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The Life and Times of Elmer B. Staats, Our 5th Comptroller General

Posted on February 12, 2019

Elmer B Staats became the 5th Comptroller General of the United States in 1966 but his influence still looms large today.

Today’s Watchblog explores Staats’ role in transforming GAO’s role beyond just financial auditing.

The early years

Elmer B Staats was born on June 6, 1914, in Richfield, Kansas. He excelled in academics in his early years and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from McPherson University. He later received a master’s degree at the University of Kansas, and then a doctorate in economics and government at the University of Minnesota.

Staats’ early government career was with the Bureau of Budget (now the Office of Management and Budget), where he managed and coordinated the U.S.’s civilian war agencies. After Joseph Campbell retired in 1965, Staats left BOB to take up the position of Comptroller General.

A pragmatic agent of good government

Elmer B Staats

As Comptroller General, Staats worked to effectively serve Congress. He transformed GAO from an organization that only conducts financial audits to one that also evaluates the effectiveness of government programs. To illustrate this change, accountants made up almost all of our professional staff when he was first appointed. However, during his tenure, we began recruiting scientists, computer professionals, and public policy experts to help fulfill our expanded mission.

Staats also issued the first edition of the Standards for Audit of Governmental Organizations, Programs, Activities, and Functions, now known as the “Yellow Book.” He served as the first chairman of the Cost Accounting Standards Board, and was a member of a number of presidential and governmental advisory bodies.

Reflecting on Staats' tenure, a senior GAO manager referred to him as "a pragmatic agent of good government," who viewed our reports as "a way to achieve results rather than simply hitting someone over the head.”

Service after GAO

Staats completed his 15-year term as Comptroller General in 1981, serving through the administrations of Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter.

In the years following his retirement, Staats continued to be active in government service. He became a member of the Governmental Accounting Standards Board and the first chairman of the Federal Accounting Standards Board. Elmer B. Staats died in 2011 at the age of 97.

[Content for this blog post comes from: Defender of the Public Interest: The General Accounting Office, 1921-1966 by Roger R. Trask, published by the U.S. General Accounting Office (1996); Reporting the Facts, 1981-1996 by Maarja Krusten, published by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (2018); and Oral History Series: Elmer B. Staats, published by the U.S. General Accounting Office (1987).]

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