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  • Mike Martinez

Public Service Exemplars: "A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement": Elmer B. Staats

Elmer Boyd Staats was once described as a “pragmatic agent of good government.” During a career that began during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt through the George H. W. Bush administration, Staats was a true believer in the idea that government can be an instrument for bettering citizens’ lives. Today he is remembered for his work as comptroller general of the United States from 1966 until his retirement in 1981.

He was born on June 16, 1914, in tiny Richfield, Kansas, in Morton County, a community tucked into the southwestern corner of the state. In the 1910 census, Richfield was home to 53 people. Elmer was one of eight children born to Wesley Forest and Maude Goodall Staats. The family earned its living as farmers.

He attended Sylvia High School in Sylvia, Kansas, a town of 540 people situated 200 miles from Richfield. Staats was valedictorian of the 1931 graduating class. From there, he enrolled in McPherson College, a small private liberal arts institution 60 miles from Sylvia. Staats graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1935.

He then enrolled at the University of Kansas, where he changed his career goal. “I had planned for a career in journalism, but this was during the Depression years so I hoped maybe somehow I could get more directly involved in dealing with some of the problems,” Staats recalled in an interview. Journalism was not a practical career. During the heady days of the New Deal, government programs could provide relief to citizens reeling from the effects of a calamitous economy, and this career path seemed the most useful.

Staats earned a master’s degree in political science and economics from the University of Kansas and later, a doctorate from the University of Minnesota. Staats came of age during the Depression. They were desperate times, and they shaped his world view. He was not intent on a public service career, but he accepted any job that he could find to support himself in the 1930s. Before he commenced his doctoral studies, he briefly worked as an intern for the Kansas Legislative Council before landing a job with the Public Administration Service in Chicago.

During his third year studying at Minnesota, Staats earned a fellowship at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., to finish writing his dissertation on administering social security. He earned his Ph.D. in 1939. Staats lived with 17 other students at the Brookings Institution. “We received $30 a month, room and board—and a squash court,” he said. It was an exciting time to work on public issues in the nation’s capital.

It was also during this time that Elmer Staats met Margaret Shaw Rich, the daughter of a Pennsylvania congressman, Robert Fleming. She was a graduate of Brown University visiting her father in Washington. Staats was immediately smitten. “I met her in April, we were married in September,” he later explained. They couple was married for 52 years, and reared three children.

In June 1939, Staats began working as a junior staffer in the Bureau of the Budget. As he recalled, he joined the Bureau “right on the heels of a major study that President Roosevelt had ordered by a Committee on Administrative Management which concluded that the President, they said, needs help.” As a result of this study, the administration organized the Executive Office of the President (EOP) to assist the president in staffing needs. Within the EOP, the Bureau of the Budget was tasked with providing the president with information necessary to set and implement his budgetary goals. “President Roosevelt made a great point of our being moved out of the Treasury Department,” Staats explained. “Symbolically, he did not like the idea of our being regarded as a part of the Treasury Department rather than the Executive Office.”

The Bureau had only 35 staffers when Staats joined the nascent organization. As one of the junior men, he learned the ropes from the ground up. He stayed in the agency for 25 years, advancing from a lowly management analyst to a section chief to assistant to the director,

to executive assistant to the director, to assistant to the director, and finally, deputy director of the bureau. He saw his career as a noble calling. Virtually everyone agreed that Staats was an enthusiastic proponent of government service and the virtues of an activist bureaucracy.

Staats received superb training during the years of the Great Depression and the Second World War. “Jim Webb was appointed Director of the Budget in 1945,” Staats recalled in an interview. “He came out of the Treasury Department and asked me shortly thereafter to come over and be his assistant. I was there for about a year. Then I became the head of something called the Office of Legislative Reference which had responsibility for coordinating the agencies’ views on both legislative proposals and enrolled bills.” By 1950, President Truman had appointed Staats the deputy director of the agency.

He spent two decades at the Bureau of the Budget, although from 1953 until 1958, he served on the National Security Council. Staats remarked that “I had been involved in helping to organize a coordinating group in the National Security Council when President Eisenhower came in. They decided to go ahead and formalize this, and they had both a Planning Board and an Operations Board. I headed up the Operations Board. I was there for five years and went back as a Deputy Director of the Budget.”

In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Staats to serve as comptroller general of the United States, which made him the head of the General Accounting Office (GAO). Staats recalled that “President Johnson asked me if I would be interested in coming to GAO. I told him that he, having been a senator, knew a lot more about GAO than I did. I said you will have to decide. Well, he said you come back and see me, and we will decide. But the next thing I knew, he had announced the appointment and there I was. So that is how I got here.” It was a fifteen-year-term.

At the swearing-in ceremony, the president remarked that Staats “has served this government faithfully and well for 26 years. He has been Deputy Director of the Bureau of the Budget under four different Presidents. Whether they were Democrat or Republican, he served them all with equal fidelity and equal wisdom. And that is why I chose him for this new assignment.”

Aside from Staats’s long resume, he was temperamentally well suited to his new position. “He believes in our system of government,” Johnson insisted. “He has confidence in the wisdom of the Congress. He doesn’t dwell on the minor imperfections that are always the part of any human system. He declares his faith in the hopes of this nation, and in the people who try to faithfully serve it.”

Staats understood despite his long years of experience, he knew little of GAO’s history, internal operations, or standard operating procedures. He asked President Johnson what he expected from the comptroller. “Congress passes a law and I sign it,” the president told him. “And I want you to make sure the laws and programs are carried out as both the president and Congress intended.”

Then and now, the GAO is an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress and is the government’s “accountability watchdog.” (In recognition of this role, the General Accounting Office was renamed the Government Accountability Office in 2004.) In Staats’s opinion, is a “problem-solving organization.” GAO officials must watch over government programs to ensure that they are implemented effectively and efficiently in accordance with the original legislative mandate. As Staats talked with GAO staff members, the “concept of three-way accountability kept coming through these discussions, that is, financial accountability, what they called managerial accountability, and program accountability.”

Staats faced a daunting task. The GAO of 1966 was 45 years old, but it had not lived up to its potential. The agency suffered from a lack of coordinated organization. Some tasks were never completed, while others were assigned to multiple actors, leading to wasted, expensive, duplicative actions. In some ways, the GAO was three separate agencies—an international agency, a defense agency, and a civilian agency. The agencies pursued different priorities and competed for scarce resources. Perhaps worst of all, the agency was seen as irrelevant to the work of Congress, a useless agency that produced reports that no one read.

Staats understood that he would have to institute major changes, but he was careful to consult with agency personnel and move slowly. He did not want to alienate his colleagues. His goal was to transform the agency from a narrowly focused accounting branch of government into a broader multidisciplinary agency that would evaluate programs to ensure managerial and financial efficiency. This sea change required buy-in from numerous parties.

To increase GAO’s relevance to Congress, Staats immediately increased the number of reports the agency generated. When he joined the agency in 1966, Staats found that approximately eight percent of GAO’s work was geared toward meeting the needs of Congress. At the end of his tenure in 1981, the agency was devoting between 40 and 50 percent of its time working on reports and data for Congress.

At the outset, Staats sought to work with existing staff, especially when it came to promotions. He realized that bringing in outsiders to remake the agency would meet fierce resistance, and might retard his reform efforts. At the same time, when it came time to recruit personnel, Staats broadened the scope of new hires beyond accountants and lawyers. He deliberately sought out engineers, systems analysts, and program evaluators, setting of goal that at least half of new employees must be from these professional fields.

Staats appreciated the need to stay current with human resources trends. He created a task force on women and minorities. As part of this effort, he addressed disparities in compensation and the dearth of opportunities for advancement. He also created many professional development and training opportunities for GAO staffers.

Because it was imperative that GAO staffers understand congressional needs and desires, Staats created the Office of Congressional Relations (OCR). Four or five OCR employees frequently “walk the Hill,” meeting with members of Congress and their staffs to keep abreast of events and actions. For his part, Staats often met with members of Congress. He also testified before congressional committees. As the GAO produced new reports, Staats increasingly relied on his staff to join him in testifying before Congress.

Staats set out to change the GAO’s culture, but he was careful to move incrementally. It was important to solicit and receive frequent employee feedback. He scheduled employee development sessions to build team cohesion and provided awards for superior service.

“Change—you can’t force it on people,” Staats reflected. “You need to explain exactly what you want to accomplish and bring the organization with you. We continually explained what we wanted to achieve and where we wanted to go. We had endless discussions. Many staff members criticized our efforts and the amount of time spent talking. In the end, it was worth it in the consensus that was achieved.”

He favored a participatory management style, eschewing top-down pronouncements in favor of a collaborate approach to decision-making. Instead of organizing the agency using the traditional hierarchical structure favored by most bureaucracies, Staats preferred to reorganize GAO into a series of more-or-less co-equal committees, much as Congress did with its committee structure. He sometimes relied on small task forces to explore issues in-depth before reporting back to agency personnel. This flat structure allowed GAO staffers to move relatively quickly to meet the needs of Congress and its professional staff.

Staats’s predecessor as comptroller, Joseph Campbell, had discouraged employees from joining professional associations lest the GAO’s independence be compromised. Staats reversed this edict, arguing that staffers should mingle with professionals outside of the GAO. Agency independence would not be threatened if staffers participated in professional groups. To help achieve this goal. Staats revitalized the Joint Financial Management Improvement Program (JFMIP), a joint undertaking of the GAO, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), and the Department of the Treasury.

The JFMIP had existed since 1948, but it had operated without any staff or clear mission. Staats encouraged his employees to participate in JFMIP. To assist in this effort, Staats created the office of executive secretary to handle logistics. He subsequently established the office of the executive director with a small staff that would take over JFMIP management. Under this new plan, GAO, OPM, OMB, and Treasury personnel met quarterly to discuss methods for improving financial-management practices.

With its growing emphasis on accountability during Staats’s tenure at the agency, it was little wonder that the GAO undertook a review of numerous government programs using the three-way accountability—financial, managerial and program accountability—model. The first use of the model occurred when GAO examined the effectiveness of federal antipoverty programs created during President Johnson’s Great Society initiatives during the mid-to-late 1960s. In 1967, Congress amended the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and directed the GAO to analyze the antipoverty programs. Some members of Congress worried that providing federal funds to community agencies in lieu of channeling the money to city governments would lead to waste, inefficiency, and possible corruption. Programs providing job training, the Head Start program, and Meals on Wheels received heightened scrutiny.

Staats was surprised when Congress directed the agency to undertake this task. “Our experience in evaluating program effectiveness was practically nil at that point,” he subsequently noted. The question was how the agency should start the review, and which standards should apply. “Well, of course, you go back to the statute and the committee reports. That is where you always start on an audit of a program. Then you go to the agencies to see how they interpreted their mandate and then you go to their appropriations reports. All these things play a part in defining the objectives of a program. We had 16 months to do this. They fixed that in the statute. We made our report on schedule.”

Staats recalled that the GAO “recommended that the rural Job Corps [program] be phased out and put them in the urban areas.” On paper the rural Job Corps program appeared to be a well-designed program to cure joblessness by providing poor young people with a path toward economic self-sufficiency. Yet the program wasn’t working as the designers hoped it would.

GAO found that “the attrition rate was very high in the rural Job Corps program. People were pulled out of the inner city-Philadelphia, New York, and Washington-and they were very unhappy, they got homesick, and they ran away as soon as they could. In other words: the attrition rate was very high—that was one of the things we were interested in.”

Elmer Staats retired at the end of his 15-year-term in 1981. Following his retirement, he served as president and eventually chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation. He held that position until his death in July 2011. He also served on the board of trustees of the National Institute of Public Affairs from 1969 until 1977, during his time as the comptroller. Before he joined GAO, Staats was chairman of the Conference on the Public Service at the Brookings Institution from 1958 until 1960. Later, he served on the board of directors of the Eisenhower Foundation, the board of trustees of the Kerr Foundation, the board of trustees of the George C. Marshall Foundation, and the board of overseers for the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award.

Always interested in education, Staats taught at various times at several colleges and universities, including American University and George Washington University. From 1947 until 1953, he served on the advisory council of the Department of Politics at Princeton University. from 1974 until 1980, he was on the visiting committee of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Staats served on the board of trustees for McPherson College for 10 years beginning in 1969. served on the board of trustees for American University from 1966 until 1980.

His awards and citations were almost too numerous to mention. Staats was awarded honorary degrees from eight universities. He also received the Rockefeller Public Service Award, the Productivity Award of the American Productivity Center, the Medal of Honor of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, the Presidential Citizens Medal, the Hubert H. Humphrey Medal as well as Common Cause’s Public Service Achievement Award. Staats was elected to the Accounting Hall of Fame in 1981.

He died in Washington, D.C., on July 23, 2011. He was 97 years old. Elmer B. Staats had come a long way from his modest beginnings in Richfield, Kansas.

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