what we can to maximize our contributions to society? Would our consciences be clear tonight if we knew we were going to be held to account for our contributions tomorrow?

Next, are our public institutions, including government, guiding progress in a responsible way? And are our public institutions getting real results with the resources and authorities they have been given, and are they able to prove the progress they claim?

At the same time, are our nations doing everything they can to fight corruption and make the best possible use of their resources? Are policymakers pursuing worthwhile public policy goals in a way that avoids shifting an unfair burden of debt onto our children and grandchildren?

Finally and more broadly, how can the many societies, races and religions that share this planet work together to pursue a greater good that benefits all mankind? In a world that grows smaller every day, it seems to me that every human being – whether it’s a factory worker in China, a banker in Brazil, a farmer in France, or an auditor in America – is increasingly linked by issues of mutual concern.

As comptroller general of the United States, I head the Government Accountability Office, more commonly known as “GAO.” GAO is an independent agency in the legislative branch. Among other things, we’re essentially the supreme audit institution for the US government.

GAO is sometimes called the “investigative arm of congress” or the “congressional watchdog” because GAO helps congress oversee the rest of the US federal government. For more than 80 years, GAO has worked to fight corruption, speak truth to power, and promote transparency in how government does business. Simply stated, we try to make government work better for all Americans. To this end, GAO provides congress with oversight of agency operations, insight into ways to improve government services, and foresight about future and emerging challenges facing our nations and our citizens.

Most GAO reports go beyond the question of whether federal money is being spent appropriately to ask whether federal programs and policies are meeting their objectives and the needs of society. GAO’s work is done primarily at the request of congressional committees or is mandated by public laws. But we also undertake our own audits, research and investigations into issues that we think deserve greater attention and public debate. For example, we have been keeping a close eye on the US government’s worsening financial condition and fiscal imbalance and a range of other challenges, from healthcare to homeland security to human capital.

The scope of GAO’s work today involves virtually everything the US government is doing or thinking about doing anywhere in the world. You might be surprised to know that GAO analysts have been in Iraq recently, looking at everything from military logistics to contracting costs to the UN’s oil-for-food program.

At GAO, our independence is crucial. After all, how can a supreme audit institution be effective without an appropriate degree of independence? To begin with, GAO’s location in the legislative branch gives us some distance from the executive branch agencies that we audit and oversee. On top of that, as comptroller general, I serve a 15-year term, which gives the agency a continuity of leadership that is rare in the US government. The comptroller general can be removed from office only by impeachment, and then only for very specific reasons. This job security allows the comptroller general and GAO to take a long-term view and to bring attention to a range of complex, and sometimes controversial, issues.

GAO is in the knowledge and information business, so we are very familiar with the subject of national indicators. GAO reports have credibility because the information they contain is professional, objective, fact-based, nonpartisan, non-ideological, fair and balanced. (…) These core values – accountability, integrity, and reliability – supplement the professional standards we follow and represent a higher calling.

Although every nation has its own approach to ensuring accountability at various levels, including government, (…) a set of meaningful and reliable key national indicators can be indispensable to that effort.

Timely, useful and reliable information is the single most powerful tool we have to assess progress and strengthen accountability. Supreme audit institutions have a special role to play in developing this information. (…) Frankly, how a nation keeps score counts. Keeping score is the only way to maximise performance and ensure accountability. Facing facts is essential. If a nation doesn’t keep score, how will it know what it is trying to achieve? If a nation doesn’t keep score, how will it know how it’s doing? If a nation doesn’t keep score, how can it find the best solutions and get the best results with limited resources?

From a broader perspective, keeping a nation informed is essential to any culture that values accountability and progress. Honest and transparent reporting also helps to build public trust and confidence both in government and all sectors of society.

This bedrock principle of informing a nation and its citizens is nothing new. It’s a matter of common sense that has been around for centuries. But as we enter a period of new national and global challenges, the need for an informed citizenry has acquired a renewed importance and meaning.

Today, information is collected and shared at the speed of light. Through the Internet, massive amounts of data are now available to anyone, anywhere, anytime. But this information is often fragmented, provided by multiple sources with wide variations in quality, scalability and comparability.

©André Faber

Key national indicators can help us to better understand which programs, policies and functions are working and which are not. When seen in the aggregate and as part of a broader portfolio, key national indicators can provide a fuller and fairer view of how well a nation is doing and how its political leaders are planning for the future. Such information can educate policymakers and the public about the appropriateness, affordability and sustainability of a nation’s fiscal path. Key national indicators can also help elected officials make tough but necessary policy choices.

There’s simply no substitute for understanding the big picture – that is, the position and progress of a nation as a whole. The challenge and the opportunity before us are to build sophisticated information resources and key indicator systems that yield vital insights that transcend specific economic sectors, public and private institutions, and national borders.

There are many areas in which the stakes are high and better knowledge is needed. In the case of the United States, these areas include ensuring fiscal sustainability, enhancing homeland security, stimulating economic growth, creating fulfilling jobs, improving education and innovation, delivering quality and affordable health care, strengthening competitiveness, protecting the environment, and promoting quality of life.

With access to solid facts and results-based information, we increase our chances of developing well-framed questions, conducting appropriate analyses, making good decisions, arriving at effective solutions, and creating accountability for results. In my view, political leaders, the press and the public throughout the world have a vital interest in seeing that key indicator systems are adopted.

Key indicator systems are already in place in several sectors in the United States and in other countries. Despite this progress, the United States still lacks a key indicator system at the national level. As a result, in some areas we’re flying blind, like an airplane pilot without an instrument panel. This must change if we expect to maximise government’s performance and ensure its accountability.

But change does seem to be on the way. The US key national indicators initiative is moving ahead. Also, during the past two years, GAO has been working with the US congress, executive branch agencies and prominent professional groups, such as our national academies, to study the key indicator systems of selected cities, regions, states, nations, and supranational institutions. (...)

The report is called “Informing Our Nation: Improving How to Understand and Assess the USA’s Position and Progress.” Yesterday, we issued this report to the US congress and posted it publicly on the Internet. (…)

In the future, we will not only need to work to overcome geopolitical divisions but also three dominant and often competing professional cultures. The first is the scientific culture, in which the dominant value is knowledge. The second is the political culture, in which the dominant value is power. The third is the policy and strategy culture, in which the dominant value is problem solving. If we are to successfully bridge these three cultures, we will need to build common ground based on shared values like accountability.

By adopting key national indicator systems, we will be able to generate quality information that can help individuals, institutions and nations accelerate progress and make better choices when it comes to their futures. We will also create knowledge that both informs and constrains the exercise of power and ensures that no one is above the law and everyone is accountable for results. (…)

This is an extract from Mr Walker’s speech to the OECD World Forum on Key Indicators, Palermo, November 2004. The full version can be downloaded at

©OECD Observer No 246/247, December 2004-January 2005

Economic data

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Last update: 10 Nov 2020

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