How GAO Built Its Dream House

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Chapter 10, Changes in GAO and Its Building

Mindful of GAO's need to store heavy records, the architects used a flat slab construction that supported heavy loads on each floor.  GAO's building was designed to hold records in its center.  Ironically, by the time the building was finished, GAO had started moving away from the voucher auditing that required centralized examination of so many individual government expenditure records.   The ability to adapt to changing times has been a hallmark of GAO’s history.  Instead of examining vouchers, GAO moved in the early 1950s to "comprehensive auditing."  This major change in GAO's work after World War II reflected practical considerations as well as national and Congressional needs.  After the war, Comptroller General Warren sought to make better use of GAO’s resources and to increase the Office’s effectiveness.  In the late 1940s, GAO began auditing government corporations, performing “comprehensive audits,” and working with executive agencies to improve their accounting systems.

Instead of concentrating on individual fiscal transactions, GAO began reviewing financial management and internal controls at government agencies.  Responsibility for checking vouchers shifted to the various executive agencies, as GAO focused on prescribing accounting principles, performing site audits, and checking financial controls and procedures.  The move to comprehensive auditing represented a major turning point for GAO.  The agency reduced the number of voucher clerks in its employ and began hiring accountants.  In 1951, when GAO moved into its new headquarters building, it employed just under 7,000 people, less than half the number that had been on the rolls in 1946.

GAO has continue to evolve in the decades since its building opened.  In 1954, Joseph Campbell became the first accountant to head GAO.  He further developed the concept of comprehensive auditing and expanded the recruiting program begun by Warren. Campbell worked to hire more accountants and to raise the professional level of GAO’s staff. The effort paid off, as by 1965 over half the agency’s employees were college graduates.  Campbell emphasized defense contract audits and worked closely with GAO’s field offices.

Campbell’s successor, Elmer B. Staats, was a strong advocate of public service and constructive change, who worked to improve management throughout the government.   The late 1960s and early 1970s brought another major shift in GAO’s work.  Under Staats, the Office further developed internal training programs, increased its services to Congress, broadened its work and moved into program evaluation.  GAO did important work on energy issues, consumer protection, the  economy, and New York City’s fiscal crisis.

Charles A. Bowsher served as Comptroller General from 1981 to 1996.  Under Bowsher, GAO examined a broad range of issues and worked to strengthen federal financial management.  The office issued key reports on budget issues, the savings and loan crisis, weapons development, defense issues, the nuclear breeder reactor, the Social Security Trust Fund, health care, the agriculture crisis, the environment and transportation.  GAO also began issuing a series of High Risk reports, which provided information on federal activities susceptible to waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement.

Today, under the leadership of Comptroller General David M. Walker, GAO helps Congress address issues that define the 21st century.  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.  The modern GAO also is committed to government reform--to helping government agencies become organizations that are results oriented and accountable to the public.

From the time its headquarters building opened, GAO has sought to provide comfortable and up-to-date workspace for its employees.  The outside of the building has changed little and looks very much as it did in when the building was dedicated in 1951.  Modifications to the exterior include the addition of an entrance door at the northeast corner, construction of a child care center playground at 5th and G Streets, and construction of new sidewalks.  Because of various modernization projects, the inside of the building has changed more than the outside.   Some of the changes have been driven by modifications in the way GAO works, others by technological advances.

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