The Governmental Accounting Standards Board has released its new five-year strategic plan, an effort that kicks off with a series of sweeping surveys of the board's standing with its constituency, as well as a barometer of its progress.

Within the next three months, the board will issue the first in the planned survey series, with the inaugural one establishing a baseline on such questions as the percentages of governments that prepare financial statements in accordance with GASB standards, auditors who are satisfied with the quality of those standards, and users of government financial information who are satisfied with the information they receive.

The new plan, which will guide the board until 2009, offers nothing radically different from past years, but it does include a subtle shift to an enhanced emphasis on communication. Given that the effectiveness of communication is difficult to measure, the board will use the surveys to track and measure results.

Separate polls will go to government financial officers, auditors, citizens and constituent groups using governmental financial statements.

GASB Chairman Robert Attmore said that it's too soon to know which surveys will go out first, but the first should be in the mail before summer.

"We're in the accountability business," Attmore said. "We're encouraging other folks to be more open and transparent and try and communicate better about their performance, service efforts and accomplishments, so I thought it was important that we walk the talk."

Attmore explained that the board's previous strategic plans specified directions, but lacked specific outcomes and performance measures.

Currently the board does not know what percentage of the country's 87,500 government units are actually reporting under GASB standards. Attmore said that whatever the number is, it isn't high enough. He wants to be able to confirm that GASB's communication efforts over the next few years effectively encourage more governments to use generally accepted accounting principles.

GASB also plans a much stronger effort to explain its activities and the use of its standards. The standard-setter's Web site will be upgraded, the members of the Governmental Accounting Standards Advisory Committee will be encouraged and helped to publish articles about the board's activities, and the board will write plain-language articles for publication in constituent periodicals. Communications will be tailored to the interests and capabilities of specific constituencies.

"I think Bob is off to a great start [as the new chair of GASB] by establishing a plan that should be beneficial to state and local governments and the people that use those governments," opined Richard Johnson, a former state auditor of Iowa and a current trustee on the Financial Accounting Foundation, the group that oversees GASB. "It sets out a direction for the next five years and establishes, from the beginning, what the core values of GASB are as it relates to independence, integrity, objectivity and transparency. It sets out goals that are realistic and promotes more effective government and more accountability at state and local levels."

"Communication relationships between GASB and its constituents, supported by clear and regular two-way communication, are essential to setting high-quality standards," the plan stated.

The plan also pushes GASB to participate in a global effort to harmonize standards. GASB is cooperating with the International Federation of Accounting's International Public Sector Accounting Standards Board to move toward more comparable financial reporting.

The plan also calls for GASB to encourage more public participation in the process of developing standards. The board will expand and diversify the pool of people called on to serve on task forces and advisory committees.

"A roadmap saying where you want to go allows you to communicate not only externally but internally, to make sure everybody's on the same page, understands clearly what the goals and objectives are, and has a common understanding of the terms," Attmore said. "Just going through that process for the board and the staff has been real important. It's been a fairly intense, interactive and illuminating process."

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