A Call For Stewardship: Enhancing the Federal Government's Ability to Address Key Fiscal and Other 21st Century Challenges

GAO-08-93SP December 17, 2007
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Since the founding of the republic and the ratification of the Constitution, the U.S. government has evolved to reflect changing circumstances at home and abroad. At the end of George Washington's presidency in 1797, there were four cabinet-level departments--most run by small staffs of civil servants--and five cabinet-level officials, including the Attorney General. Today, there are nearly 30 major federal departments and agencies with cabinet-level officials in the executive branch, and the federal workforce, including military personnel, now totals in the millions. In 1797, U.S. government spending represented about 2 percent of the U.S. economy and now it represents over 20 percent. A quick look at the federal budget reveals how much we have expanded beyond the Constitution's framers' original thoughts and our modest beginnings. In the coming decades, however, our ability to sustain even the constitutionally enumerated responsibilities of the federal government will come under increasing pressure. Without meaningful act on, by 2040 our government could only have the resources to do little more than mail out Social Security checks and pay interest on the massive and growing national debt. This is obviously an unacceptable scenario. Our current long-range fiscal path is clearly imprudent and fiscally unsustainable. It is also alarming given the range of current and emerging problems that require attention: health care, energy dependency, environmental protection, and homeland security, to name a few. These long-term challenges have profound implications for our future economic growth, standard of living, and national security. Unless these issues are effectively addressed, they will surely begin to manage us. What is needed is a more strategic, long-term, comprehensive, and integrated approach to help capitalize on related opportunities and manage related risks within current and expected resource levels.

In February 2007, the Comptroller General transmitted to Congress a new publication entitled Fiscal Stewardship: A Critical Challenge Facing Our Nation (GAO-07-362SP) designed to provide, in a relatively brief and understandable form, selected budget and financial information regarding our nation's current financial condition, long-term fiscal outlook, and possible ways forward. In April 2007, we updated GAO's strategic plan, which describes our goals and strategies for serving Congress for fiscal years 2007 through 2012. We also issued separately a part of it that contains detailed descriptions of the key themes and strategic forces framing our strategic plan and their implications for governance n the 21st century (GAO-07-467SP). This document, as the next piece of that body of reports, lays out a set of analytical tools to help policymakers transform government to better meet the demands of the 21st century. At GAO, we strongly believe that consistent use of these items will help policymakers (1) reach consensus on the outcomes Americans most want their government to achieve, (2) increase transparency and accountability, (3) better prioritize competing demands, (4) make more-informed decisions, and (5) modernize federal operations and management.