GAO: Working for Good Government Since 1921

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Effective July 7, 2004, the GAO's legal name became the Government Accountability Office. The change, which better reflects the modern professional services organization GAO has become, is a provision of the GAO Human Capital Reform Act of 2004, Pub. L. 108-271, 118 Stat. 811 (2004). This article was published in 2001 to mark GAO's 80th anniversary. It refers to the agency by its original name, the U.S. General Accounting Office.

Chapter 8, David M. Walker: Supporting Congress and Making GAO a Model Organization for the Government, 1998 to 2008

Photo - David M. Walker Comptroller General of the United States

Today, under the leadership of Comptroller General David M. Walker, GAO is committed to helping Congress address issues that will define the 21st century.   Walker has extensive expertise in managing private and public sector organizations.  Before taking charge of GAO on November 9, 1998, he served as a partner and global managing director of Arthur Andersen LLP's human capital services practice.  At Arthur Andersen, he worked with varied audit, tax, legal, and consulting matters.  His areas of responsibility included strategic planning as well as leadership in the area of human capital services.  Prior to joining Arthur Andersen, Walker served as Assistant Secretary of Labor for Pension and Welfare Benefit Programs from 1987 to 1989. He also served as a public trustee for the U.S. Social Security and Medicare trust funds from 1990 to 1995. Walker is the author of Retirement Security: Understanding and Planning Your Financial Future (1996) and co-author of Delivering on the Promise: How to Attract, Manage and Retain Human Capital (1998).

Under Walker, GAO conducts a wide range of financial and performance audits and program evaluations.  The Office's reviews take a professional and objective look at the business of government and the missions of government. They cover everything from the challenges of an aging population and the demands of the information age to emerging national security threats and the complexities of globalization. GAO also is committed to government reform--to helping government agencies become organizations that are results oriented and accountable to the public.

GAO's core values of accountability, integrity, and reliability reflect its dedication to good government. By examining federal programs and operations, GAO helps ensure that the government is answerable to the American people. The agency's work reflects integrity because it is professional, objective, fact-based, non-partisan, and non-ideological. GAO strives for reliability by providing high-quality information that is timely, accurate, useful, clear, and candid. GAO relies on a workforce of highly trained professionals who hold degrees in many academic disciplines, such as accounting, law, engineering, public and business administration, economics, and the social and physical sciences.

Photo - GAO Strategic Plan Year 2000

The modern GAO uses strategic planning, updated job processes, and matrix management, which crosses traditional organizational boundaries to assemble teams to look at complex, crosscutting issues. Under Comptroller General Walker, GAO works to provide timely, quality service to the Congress and to become a model organization for the federal government.  As Walker noted recently, "the long term credibility of government rests on its ability to provide the nation's citizens the services they desire." Recognizing the increased complexity of the government's responsibilities and obligations, GAO's work centers on helping the Congress make government better and more credible.

GAO's Organizational Seal

During 1999, Walker's first full year in office, GAO worked to improve government performance and accountability and to assist Congress in carrying out its oversight responsibilities. The Office conducted a broad range of reviews, in areas such as health care, national defense readiness, transportation safety, and the government's ability to fight crime and threats from terrorists. 

In Fiscal Year 2000, GAO's reviews looked at Social Security reform, defense acquisitions, military peacekeeping operations, tax policy, computer policy, managing human capital and security breaches at federal agencies.   During the past fiscal year, GAO's officials testified before 104 different Congressional committees and subcommittees.  In all, 263 testimonies were given before the Congress.  The topics included arms control, health care, Social Security, human capital, nuclear waste cleanup, wildfires, computer security, aviation safety and security, international trade, budget issues and financial management reform.

GAO auditor with border patrol officerIn Fiscal Year 1999, GAO's work resulted in over $20 billion in direct financial benefits.  In Fiscal Year 2000, GAO realized more than $23 billion in direct financial benefits through its work.  The Office achieves its financial benefits when its recommendations are implemented to make government services more efficient, to improve federal budgeting and spending, and to strengthen management of resources.

In addition to conducting a wide array of audits, evaluations, and investigations, GAO issues comprehensive series of Government Performance and Accountability reports. It also provides updates to its series of High Risk reports. GAO has developed guidance on techniques and best practices that have government-wide applications. Its Federal Information System Controls Audit Manual is widely used to evaluate system security controls. 

GAO engages in a strategic and annual planning process aimed at improving services to Congress, organizing resources to meet work priorities, and serving as a model organization within the government. The goals of GAO's strategic plan are to:

  • Provide Timely, Quality Service to the Congress and the Federal Government to Address Current and Emerging Challenges to the Well-Being and Financial Security of the American People;
  • Provide Timely, Quality Service to the Congress and the Federal Government to Respond to Changing Security Threats and the Challenges of Global Interdependence;
  • Support the Transition to a More Results-Oriented and Accountable Federal Government;
  • Maximize the Value of GAO by Being a Model Organization for the Federal Government.

During Fiscal Year 2000, GAO undertook an organizational realignment in order to better meet its goals and objectives.  It developed a performance plan for the year 2001 that links its strategic goals to the daily work of managers and staff.

Collage photo: GAO's employees, FY 2001

Comptroller General Walker has pledged, "GAO's employees and their predecessors have earned GAO its reputation as one of the best agencies in the federal government. As Congress takes on the challenges of a new century, GAO will be there to help it make a positive and lasting difference for all Americans."

Here are some suggestions for further reading on GAO's history.

For readers interested in an in-depth look at GAO's evolution between 1921 and 1966, the author recommends:
Defender of the Public Interest:  The General Accounting Office, 1921-1966 (Washington:  Government Printing Office, 1996), by Roger R. Trask, former GAO Chief Historian.  The product of meticulous research in a number of primary sources, this scholarly work provides a detailed examination of GAO's history.

For a shorter summary, see Dr. Trask's GAO History:  1921-1991 (Washington:  U.S. General Accounting Office, 991), which provides a 1brief history of the agency through 1991.

For an older work that provides a perspective on GAO from a scholar of public administration, see Frederick C. Mosher's The GAO:  The Quest for Accountability in American Government (Boulder, CO:  Westview Press, 1979).

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