Article — The Government Accountability Office

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Who’s keeping an eye on the US government till? That watchdog is the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Image source: gao.gov

In 1921, after World War I raised the national debt to over $2 billion, the Budget and Accounting Act transferred auditing responsibilities, accounting, and claims functions from the Treasury Department to a new agency called the General Accounting Office. The act also made the GAO independent of the executive branch, provided the agency with a broad mandate to investigate how federal dollars were spent, gave congress more information and better control over expenditures, and required the president to prepare an annual budget.

During the New Deal years of the 1930s, federal money poured into recovery and relief efforts to fight the Great Depression, and the number of clerks hired to sort through paperwork and to audit vouchers soared.

The GAO helped executive branch agencies improve accounting systems in the 1940s. During the same time, GAO shifted to comprehensive auditing, and began replacing audit clerks with accountants.

The GAO moved into a new building in 1951, and because of the Cold War plus the increased presence of military personnel in Europe and Asia, began to focus more on defense spending and contract reviews.

In the 70s and 80s, the focus shifted again to respond to the need for more information on how well government programs were meeting their objectives. To fit the changing workload, the GAO began hiring scientists, actuaries, and experts in fields such as health care, public policy, and computers, as well as professional investigators to look into allegations of possible criminal and civil misconduct.

The General Accounting Office was renamed the Government Accountability Office in 2004, and today the GAO has offices around the world, as well as in Washington, from which it audits and analyzes US government operations.

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