The Rigorous Process for Producing “Fact-Based” Information

Posted on January 16, 2019


“We provide Congress with timely information that is objective, fact-based, nonpartisan, nonideological, fair, and balanced.”

So, just what does GAO mean when we say our mission is to provide “fact-based” information?

It means there’s a rigorous fact-checking process that requires close scrutiny of literally every line of every GAO report. It can take some time, but is part of the bedrock of GAO reports.

Today’s WatchBlog focuses on how GAO produces fact-based information.

Every Line Checked

Here’s how the fact-checking usually works.

A GAO team—made up of several analysts, with the help of a methodologist, a lawyer, a communications specialist, and sometimes an economist and a graphic artist—produces a draft of a GAO report. To do this, the team gathers multiple documents, conducts numerous interviews with experts, and may travel to see the audit subject in person or in action—perhaps a ship or an airplane being tested.

The team then takes this mass of information and produces a narrative that answers a particular set of pre-determined questions.

Show Me the Evidence

Team members must produce a link from every sentence in the report to the evidence that supports it. This process is known as “indexing” and used to be done on paper. It required binder after binder of supporting evidence and a draft of the report marked up to show links to the evidence. Today, this is done electronically.

Photo of Indexing and Referencing for a GAO Report

It must then be “referenced.” An analyst who did not work on putting the report together checks each link and evaluates the evidence. The “referencer” must give each sentence a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. Is there sufficient, credible evidence to back what’s written? Assessing that is a big part of the job. There are elaborate rules for evidence, too. (GAO spells out the rules for auditing in Government Auditing Standards, also known as the Yellow Book.)

There are additional layers of detailed review as well. Every year, GAO does in-house quality control reviews. Every 3 years, a crew of international auditors rolls in to check GAO’s work. They pull the records to review how well the indexers and referencers have done their jobs, among other things.

Is this a taxing but rewarding process? That’s a fact.

For additional WatchBlog posts about GAO, click here.