Government Accountability Office

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Government Accountability Office
Seal of the Government Accountability Office
Logo of the Government Accountability Office
Flag of the United States General Accounting Office.svg
Flag of the Government Accountability Office
Agency overview
Formed July 1, 1921; 97 years ago (1921-07-01)
Headquarters 441 G St., NW
Washington, D.C., U.S. 20548
Employees 3,350 (2010)
Annual budget $557 million (2011)
Agency executive
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.[1]

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is a legislative branch government agency that provides auditing, evaluation, and investigative services for the United States Congress.[2] It is the supreme audit institution of the federal government of the United States.

Mission of GAO is to:

  • investigate how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars
  • support the Congress in meeting its constitutional responsibilities
  • help improve the performance
  • ensure the accountability of the federal government for people
  • provide Congress with timely information

Core values

GAO’s Core Values encompass mission values (Accountability, Integrity, Reliability) and people values (Valued, Respected, Treated Fairly)
  • Accountability: GAO helps the Congress oversee federal programs and operations to ensure accountability to the American people. GAO's analysts, auditors, lawyers, economists, information technology specialists, investigators, and other multidisciplinary professionals seek to enhance the economy, efficiency, effectiveness, and credibility of the federal government both in fact and in the eyes of the American people. GAO accomplishes its mission through a variety of activities, including financial audits, program reviews, investigations, legal support, and policy analyses.
  • Integrity: GAO takes a professional, objective, fact-based, nonpartisan, nonideological, fair, and balanced approach to all of its activities and sets high standards for itself and its work. Integrity is the foundation of reputation, and GAO's approach to its work assures both.
  • Reliability: GAO produces high quality reports, testimony, briefings, legal opinions, and other products and services that are timely, accurate, useful, clear, and candid.
  • Valued: GAO seeks out and appreciates each person’s perspectives by seeing everyone as an individual and tapping into everyone’s skills, talents, and life experiences.
  • Respected: GAO strives to treat everyone with dignity by listening, hearing, and acknowledging everyone’s viewpoints, keeping an open mind, and embracing differences.
  • Treated Fairly: GAO fosters a work environment that provides opportunities for all staff to excel by acting with honesty and integrity, treating all equitably, checking for bias, supporting equal access to opportunities, and trusting others to do their part.

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

GAO local offices

Products of GAO includes 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 excrcise 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".[3] 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.[4][5] While most other countries have government entities similar to the GAO, their focus (with the exceptions of the Taiwanese Control Yuan and the Israeli State Comptroller) is primarily on conducting financial audits.[citation needed] 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.[6] 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 9-year tenure of the 7th 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.

Seal of the General Accounting Office, from 1921 until being renamed in 2004.

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).[7]


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 and homeland security.[citation needed] 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.[8] Many reports are issued periodically and take a long view of U.S. agencies' operations.[citation needed] 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.[9] 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'.[9]

U.S. Public Debt

As part of its initiative to advocate sustainability, the GAO publishes a Federal Fiscal Outlook Report,[10] as well as data relating to the deficit.[11] 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'.[11] 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.[12]

Quinquennial Strategic Plan

The most recent GAO plan, for 2010-2015, sets out four goals, namely to address: (1) Current and Emerging Challenges to the Well-being and Financial Security of the American People; (2) Changing Security Threats and the Challenges of Global Interdependence; (3) Transformation of the Federal Government to Address National Challenges; (4) Maximization of the Value of the GAO.[13]

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".[14] 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 [15] offers the latest TA reports and videos.


  • USDA Should Take Further Action to Reduce Pathogens in Meat and Poultry Products. Why GAO Did This StudyThe U.S. food supply is generally considered safe, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that Salmonella and Campylobacter in food cause about 2 million human illnesses per year in the United States. GAO was asked to review USDA’s approach to reducing pathogens in meat and poultry products. This report examines (1) the extent to which USDA has developed standards for meat and poultry products and (2) any additional steps USDA has taken to address challenges GAO identified in 2014. GAO reviewed relevant regulations, documents, and data and interviewed officials from USDA and CDC, as well as 17 stakeholders representing industry, consumer groups, and researchers selected based on their knowledge of USDA’s meat and poultry slaughter inspections and food safety.What GAO RecommendsGAO is making three recommendations, including that USDA document its process for deciding which products to consider for new standards and that it include information on the effectiveness of on-farm practices in its guidelines for Salmonella control in hogs. USDA agreed with GAO's recommendations and described actions it will take to implement them.
  • CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE PROTECTION Additional Actions Are Essential for Assessing Cybersecurity Framework Adoption. Why GAO Did This Study Our nation’s critical infrastructure includes the public and private systems and assets vital to national security, economic stability, and public health and safety. Federal policy identifies 16 critical infrastructure sectors, including the financial services, energy, transportation, and communications sectors. To better address cyber- related risks to critical infrastructure, in 2014, NIST developed, as called for by federal law and policy, the Framework for Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity, a voluntary framework of cybersecurity standards and procedures for industry to adopt.The Cybersecurity Enhancement Act of 2014 included provisions for GAO to review aspects of the cybersecurity standards and procedures in the framework developed by NIST. GAO’s objective was to assess what is known about the extent to which critical infrastructure sectors have adopted the framework. To do so, GAO analyzed documentation, such as sector-specific guidance and tools to facilitate implementation, and interviewed relevant federal and nonfederal officials from the 16 critical infrastructure sectors.What GAO RecommendsGAO is making nine recommendations that methods be developed for determining framework adoption by the sector-specific agencies across their respective sectors, in consultation with their respective sector partner(s), such as the sector coordinating councils, the Department of Homeland Security, and NIST, as appropriate. Five agencies agreed with the recommendations, while four others neither agreed nor disagreed.
  • Homeland defenceurgent Need for DOD and FAA to Address Risks and Improve Planning for Technology That Tracks Military Aircraft. Why GAO Did This StudyDOD has until January 1, 2020, to equip its aircraft with ADS-B Out technology that would provide DOD, FAA, and private citizens the ability to track their flights in real-time and track flight patterns over time. This technology is a component of NextGen, a broader FAA initiative that seeks to modernize the current radar- driven, ground-based air transportation system into a satellite-driven space- based system.What GAO RecommendsGAO is recommending that DOD and FAA approve one or more solutions to address ADS-B -related security risks; and that DOD implement key tasks to facilitate consistent, long-term planning and implementation of NextGen. DOD and the Department of Transportation generally concurred and described planned actions to implement the recommendations.

See also


  1. ^ "GAO at a Glance". Government Accountability Office. Retrieved January 27, 2011.
  2. ^ "Office of the Comptroller General". United States Government Accountability Office.
  3. ^ Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, Sec. 312(a), 42 Stat. 25
  4. ^ Walker, David M. (July 19, 2004). "GAO Answers the Question: What's in a Name?" (PDF). Roll Call.
  5. ^ Section 8, GAO Human Capital Reform Act of 2004, Pub. L. No. 108-271, 118 Stat. 811, 814 (July 7, 2004).
  6. ^ See Bowsher v. Synar, 478 U.S. 714 (1986)
  7. ^ INTOSAI: 50 Years (1953-2003), Vienna: International Organization of Supreme Audit Institutions, 2004, p. 67
  8. ^ 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
  9. ^ a b "Press Release". US Government Accountability Office. Retrieved January 8, 2011.
  10. ^ "Most Recent Federal Fiscal Outlook Report". Government Accountability Office. Retrieved January 27, 2011.
  11. ^ a b "Measuring the Deficit: Cash vs. Accrual". Government Accountability Office. Retrieved January 19, 2011.
  12. ^ "2010 Financial Report of the United States Government (vid. pp.v, 43)" (PDF). Government Accountability Office. Retrieved January 7, 2011.
  13. ^ "Strategic Plan: Serving the Congress and the Nation, 2010 –2015" (PDF). Government Accountability Office. Retrieved January 27, 2011.
  14. ^ U.S. GAO - Technology Assessment. Retrieved on July 19, 2013.
  15. ^ GAO-TA
  16. ^ Archived July 6, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
  17. ^ Auditoria Superior de la Federación. ASF. Retrieved on July 19, 2013.
  18. ^
  • 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, 2013. pp. 113–128. Retrieved on September 28, 2015

External links

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