100 Years of GAO
2021 marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Government Accountability Office. For over a century, the independent, non-partisan “congressional watchdog” has been overseeing how the federal government operates and spends its money—pointing out where it is doing well and where it can improve. Over the years, GAO has made thousands of recommendations based on facts to improve services and save taxpayers billions of dollars.
Formerly known as the General Accounting Office, the agency has become a trusted, non-partisan advisor to Congress, a proud defender of public interest, and a leading advocate for better government. From cybersecurity to social security, missiles to Medicaid, and foreign policy to public health policy and the global pandemic, GAO works to hold government programs accountable to all Americans.
Comptroller General Interviews
For GAO's centennial celebration, we were honored to be able to interview the three most recent Comptrollers General of the United States and heads of the GAO. Their first-hand accounts of GAO's last 40 years are a piece of agency history. The full interviews are available below for you to watch.
Our history at a glance
The Budget and Accounting Act created GAO in 1921 when Congress realized the need to control growing government expenditures and debt after World War I. Until the end of World War II, GAO primarily checked the legality and adequacy of government expenditures.
After World War II, as government responsibilities and programs grew, so did GAO. The focus of our work shifted toward helping Congress monitor executive branch agencies’ programs and spending.
In 1974, Congress broadened GAO's evaluation role and gave us greater responsibility in the budget process. This was when we started to recruit scientists, actuaries, and experts in fields such as health care, public policy, and computers.
In 1986, we assembled a team of professional investigators, many with law enforcement backgrounds, to look into allegations of possible criminal and civil misconduct.
During the last 20 years, we’ve strived to improve accountability by alerting policymakers and the public to emerging problems throughout government.
In 2004, GAO's legal name changed from the General Accounting Office to the Government Accountability Office. The change reflected the agency’s expanding role in a growing federal government. Moving beyond financial audits, GAO began conducting performance audits—examining how government programs were performing and whether they were meeting their objectives.
Today, our agency that once checked millions of government vouchers has become a multidisciplinary organization equipped to handle Congress’s toughest audit and evaluation assignments.
We have looked at contemporary issues like opioid addiction, the gig economy, affordable housing, and food safety. The agency has also established a new science and technology team to meet Congress’ growing need for information on cutting edge issues like artificial intelligence and infectious disease modeling. Most recently, GAO has been evaluating the largest response to a national emergency in U.S. history, the $2.6 trillion COVID-19 response legislation, and making recommendations about how to improve its effectiveness in dealing with public health issues and the economy.
Read more about the events we hosted in 2021 to celebrate our anniversary.
Historical Articles & Resources
Read more in these in-depth articles.
- GAO Past and Present, 1921 through the 1990s (PDF, 3 pages)
- GAO: Reporting the Facts, 1981-1996, The Charles A. Bowsher Years (PDF, 186 pages)
- GAO: Working for Good Government since 1921 (PDF, 26 pages)
- How GAO Built Its Dream House (PDF, 28 pages)
- Presentations by Former Comptroller General David Walker