Serving as a management and financial watchdog for the Department of Defense (DOD) is an enormous task, one made all the more daunting in recent years by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the huge growth in military spending.
As the managing director for defense capabilities and management at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Janet St. Laurent has been more than up to the job.
As the head of a diverse, multidisciplinary GAO staff of 250 analysts, St. Laurent is engaged in providing extensive oversight for the largest and most complex organization in the world. Her work has ranged from identifying problems with DOD’s ability to supply troops, repair equipment and handle the drawdown of military forces from Iraq to uncovering mismanagement of contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, finding gaps in language training programs, and urging improvements in personnel and information technology practices.
“As a result of her team’s work highlighting potential challenges in managing the Iraq drawdown, DOD took several actions to improve its planning, such as clarifying roles and responsibilities of military units involved with logistics management and improving its visibility over equipment and containers,” said Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, the head of GAO. “In addition to DOD business operations, Janet’s work has directly affected and benefited soldiers on the ground.”
Under her leadership, GAO uncovered problems with the Army’s testing of body armor and helped ensure that no armor was fielded until it had undergone additional review by an independent expert. Her team’s work also has led to numerous improvements in DOD’s approach to managing more than $3 billion in annual funding to develop new capabilities and training to counter improvised-explosive devices.
“I work across the whole department, and it is a challenge from inside DOD. It would be even more of a challenge for someone from GAO to come in and be constructive,” said Beth McGrath, the Pentagon’s deputy chief management officer. “Janet has been able, through her and her team’s experience and expertise, to navigate to a place that is beneficial for the Department of Defense and for the taxpayer.”
McGrath described the relationship between the GAO, the investigating and watchdog agency for Congress, and DOD, as a “partnership” thanks to St. Laurent.
“DOD does not always agree with exactly what GAO says, and that is par for the course,” said McGrath. “The difference is that we are able to talk through things and understand one another’s perspectives.”
The GAO estimates that the work of St. Laurent’s team has saved taxpayers some $20 billion.
At any given time, St. Laurent supervises 80 GAO studies, meets with her teams on a regular basis to formulate their approach, monitor progress and synthesize the findings. She has developed a solid working relationship with the Pentagon as well as the trust of Congress, where she has testified on many occasions.
“She has been a key player in bringing a comprehensive perspective to the issues,” said Patricia Dalton, the GAO’s chief operating officer. “She has been able to illuminate and influence key decisions related to defense capabilities and has provided timely information to Congress to make those decisions.”
Dalton said St. Laurent has “great strategic thinking skills, great analytical thinking skills, but she also has outstanding people skills.”
St. Laurent said the key to her work is not only pointing out mismanagement and financial irregularities, but coming up with solutions and working with the Pentagon to make sure they are taken seriously.
She said many GAO contacts in the past were with middle management, making it hard to ensure there would follow through. St. Laurent said she has worked to cultivate relationships with senior leaders and to speak directly with them about GAO’s finding and recommendations.
“This has heightened the visibility of our recommendations and increased the actions taken to apply those recommendations,” said St. Laurent.
Dodaro said St. Laurent is successful because she is “a very effective listener and an astute observer of government organizations.”
“She has the ability to understand what the most critical issues are,” said Dodaro. “She is a role model for other people in our organization. I could not give Janet any higher praise.”