GAO opens training center for watchdogs

Center for Audit Excellence Director Janet St. Laurent speaks with Emily Kopp

The Government Accountability Office has opened a consultancy to share its expertise with other government watchdogs here and abroad.

The Center for Audit Excellence will offer both workshops and customized training to federal managers; local, state and tribal governments; international organizations and foreign nations. It expects to finalize agreements with its first customers in the coming weeks.

“We want to be working with organizations to really enhance their capacity,” said Janet St. Laurent, the center’s director. “We want to make sure we’re having long-lasting, sustaining impact on these organizations.”

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GAO will offer a mix of skills-based training and capacity-building services, she said. She expects the largest demand to come from developing nations with relatively young and small government auditing bodies.

“In particular, audit organizations in developing countries need assistance in expanding the types of audits they conduct, developing good quality assurance processes and enhancing their skills and capabilities in a lot of ways,” St. Laurent said.

The center will offer classes in areas where there is large domestic demand. GAO recently updated the Green Book, its reference guide for implementing internal controls in the federal government. The agency has received many requests for in-depth training on the book, she said. Information technology auditing is another area where St. Laurent expects to see high demand for assistance.

The center’s offerings are a natural extension of GAO’s work in developing audit and internal control standards for organizations that accept federal money, she said.

“The more we can provide training and make sure these standards are well understood, the better they’ll be applied in audits that are being undertaken domestically, and we believe that will have an overall positive impact on accountability and the use of federal funds,” she said.

The center will remain true to the agency’s expertise in government auditing, she said. In that way, it will avoid competing with nonprofits and other training organizations that mostly focus on private-sector auditing.

GAO has been an active leader in the international auditing scene. A 2010 survey by the International Organisation of Supreme Audit Institutions revealed that most government auditing institutions were hungry for capacity-building services, St. Laurent said. GAO has received requests for training over the years. But it had no way of meeting that demand until Congress passed a law in December. That law gave the agency permission to charge fees for its services.

Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, the head of GAO, won over lawmakers in budget hearings by convincing them that the demand for GAO’s services was so large that the center could be self-sufficient.

“We’ve been trying to think of ways to exploit our greatest assets,” Dodaro said at the time, referring to his staff.

But lawmakers wanted a guarantee that the center would not detract from GAO’s central mission of producing investigations and audits to inform Congress’ own work, St. Laurent said. Rather than draw from its pool of current employees, GAO will bring back retired GAO auditors and managers to teach workshops and work on projects that fit their areas of expertise. It currently has a roster of more than 80 former GAO employees interested in teaching and consulting, she said.

St. Laurent fits into that category herself. She led the GAO’s defense capabilities and management team until January 2014, while teaching at GAO’s internal training center on the side. She said she came out of retirement because she found the opportunity to share her knowledge with an international group of peers “personally rewarding.”

The Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, the group that represents federal inspectors general, runs a similar training institute for employees of agency watchdogs. GAO does not intend to overlap with the council or any other training body, St. Laurent said. The center may offer services for federal managers, but she expects it to steer clear of agency inspector general offices.