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 7, Charles A. Bowsher: Expanding GAO's Work and Improving Federal Financial Management, 1981-1996

At the completion of Elmer Staats's 15 year term as Comptroller General in 1981, President Ronald Reagan nominated Charles A. Bowsher to succeed him.  Bowsher's background included success both in the private and the public sector. Before taking charge of GAO, Bowsher served as an Assistant Secretary of the Navy and as a partner at the Arthur Andersen accounting firm.

Photo - Portrait of Charles A. Bowsher Photograph - exterior of the GAO building, 1990s

Comptroller General Charles A.  Bowsher (1981-1996) worked to improve federal financial management.  He also oversaw an extensive effort to modernize GAO's headquarters building and equipment.

During his first few years in office, Bowsher studied how GAO did its work.  He then made a number of changes to the agency's organization and work processes. A task force on reports recommended in November 1982 that GAO emphasize exemplary product quality. In 1983, Bowsher accepted and implemented most of the group's recommendations for using a team approach for work assignments, strengthening quality assurance, improving communications, recruiting and training skilled staff, and providing them with improved tools and work incentives. He expanded GAO's training curriculum and established a Training Institute.

GAO modern office interior

Bowsher did more than emphasize improved training and productivity. He also sought to make GAO a more comfortable place to work. During his tenure, Bowsher oversaw an extensive effort to modernize GAO's headquarters in Washington, upgrade computers and other equipment, and improve work space in the regional offices. Bowsher also established a day care center and a fitness facility at GAO's headquarters building.

Photo - Regional office modernizationPhoto - GAO teleconferencing session
Modernized space in a regional office and employees using teleconferencing

During 1982 and 1983, Bowsher began a major reorganization of GAO. He created new divisions, including a National Security and International Affairs Division and an Information Management and Technology Division. He restructured the existing Accounting and Financial Management Division so that it could lead efforts to improve government financial management. Bowsher increased the number of GAO's issue areas and established an Office of Chief Economist. He also restructured the Office of General Counsel, creating separate units in it to support each operating division. Late in his term, he responded to Congressional direction to cut the size of government by negotiating and managing a difficult downsizing of GAO between 1993 and 1996.

Photo - C. Bowsher testifying before Congress

Comptroller General Bowsher testifying at a Congressional hearing

During his tenure, Bowsher paid close attention to budget issues, warned about the dangers of the increasing deficit and worked to improve federal financial management. He focused on providing timely and useful information to the Congress through strategic planning, control of job processes and post-issuance reviews of reports. When Staats left office in 1981, Congressional requests accounted for nearly 40% of GAO's work. By the end of Bowsher's term in 1996, the number was over 70%.

Under Bowsher, GAO fulfilled its mandate to follow the federal dollar by looking at virtually every government program. At his direction, GAO was among the first to call attention to the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. It also issued key reports on the agriculture crisis, weapons development, the nuclear breeder reactor, the Social Security Trust Fund, health issues, the environment and defense. Audit teams worked in the Persian Gulf before the start of Operation Desert Storm. After the Gulf War, the Office reviewed the cost of the war and looking at the performance of weapons systems.

Photo - GAO auditors, ca. 1983Photo shows GAO auditors at work around 1983

GAO did more than just point out shortcomings in government operations. It worked with executive branch agencies to strengthen financial management. GAO urged federal agencies and departments to modernize outmoded financial systems, prepare yearly financial statements, and submit them for audit. Bowsher's emphasis on strengthening federal financial management paid off in the passage of the Chief Financial Officer's Act and the establishment of a Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board and a Government Accounting Standards Board. Bowsher also played a key role in improving government audits worldwide through the efforts of the International Organization of Supreme Audit Institutions (INTOSAI).

During Bowsher's tenure, GAO first began doing general management reviews, which looked at broad organizational and management issues at government agencies. The Office also began issuing a series of High Risk reports, which provided information on federal activities susceptible to waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement.

Photo - GAO auditor in early 1990s
A GAO auditor at work in the early 1990s

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