Relmond Van Daniker, a longtime leader in government accounting, retired this month. Van Daniker's career is an impressive one: 18 years as the executive director of the National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers and Treasurers; 30 years as a government accounting professor at the University of Kentucky; and, most recently, 11 years as CEO of the Association of Government Accountants (AGA). Even those who don't know Van Daniker by name will know him by his work, primarily that he helped develop the standard by which state government finance reports adhere -- the "generally accepted accounting principles," commonly referred to as GAAP.
The mark Van Daniker leaves on the AGA is a deep one. During his time at the Alexandria, Va.-based association, he more than doubled its budget to $7 million, increased staff by more than half and was the driving force behind the Citizen-Centric Reporting initiative, a template that distills the most important and complicated financial and performance information about a jurisdiction into a four-page, easy-to-read document. I visited Van Daniker before he returned to Kentucky as he reflected on his career and hopes for the field. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
About a hundred or so jurisdictions now are doing citizen-centric reporting, including huge governments such as the state of Texas and smaller ones such as Scottsdale, Ariz. Why did you start the push for citizen-centric reporting in 2006 and where do you see it heading?
I think the government has a responsibility to tell citizens what's going on in a form that citizens can understand. I don't want to create a scenario where you have to learn accounting to understand these big thick financial statements -- I want to get it down to four pages. If I had my way, I'd have legislation to require all federal agencies do citizen-centric reports because, if they did them, the state and locals would have to as well. My concern is, if it's not required, it's going to take another 10 to 15 years to really get governments doing this. Right now, there are a lot of excuses, like "people aren't asking for it," "it's too hard," "it takes too much time." That's a bunch of hooey. You could do this very easily.
How has the AGA changed during your tenure?
The AGA was not on the map. You'd have thought that it stood for the American Gas Association. But I'm here to do something, I'm not here to sit around and collect a paycheck. And I believe we have the responsibility to be leaders. We have state and federal members so the question is, how do you get the groups together? The feds won't listen to the states and vice versa. But they might listen to somebody in the middle. [That's us.] Today we have regular talks with the Office of Management and Budget, with regulators at [the Department of] Treasury and with most of the state CFOs. They all believe in what we're trying to do.
You have pushed for more graduate-level work in government accounting but interest has been so subdued that the AGA couldn't find takers on its scholarship for enough government accounting doctoral candidates. What are your fears about the future of the field?
There's this big push from universities to be in the top 20 -- to get students published in the more popular, renowned journals rather than the applied journals. As a result, we don't have anybody doing research in government accounting. I don't see things changing dramatically in the future. That's a problem, especially with procurement. If the government doesn't have people as good as the contract community, they're going to win and the people lose. I want the government side to be as good as the private-sector side and it's not that way now.
New pension accounting standards are in. New reporting standards on retiree health care are in the works. What do you see as the next big change in government finance reporting?
Some organizations are hellbent on making sure we don't get into performance reporting [standards suggested by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board but not made a requirement in GAAP.] And they've been successful so far, but I think that could change. I've asked my students: "Would you rather me tell you we spent the $1 million on this and that's how it's supposed to be? Or would you rather me show you how we spent the $1 million and what happened?" It's a no brainer. There's increasing pressure now on transparency, on metrics. The question really is how long can you keep your finger in the dyke and keep the water back?
This article has been updated to reflect Relmond Van Daniker's full last name.