The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is the audit, evaluation, and investigative arm of the United States Congress. It is located in the legislative branch of the United States government.
The GAO was established as the General Accounting Office by the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 (USPL|67|13, USStat|42|20, June 10, 1921). 
This Act required the head of 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" (Sec. 312(a), USStat|42|25).
According to 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 better reflect the mission of the office.
While most other countries have government entities similar to the GAO, their focus is primarily on conducting financial audits. The GAO is unique in that its auditors conduct not only financial audits, but also engage in a wide assortment of performance audits.
The GAO is headed by the Comptroller General of the United States, 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. The Comptroller General may not be removed by the President, but only by Congress through impeachment or joint resolution for specific reasons. (See Bowsher v. Synar, 478 U.S. 714 (1986))
Since 1921, there have been only seven Comptrollers General, and no formal attempt has ever been made to remove a Comptroller General. The long tenure of the Comptroller General and the manner of appointment and removal gives GAO a continuity of leadership and independence that is rare within government.
GAO performance measures
- U.S. Government Accountability Office--Fiscal Year 2012 Performance Plan GAO
- Summary of GAO’s Performance and Financial Information Fiscal Year 2010 GAO
This report describes the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) performance measures, results, and accountability processes for fiscal year 2009. In assessing our performance, we compared actual results against targets and goals that were set in our annual performance plan and performance budget and were developed to help carry out our strategic plan. Our complete set of strategic planning and performance and accountability reports is available on our Web site.
Proposed updates to GAO auditing standards
- Source: Auditing Standards 2010 Exposure Draft GAO, August, 2010
The proposed revision to GAGAS will be the sixth since GAO first issued the standards in 1972. The proposed changes contained in the 2010 Exposure Draft update GAGAS to reflect major developments in the accountability and audit profession and emphasize specific considerations applicable to the government environment. The major changes in the proposed revision were made to:
- consolidate and reorganize the foundation and ethical principles for government audits and the standards for use and application of GAGAS (chapters 1 and 2);
- add a conceptual framework approach for independence (chapter 3);
- update the financial audit standards to (1) reflect recent updates to the auditing standards issued by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), where applicable, (2) more clearly identify the GAGAS requirements and guidance that supplement AICPA requirements for financial audits, and (3) consolidate the financial audit standards into a single chapter (chapter 4);
- further clarify application of the attestation engagement standards to clearly distinguish the requirements related to each type of attestation work (chapter 5);
- update the performance audit standards to (1) limit the fraud reporting requirement to occurrences that are significant within the context of the audit objectives, with a requirement to communicate other instances of fraud in writing to those charged with governance, and (2) revise the discussion of validity as an aspect of the quality of evidence (chapters 6 and 7); and
- clarify language throughout the document.
GAO lacks chief for two years
- Source: Desperately Seeking Watchdog New York Times, April 4, 2010
"Government officials talk a lot about accountability. There’s even a Government Accountability Office. The trouble is, it hasn’t had a presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed chief for more than two years.
By law, a bipartisan commission of House and Senate leaders is supposed to submit candidates for the job to the president, a lengthy process in the best of times. These are not the best times.
Recently, Democratic Congressional leaders sent President Obama a list of four candidates to run the G.A.O. Two days later, Republican leaders sent a letter supporting three of the four choices, apparently rejecting one and adding one of their own — and charging that Democrats had cut them out of the loop.
That doesn’t bode well for the leadership of what is often called the watchdog of Congress. As an independent, nonpartisan agency within the legislative branch, the G.A.O.’s mission is to assist Congress in lawmaking and oversight, and in the process enable it to check and balance the power of the executive branch.
The work generally involves audits, evaluations and investigations of government activity, usually in response to questions from Congress. The agency raises issues lawmakers may not be aware of — or would rather avoid. It has done pioneering work on the nation’s fiscal problems and broken system of defense acquisitions.
At times, the G.A.O.’s work involves high-level showdowns, as in 2002, when the agency sued Vice President Dick Cheney for records on the White House’s energy task force. The judge dismissed the suit, but the effort created pressure for disclosure — and served as an early warning of the excessive secrecy of the Bush administration.
The G.A.O.’s independence is embodied in its leader, who holds the title of comptroller general of the United States and serves a 15-year term — the longest of any term-based position in the federal government. The interim head, Gene Dodaro, a longtime G.A.O. professional, has served ably. But without a presidentially appointed and Senate-confirmed leader, the agency lacks the power and validation to pursue its mission to the fullest.
Mr. Obama can choose from the names he has been given, or request more. The important thing is to keep the process moving. Public mistrust in Washington is already high enough. For true accountability, the government needs a strong G.A.O.
- Federal Government Continues to Face Financial Management and Long-Term Fiscal Challenges GAO, March, 2011
- GAO's High-Risk List: Identifying Programs Vulnerable to Waste, Fraud, Abuse or Mismanagement GAO, February, 2011
- CONTRACTOR INTEGRITY - Stronger Safeguards Needed for Contractor Access to Sensitive Information GAO, September, 2010
- FEDERAL CONTRACTING - Opportunities Exist to Increase Competition-Assess Reasons When Only One Offer Is Received GAO, August, 2010
- PERSONNEL PRACTICES - Conversions of Employees from Political to Career Positions May 2005 - May 2009 GAO, June, 2010
- Opportunities Exist to Strengthen OMB’s Approach to Improving Efficiency GAO, June, 2010
- BANK SECRECY ACT FinCEN Needs to Further Develop Its Form Revision Process For Suspicious Activity Reports GAO, April 2010
- ANTI-MONEY LAUNDERING Better Communication Could Enhance the Support FinCEN Provides to Law Enforcement GAO, April, 2010