August 4, 2010

Transferable Skills Part 2: Getting to Know Your Government, or "A Librarian's Love Affair with the Government Accountability Office"

One of the best parts of this job is getting to know how our government works, and in particular how it works with non-profits.

My employer is a non-profit membership association, a 501(c)(3) operating on members' dues, conference and training revenues, publications income, and some federal funds. The federal monies are harder to understand and this requires several lessons in government I haven't completed yet, although I have begun my study. Some of the federal funding comes through earmarks, one of those words, like lobbyist, that some think connote waste or inappropriate spending until you find out all the different things they pay for and then you realize that the terms are just neutral: all kinds of groups and projects, including libraries and librarians, could be funded this way.

I have also heard a thing or three about "appropriations" and "authorizations" when it comes to how some of our projects are funded, and sometimes it depends on whether the project is funded by DOT, DOL, HHS or USDA. This part is a bit trickier and I won’t pretend I understand it yet.

Then there is the much beloved set of terms that describes the contractual relationship our association has with a given federal agency for a given project. This could be a “grant,” or a "contract" or a "cooperative agreement" or other type of relationship. Knowing the quirks of all these arrangements gives me great insight into how other projects run in Washington. Yes, it's all much more complex than I could have imagined growing up in the Midwest when the White House seemed like a strange majestic icon. Now that I work two blocks from it, and realize how much smaller it is than my office building, I have a much different perspective about what goes on there, at the other end of the Mall, and in all these buildings in between.

One great resource I have used to educate myself about the actual workings of government as they affect our association's work is the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and its stellar report services. Each week I get a handful of alerts of GAO reports, legal decisions and testimony before Congressional subcommittees. These resources cover topics I have chosen through the GAO alert service (transportation, education, and information management, to name three). I also get a Month-in-Review email that I pore over to find any great pubs I may have missed.Geek alert: I love reading GAO reports. This is great writing, folks. And it's not mystery writing: the report titles tell you exactly what the upshot of the report is, the highlights pages (always first after the title) are clear, consistent and readable, and these reports are expertly edited, formatted and abstracted (bonus!). They make reference to fantastic federal resources such as the National Youth in Transition Database, and each report comes with a list of relevant acronyms.

In addition to learning the actual subject matter of a particular report, you get to know how government accountability works in general and you begin to intuit what other processes and entities have been investigated so the GAO reports database becomes a go-to resource for many topics. You will find yourself thinking, "The GAO probably did a report on that; I will look it up and track it down."

The GAO site announced last week that it has gone mobile. This means I can spend even more of my free time reading reports like my July selection (which I did finish!), and this great one selected as my August must-read GAO report. I once posted a GAO report to my old apartment building's list-serve (about some topic that was pressing in our community at the time) and my neighbor said, "I work for the GAO and I know how much goes into those reports. I am so glad somebody actually reads them!" Well, I am so glad somebody actually writes them.

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