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entitled 'How Key National Indicators Can Improve Policymaking and 
Strengthen Democracy' which was released on July 2, 2007.

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How Key National Indicators Can Improve Policymaking and Strengthen 

Presentation by the Honorable David M. Walker: 
Comptroller General of the United States:

OECD’s Second World Forum on Statistics, Knowledge, and Policy: 
Istanbul, Turkey: 
June 26, 2007:

I'm pleased, honored, and fortunate to be here today. My doctor only 
gave the okay for me to travel on Monday afternoon. It's wonderful to 
be here in Istanbul, a beautiful city with an amazing multicultural 
heritage. Rudyard Kipling famously said, "East is east, west is west, 
and never the twain shall meet." But Rudyard Kipling clearly forgot 
about Istanbul, where at the Bosphorus east literally meets west.

My topic today is one that's near and dear to me: key national 
indicators. I gave my first international speech on indicators at the 
OECD's World Indicators Forum in Palermo in 2004, and I've addressed 
indicators in many domestic speeches and congressional testimonies. 
This topic finally seems to be getting the attention it deserves. In 
fact, the International Organization of Supreme Audit Institutions, 
commonly known as INTOSAI, has chosen key national indicators as one of 
two themes for its triennial congress in Mexico City later this year.

From the industrialized world to the developing world, all nations face 
a range of challenges. Some are long-standing and country-specific. But 
increasingly, nations face common challenges that transcend national 
borders, economic sectors, and institutional divides. I'd include here 
vital issues like economic interdependence, environmental protection, 
and global pandemic preparedness. Most of these are long-term 
challenges, which can take years or even decades to address.

At the same time, nations face the reality of finite resources. The 
challenge before us is how we can stretch those resources and get the 
greatest value for the money we spend.

Fortunately, nations today have several tools at their disposal to help 
them achieve these goals. Examples of these tools include strategic 
planning, scenario modeling, and indicator systems. I've chosen to 
focus on key national indicators because of their powerful potential to 
help countries prioritize resource allocation, improve government 
services, and promote accountability and enhance citizen engagement. 
With data from indicator systems, policymakers can better assess their 
current situation, make more informed decisions, and measure their 
progress over time and relative to other nations.

Gross domestic product, unemployment levels, infant mortality rates, 
and air quality indexes are all examples of commonly used indicators. 
As most of you are well aware, a key indicator system pulls together 
these various measures to tell a more complete story about how a city, 
region, state, or nation is doing. Used effectively, information from 
key national indicator systems can help highlight problems and reveal 
opportunities. Such data can also inform agenda setting, improve 
planning, and promote better decision making and oversight. It can 
enhance public understanding and citizen engagement as well.

Several nations around the world already have some form of an indicator 
system. Australia, Canada, Singapore, and the United Kingdom, as well 
as international organizations like the European Union, the U.N., and 
the OECD, all use indicators to measure economic, environmental, and 
social conditions over time. Clearly, indicator systems are helping to 
define what it means to be a leading democracy in the information age.

I know other supreme audit institutions (SAI) around the world are 
pursuing the adoption of key national indicators in their countries. I 
am hopeful that these SAIs will share their knowledge, experiences, and 
lessons learned. INTOSAI comes to mind as a natural clearinghouse for 
this information.

Several U.S. cities and localities are also using indicator systems. 
For example, the city of Boston is involved in a public-private 
partnership that's measuring and evaluating various quality-of-life 
issues. In addition, an indicator system used by a county in Florida 
revealed a lack of basic information on its growing elderly population.

Despite these successes, the United States still lacks an indicator 
system at the national level. Every year, our federal government spends 
almost $3 trillion on a wide range of activities, provides hundreds of 
billions of dollars worth of tax preferences, and issues thousands of 
pages of regulations. Yet what's astonishing is the federal government 
does all this without knowing which programs and policies are making a 
real difference and which ones aren't. It's a little like an airplane 
pilot flying at night without an instrument panel. This must change!:

The simple truth is it matters how a nation keeps score. Keeping score 
provides a clear sense of what a nation has achieved and what needs to 
be done. Indicators can reliably measure progress on a national level. 
With such fact-based information, public officials are more likely to 
ask well-framed questions and accurately analyze issues. They're also 
more likely to propose sound solutions and make wise decisions on 
appropriations, authorization, and oversight.

In countries that have used key national indicators, we've seen some 
improved government performance and better use of limited resources. In 
other words, we know that key national indicators can help a country 
better meet the needs of its citizens.

By educating policymakers and the public, key national indicator 
systems can also help to limit abuses of power. As the U.S. Supreme 
Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, "Sunshine is the best 
disinfectant." Indictors can shed much-needed light on the vast breadth 
of government operations today.

With more honest and transparent reporting, it's clearer how various 
government programs and policies are working. Transparency has a 
remarkable ability to reduce waste, prevent corruption, and shift 
resources where they're truly needed. The data provided by indicator 
systems can help to ensure that no one is above the law and everyone is 
accountable for results.

Comprehensive, objective, and reliable information that's readily 
available to the public can also put pressure on politicians to make 
difficult but necessary policy choices. With greater public awareness, 
elected officials are more likely to consider the greater good, the 
bigger picture, and the longer term. With greater public awareness, 
elected officials are less likely to shirk their stewardship 
responsibilities to future generations.

Finally, the appropriate use of key national indicators can build 
public trust and confidence in government. Policy solutions backed by 
credible, objective information are more likely to gain public support. 
Indicators can help average individuals better understand complex 
issues and may encourage greater citizen engagement in the public 
policy process.

The increased transparency produced by indicators may even prompt 
voters to make better choices at the polls. In my view, an informed 
electorate is more likely to accept candidates who are prepared to make 
difficult choices. An informed and engaged electorate is also more 
likely to accept some degree of shared sacrifice today in order to help 
create a better tomorrow.

Governments in countries that lack key national indicators are more 
likely to remain inefficient and ineffective. Too many public officials 
in Washington and elsewhere suffer from myopia and tunnel vision. 
There's a tendency to focus on the problem of the moment. And all too 
often, the quick fix leads to overspending and overregulation.

For more than 80 years, my agency, the U.S. Government Accountability 
Office (GAO), has been promoting transparency and speaking truth to 
power. Some GAO reports look at whether taxpayer dollars are being 
spent appropriately. Other GAO reports examine whether government 
programs are meeting their objectives and the needs of society. 
Increasingly, GAO has been seeking to alert policymakers to emerging 
trends and future problems, such as the rising cost of health care and 
funding shortfalls in the nation's pension system.

As professional services organizations with extensive experience in 
statistics, supreme audit institutions like GAO can play a key role in 
promoting the adoption of indicator systems. SAIs can also make a range 
of contributions to indicator system efforts, such as suggesting ways 
to ensure the reliability and reasonableness of the data being 

As many of you know, GAO has been leveraging its knowledge and 
credibility to promote an indicator system at the national level in the 
United States. Many of the key players in this initiative are either 
former GAO executives like Chris Hoenig and Jane Ross or members of one 
of GAO's advisory boards, like Harvey Feinberg.

In fact, the key national indicator effort in America really got its 
start at a forum GAO co-hosted with the National Academy of Sciences 
several years ago. This led to the creation of a nonprofit group, the 
State of the USA, Inc., whose mission is to provide the American people 
with quality information on key changes in societal, economic, and 
environmental conditions. State of the USA has received grants from 
several major foundations, and it has a prototype Web site under way. 
The State of the USA initiative has come a good distance, but there is 
a lot of work to do and the best is yet to come.

As I said earlier, I've been speaking out on key national indicators 
for some time. And not too long ago, GAO issued a comprehensive study 
comparing the use of indicator systems across various jurisdictions. 
The report assessed lessons learned and provided options for Congress 
to consider in establishing a key national indicator system for the 
United States.

GAO has also been working closely with Congress, federal agencies, key 
foundations, and prominent professional associations, particularly our 
National Academies, to advance this issue. I'm a big believer in 
partnering for progress by building bridges across government and among 
various sectors. In my experience, government, private industry, and 
nonprofit groups can all benefit from working together on projects of 
mutual interest and concern. That's certainly true in the case with key 
national indicators, whose benefits will be felt throughout American 

While GAO remains a strong supporter of key national indicators for the 
United States, there has to be a limit to our advocacy efforts in order 
to preserve our institutional independence. Going forward, others will 
have to take the lead on this issue. This doesn't mean GAO won't be 
involved. We will. In this regard, GAO and a consortium of 
organizations from several sectors will continue to encourage Congress 
to pass related legislation in order to help make this important 
concept a reality.

In closing, an African proverb says tomorrow belongs to the people who 
prepare for it today. With key national indicator systems, nations 
everywhere now have a powerful tool to help improve government today 
while helping to create a better tomorrow. In my view, it's an 
opportunity that no government can afford to miss.

Thank you for your time and attention.

[End of section]

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