Government Accountability Office
Seal of the Government Accountability Office
Logo of the Government Accountability Office
Flag of the Government Accountability Office
|Formed||July 1, 1921|
|Headquarters||441 G St., NW|
Washington, D.C., U.S. 20548
|Annual budget||$557 million (2011)|
|Measurable benefits of GAO work total $49.9 billion, a return of $87 for every dollar invested; at the end of FY 2010, over 80% of the GAO recommendations made in FY 2006 had been implemented.|
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is a legislative branch government agency that provides auditing, evaluation, and investigative services for the United States Congress. It is the supreme audit institution of the federal government of the United States. It identifies its core "mission values" as: accountability, integrity, and reliability.
Powers of GAO
Work of GAO is done at the request of congressional committees or subcommittees or is mandated by public laws or committee reports. It also undertakes research under the authority of the Comptroller General. It supports congressional oversight by:
- auditing agency operations to determine whether federal funds are being spent efficiently and effectively;
- investigating allegations of illegal and improper activities;
- reporting on how well government programs and policies are meeting their objectives;
- performing policy analyses and outlining options for congressional consideration;
- issuing legal decisions and opinions;
- advising Congress and the heads of executive agencies about ways to make government more efficient and effective.
Products of GAO
Products of GAO include the following:
- reports and written correspondence;
- testimonies and statements for the record, where the former are delivered orally by one or more of GAO senior executives at a congressional hearing and the latter are provided for inclusion in the congressional record;
- briefings, which are usually given directly to congressional staff members;
- legal decisions and opinions resolving bid protests and addressing issues of appropriations law as well as opinions on the scope and exercise of authority of federal officers.
GAO also produce special publications on specific issues of general interest to many Americans, such as its report on the fiscal future of the United States, GAO's role in the federal bid protest process, and critical issues for congressional consideration related to improving the nation's image abroad.
The GAO was established as the General Accounting Office by the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921. The act required the head of the GAO to
"investigate, at the seat of government or elsewhere, all matters relating to the receipt, disbursement, and application of public funds, and shall make to the President … and to Congress … reports [and] recommendations looking to greater economy or efficiency in public expenditures".
According to the GAO's current mission statement, the agency exists to support the Congress in meeting its constitutional responsibilities and to help improve the performance and ensure the accountability of the federal government for the benefit of the American people.
The name was changed in 2004 to Government Accountability Office by the GAO Human Capital Reform Act to better reflect the mission of the office. The GAO's auditors conduct not only financial audits, but also engage in a wide assortment of performance audits.
Over the years, the GAO has been referred to as "The Congressional Watchdog" and "The Taxpayers' Best Friend" for its frequent audits and investigative reports that have uncovered waste and inefficiency in government. News media often draw attention to the GAO's work by publishing stories on the findings, conclusions and recommendations of its reports. Members of Congress also frequently cite the GAO's work in statements to the press, congressional hearings, and floor debates on proposed legislation. In 2007 the Partnership for Public Service ranked the GAO second on its list of the best places to work in the federal government and Washingtonian magazine included the GAO on its 2007 list of great places to work in Washington, a list that encompasses the public, private, and non-profit sectors.
The GAO is headed by the Comptroller General of the U.S., a professional and non-partisan position in the U.S. government. The comptroller general is appointed by the president, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, for a 15-year, non-renewable term. The president selects a nominee from a list of at least three individuals recommended by an eight-member bipartisan, bicameral commission of congressional leaders. During such term, the comptroller general has standing to pursue litigation to compel access to federal agency information. The comptroller general may not be removed by the president, but only by Congress through impeachment or joint resolution for specific reasons. Since 1921, there have been only seven comptrollers general, and no formal attempt has ever been made to remove a comptroller general.
Labor-management relations became fractious during the nine-year tenure of the seventh comptroller general, David M. Walker. On September 19, 2007, GAO analysts voted by a margin of two to one (897–445), in a 75% turnout, to establish the first union in the GAO's 86-year history. The analysts voted to affiliate with the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE), a member union of the AFL-CIO. There are more than 1,800 analysts in the GAO analysts bargaining unit; the local voted to name itself IFPTE Local 1921, in honor of the date of the GAO's establishment. On February 14, 2008, the GAO analysts' union approved its first-ever negotiated pay contract with management; of just over 1,200 votes, 98 percent were in favor of the contract.
The GAO also establishes standards for audits of government organizations, programs, activities, and functions, and of government assistance received by contractors, nonprofit organizations, and other nongovernmental organizations. These standards, often referred to as Generally Accepted Government Auditing Standards (GAGAS), are to be followed by auditors and audit organizations when required by law, regulation, agreement, contract, or policy. These standards pertain to auditors' professional qualifications, the quality of audit effort, and the characteristics of professional and meaningful audit reports.
In 1992 the GAO hosted XIV INCOSAI, the fourteenth triennial convention of the International Organization of Supreme Audit Institutions (INTOSAI).
GAO is a United States government electronic data provider, as all of its reports are available on its website, except for certain reports whose distribution is limited to official use in order to protect national security. The variety of topics reported on range from Federal Budget and Fiscal Issues to Financial Management, Education, Retirement Issues, Defense, Homeland Security, Administration of Justice, Health Care, Information Management and Technology, Natural Resources, Environment, International Affairs, Trade, Financial Markets, Housing, Government Management and Human Capital. GAO often produces highlights of its reports that serve as a statement for the record for various subcommittees of the United States Congress.
Most GAO studies and reports are initiated by requests from members of Congress, including requests mandated in statute, and so reflect concerns of current political import, for example to study the impact of a government-wide hiring freeze. Many reports are issued periodically and take a long view of U.S. agencies' operations. GAO also produces annual reports on key issues such as Duplication and Cost savings and High-Risk Update.
The GAO prepares some 900 reports annually. GAO publishes reports and information relating to, inter alia:
Financial Statements of the U.S. government
Each year the GAO issues an audit report on the financial statements of the United States Government. The 2010 Financial Report of the United States Government was released on December 21, 2010. The accompanying press release states that the GAO 'cannot render an opinion on the 2010 consolidated financial statements of the federal government, because of widespread material internal control weaknesses, significant uncertainties, and other limitations'.
U.S. Public Debt
As part of its initiative to advocate sustainability, the GAO publishes a Federal Fiscal Outlook Report, as well as data relating to the deficit. The US deficit is presented on a cash rather than accruals basis, although the GAO notes that the accrual deficit 'provides more information on the longer-term implications of the government's annual operations'. In FY 2010, the US federal government had a net operating cost of $2,080 billion, although since this includes accounting provisions (estimates of future liabilities), the cash deficit is $1,294 billion.
Quinquennial Strategic Plan
The most recent GAO plan, for 2010-2015, sets out four goals, namely to address:
- Current and Emerging Challenges to the Well-being and Financial Security of the American People;
- Changing Security Threats and the Challenges of Global Interdependence;
- Transformation of the Federal Government to Address National Challenges;
- Maximization of the Value of the GAO.
Forensic Audits and Investigative Service (FAIS)
The Forensic Audits and Investigative Service (FAIS) team provides Congress with high-quality forensic audits and investigations of fraud, waste, and abuse; other special investigations; and security and vulnerability assessments. Its work cuts across a diverse array of government programs administered by IRS, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Homeland Security, among others.
GAO and technology assessment
After the closing of the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in 1995, Congress directed GAO to conduct a technology assessment (TA) pilot program. Between 2002 and 2006, four reports were completed– use of biometrics for border security, cyber security for critical infrastructure protection, technologies for protecting structures in wildland fires, and cargo container security technologies. In the first report, GAO found that while biometrics technologies could be used to secure the border, they had limitations in fingerprinting and facial recognition systems. An immediate impact of the report was a congressional testimony on the use of biometrics which, in turn, helped to inform U.S. national security reform efforts. GAO reports, which are made available to the public, have become essential vehicles for understanding science and technology (S&T) implications of policies considered by the Congress.
Since 2007, Congress has established a permanent TA function within GAO. This new operational role augments GAO's performance audits related to S&T issues, including effectiveness and efficiency of U.S. federal programs. In 2010, GAO joined European Parliamentary Technology Assessment (EPTA) as an associate member. In the last three years, GAO has completed TA reports on three topics, the most recent one being released in 2011 – rail security, climate engineering, and alternate neutron detectors. In the climate engineering report, Congress requested GAO to examine three areas: the current S&T state of climate engineering, views of experts on the future of climate engineering research, and potential public responses to climate engineering. When the GAO receives a request to conduct TA, it follows five phases: Acceptance, Planning, Data Gathering and Analysis, Product development and Distribution and Results. Phases one and two include selecting the topic and initiating the TA plan while the other ones are respectively: conducting TA, followed by developing the report and ensuring its accuracy and integrity, and finally receiving feedback from Congress and developing lessons learned to enhance the TA process.
The GAO describes the TA as providing "thorough and balanced analysis of critical technological innovations that affect our society, the environment, and the economy" explaining "the consequences that each featured technology will have on federal agencies and departments, and their wider impacts on American society". This broad working definition enables GAO analysts to utilize TA as a tool for policy analysis. Technology assessments at GAO are conducted in accordance with GAO's quality assurance framework. GAO initiates technology assessments through congressional mandates, requests from congressional leaders, and through the authority of U.S. Comptroller General.
The Technology Assessment section of GAO's website. offers the latest TA reports and videos.
- Comptroller and Auditor General
- Corporate title
- Inspector general
- Comptroller General of the United States
- Director of audit
- Non-governmental organizations (NGOs)
- Australia: Australian National Audit Office
- Botswana: Office of the Auditor General Botswana
- Brazil: Court of Accounts of the Union
- Canada: Auditor General of Canada
- European Union: Court of Auditors
- Hong Kong: Director of Audit of Hong Kong
- India: Comptroller and Auditor General of India
- Mexico: Auditoría Superior de la Federación
- Philippines: Commission on Audit
- Republic of China (Taiwan): Control Yuan
- United Kingdom: National Audit Office
- "GAO at a Glance". Government Accountability Office. Retrieved January 27, 2011.
- "Office of the Comptroller General". United States Government Accountability Office.
- "GAO Core Values". gao.gov. Retrieved January 16, 2020.
- Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, Sec. 312(a), 42 Stat. 25
- Walker, David M. (July 19, 2004). "GAO Answers the Question: What's in a Name?" (PDF). Roll Call. Archived from the original (PDF) on October 10, 2018. Retrieved April 2, 2007.
- Section 8, GAO Human Capital Reform Act of 2004, Pub. L. No. 108-271, 118 Stat. 811, 814 (July 7, 2004).
- See Bowsher v. Synar, 478 U.S. 714 (1986)
- INTOSAI: 50 Years (1953-2003), Vienna: International Organization of Supreme Audit Institutions, 2004, p. 67
- "U.S. GAO - Reports & Testimonies - By Date". gao.gov.
- Comptroller General of the United States (March 10, 1982). Recent Government-Wide Hiring Freeze Prove Ineffective In Managing Federal Employment (PDF) (Report). Government Accountability Office (GOA). Retrieved January 24, 2017. requested sent to Charles A. Bowsher by Geraldine A. Ferraro Chairwoman, Subcommittee on Human Resources Committee on Post Office and Civil Service House of Representatives
- "Key Issues". gao.gov.
- "Duplication & Cost Savings: Improving Efficiency and Effectiveness". gao.gov.
- "High Risk List". gao.gov.
- "Press Release". US Government Accountability Office. Retrieved January 8, 2011.
- "Most Recent Federal Fiscal Outlook Report". Government Accountability Office. Retrieved January 27, 2011.
- "Measuring the Deficit: Cash vs. Accrual". Government Accountability Office. Retrieved January 19, 2011.
- "2010 Financial Report of the United States Government (vid. pp.v, 43)" (PDF). Government Accountability Office. Retrieved January 7, 2011.
- "Strategic Plan: Serving the Congress and the Nation, 2010 –2015" (PDF). Government Accountability Office. Retrieved January 27, 2011.
- U.S. GAO - Technology Assessment. Gao.gov. Retrieved on July 19, 2013.
- "Technology & Science". gao.gov.
- OAG.org.bw Archived July 6, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
- Auditoria Superior de la Federación. ASF. Retrieved on July 19, 2013.
- United States Congress. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs (December 17, 2013). Government Accountability Office Improvement Act. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. pp. 113–128.