About the Government Accountability Office

The Investigative Arm of Congress Sniffs Out Wasted Tax Dollars

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The GAO: A Government Watchdog No Federal Agency Wants Chasing It. Armstrong Roberts/Getty Images

Known and respected, if not feared, by the federal government agencies as the “investigative arm” of the U.S. Congress, the independent and non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) is dedicated to monitoring and reporting on virtually every aspect of how your federal tax dollars are spent anywhere in the world.

History and Organization

Originally created as the “Government Accounting Office” by the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 strictly to audit the finances of the government agencies, Congress has since greatly expanded GAO's authority by adding new responsibilities and duties, and strengthening its ability to perform independently.

The sweeping changes in the GAO over the years brought about its name change and reorganization as part of the GAO Human Capital Reform Act in 2004.

The GAO’s director, the Comptroller General of the United States, is appointed to a 15-year term by the President of the United States from a slate of candidates proposed by a bipartisan, bicameral congressional commission. As with other positions filled by presidential appointments, the president’s nominee for Comptroller General must be approved by the Senate.

According to the GAO, its mission is “is 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.”

Activities of the GAO

Audits and Evaluations:
Supporting the Congress is GAO's fundamental responsibility. In meeting this objective, GAO performs a variety of services, the most prominent of which are audits and evaluations of government programs and activities.

The majority of these reviews are made in response to specific congressional requests.

The GAO is required to perform work requested by congressional committee chairpersons and, as a matter of policy, assigns equal status to requests from ranking minority members. The GAO also responds to individual member requests, as possible.

Other assignments are initiated pursuant to standing commitments to congressional committees, and some reviews are specifically required by law. Finally, some assignments are independently undertaken in accordance with GAO's basic legislative responsibilities.

The ability to review practically any government function requires a multi-disciplined staff able to conduct assignments wherever needed. The GAO’s staff has expertise in a variety of disciplines, including accounting, law, public and business administration, economics, and the social and physical sciences. The GAO is organized so that staff members concentrate on specific subject areas, enabling them to develop a detailed level of knowledge. When an assignment requires specialized experience not available within GAO, outside experts assist the permanent staff.

Staff members go wherever necessary on assignments, working onsite to gather data and observe firsthand how Government programs and activities are carried out. The Legal Services Division of the GAO provides various legal services to the Congress.

In response to inquiries from congressional committees and members, the Comptroller General provides advice on legal issues involving government programs and activities.

The GAO is also available to assist in drafting legislation and reviewing legislative proposals before the Congress. In addition, it reviews and reports to the Congress on proposed rescissions and deferrals of government funds. Other legal services include resolving bid protests that challenge government contract awards and assisting government agencies in interpreting the laws governing the expenditure of public funds.

Investigations:
GAO's staff of professional investigators conducts special investigations and assists auditors and evaluators when they encounter possible criminal and civil misconduct. When warranted, GAO refers the results of its investigations to the Department of Justice and other law enforcement authorities.

Auditing and Accounting:
Policy GAO issues government auditing standards for audits of government organizations, programs, activities, and functions.

These standards pertain to auditors' professional qualifications, the quality of audit effort, and the characteristics of professional and meaningful audit reports. The Comptroller General, along with the Secretary of the Treasury and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, serves as a principal on the Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board. The Board considers and recommends issuance of accounting standards and principles and provides interpretations of existing ones.

Reporting:
GAO offers a range of products to communicate the results of its work. The type of product depends on the assignment's objectives and the needs of the intended user. Product types include testimony, oral briefings, and written reports. GAO publishes its reports, testimonies, and Comptroller General decisions on the Internet at http://www.gao.gov/ shortly after they are released.