What is the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO)?

Jan 29, 2018


Many blogs and articles posted on our website, as well as other sites regarding the federal government, have alluded to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). So, who are they? What is their primary role in the federal government?

About GAO

GAO is an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress. They are often referred to as the “congressional watchdog” because they investigate how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars.

The Comptroller General of the U.S. serves as the head of GAO and is appointed to a 15-year term by the President form a slate of candidates.


Their mission is to support Congress in meeting its constitutional responsibilities and to help improve the performance and ensure accountability of the federal government for the greater good. They also provide Congress with timely information that is objective, fact-based, nonpartisan, non-ideological, fair and balanced.

Core Values

GAO’s core values accountability, integrity, and reliability are reflected in their work. They operate under strict professional standards of review and referencing, where all facts and analysis in their work are thoroughly checked for accuracy. In addition, their audit policies are consistent with the Fundamental Auditing Principles (Level 3) of the International Standards of Supreme Audit Institutions.


Their work is done at the request of congressional committees or subcommittees or is mandated by public laws or committee reports. They support 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 and analyses and outlining options for congressional consideration
  • Issuing legal decisions and opinions, such as bid protest rulings and reports on agency rules

They advise Congress and heads of executive agencies about ways to make the government more efficient, effective, ethical, equitable, and responsive. Their work leads to laws and acts that improve government operations which save the government and taxpayers billions of dollars.


Soon after its creation in 1921, GAO adopted a seal for use on official documents. It was updated in 2004 after the agency changed its name from General Accounting Office to Government Accountability Office.

The center of the seal is a shield divided by a band with 13 stars representing the 13 original states. Below that band is the U.S. Capitol Dome representing GAO’s role in the legislative branch. Above the band are scales representing balance and fairness and an account book, quill, and key which refer to the agency’s role in evaluating how taxpayers’ dollars are being spent.


The agency was started in 1821 when the Budget and Accounting Act transferred auditing responsibilities, accounting, and claims functions from the Treasury Department to a new agency. GAO was created because federal financial management was in disarray after WWI. The national debt grew, and Congress saw it needed more information and better control over expenditures.

That act made GAO independent of the executive branch and gave it authority to investigate how federal dollars were spent. The act also required the President to prepare an annual budget for the federal government.

Early Years

GAO has evolved over the years responding to the needs of Congress and the nation. Until the end of WWII, GAO primarily checked the legality and adequacy of government expenditures. They issued decisions on payment questions and helped process financial claims for and against the government.

GAO started with about 1,700 employees but soon found themselves shorthanded when money poured in to fight the Great Depression. Their staff grew to more than 14,000 by 1945, but with all the military spending, they faced a backlog of 35 million unaudited vouchers.

After WWII

After WWII, GAO realized it could best serve Congress by doing broader, more comprehensive audits examining the economy and efficiency of government operations. Instead of scrutinizing every fiscal transaction, GAO began to review financial controls and management in federal agencies.

Beginning in the late 1940’s, GAO worked with the Department of Treasury and the Bureau of the Budget (now the Office of Management and Budget) to help agencies improve their accounting systems and controls over spending.

Later, Congress found it needed more information on how well government programs were meeting their objectives. GAO started doing work in areas such as energy policy, consumer protection, the environment, and the economy.

In 1974, Congress broadened GAO’s evaluation role and gave them greater responsibility in the budget process. They started recruiting scientists, actuaries, and other experts.

In 1986, GAO put together a team of professional investigators, most with law enforcement backgrounds, to look into allegations of civil and criminal misconduct, which is still part of their duties today.

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