GAO’s Mission, Responsibilities, Strategies, and Means
GAO exists to support the Congress in meeting its constitutional responsibilities and to help improve the performance and ensure the accountability of the federal government for the benefit of the American people.
GAO examines the use of public funds; evaluates federal programs and activities; and provides analyses, options, recommendations, and other assistance to help the Congress make effective oversight, policy, and funding decisions. In this context, GAO works to continuously improve the economy, efficiency, and effectiveness of the federal government by conducting financial audits, program reviews and evaluations, policy analyses, legal opinions, investigations, and other services. GAO’s activities are designed to ensure the executive branch’s accountability to the Congress under the Constitution and the federal government’s accountability to the American people.
Through the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, the Congress established GAO in the legislative branch with the broad role of investigating “all matters relating to the receipt, disbursement, and application of public funds” and to “make recommendations looking to greater economy or efficiency in public expenditures.” Since World War II, the Congress has clarified and expanded that original charter:
- The Government Corporation Control Act of 1945 provides GAO the authority to audit the financial transactions of government corporations.
- The Budget and Accounting Procedures Act of 1950 assigns GAO responsibility for establishing accounting standards for the federal government and carrying out audits of internal controls and financial management.
- The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 authorizes GAO to conduct program evaluations and analyses of a broad range of federal activities.
- The Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990 and the Government Management Reform Act of 1994 authorize GAO to audit agencies’ financial statements and annually audit the consolidated financial statements of the United States.
- Numerous other laws complement GAO’s basic audit and evaluation authorities, including the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, providing for GAO review of reported or unreported impoundments; the Inspector General Act of 1978, providing for GAO-established standards for the audit of federal programs and activities; and the Competition in Contracting Act of 1984, providing for GAO’s review of protested federal contracting actions.
Today, GAO engages in a range of oversight, insight, and foresight activities, spanning the full breadth and scope of federal activities and programs. GAO publishes thousands of reports and other documents annually and provides a number of other related services. The agency also looks at national and international trends and challenges to anticipate their implications for public policy. By making recommendations to improve the practices and operations of government agencies, GAO contributes not only to the increased effectiveness of and accountability for federal spending, but also to the enhancement of the taxpayers’ trust and confidence in their federal government. When considering GAO’s strategic goals and objectives or weighing the potential outcomes of GAO’s work, it is important to remember that GAO achieves its results mainly through the actions taken by the Congress and federal agencies in response to the information and recommendations that GAO provides.
For GAO, achieving strategic goals and objectives rests, for the most part, on providing professional, objective, fact-based, nonpartisan, nonideological, fair, and balanced information to the Congress and other stakeholders. Most of the information is gathered and reported in response to congressional requests for specific work. As authorized by GAO’s enabling legislation, the agency also independently undertakes certain research and development work. GAO develops and presents the information it gathers in a number of ways to support the Congress, including the following:
- evaluations of federal programs, policies, operations, and performance;
- oversight of government operations through financial and other management audits to determine whether public funds are spent efficiently, effectively, and in accordance with applicable laws;
- investigations to assess whether illegal or improper activities are occurring;
- analyses of the financing for government activities;
- constructive engagements in which GAO works proactively with agencies, when appropriate, to help guide their efforts toward achieving positive results;
- legal opinions to determine whether agencies are in compliance with applicable laws and regulations;
- policy analyses to assess needed actions and the implications of proposed actions; and
- additional assistance to the Congress in support of its oversight, appropriations, legislative, and other responsibilities.
GAO combines those general strategies with strategies specific to individual strategic objectives. These specific strategies take the form of performance goals, each of which has a set of key efforts that connect with GAO’s day-to-day work. We also use an integrated strategy to focus attention on important issues across the government and within specific program areas and operations. For example, our High-Risk Series focuses on both major challenges in addressing broad-based transformation or areas where legislative solutions may be called for, and on federal programs and operations that are vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement. GAO has made hundreds of recommendations to improve these high-risk operations. Moreover, GAO’s focus on high-risk problems contributed to the Congress enacting a series of governmentwide reforms to address critical human capital challenges, strengthen financial management, improve information technology practices, and instill a more results-oriented government. The administration has also looked to GAO’s high-risk program in shaping governmentwide initiatives, such as the President’s Management Agenda. GAO’s high-risk status reports are provided at the start of each new Congress.
In addition, GAO has built strategic working relationships with other national and international government accountability and professional organizations to broaden and leverage its institutional knowledge and experience and, in turn, to improve its service to the Congress and the American public. These relationships focus on initiating and supporting collaborative national and international audit, technical assistance, and other knowledge-sharing efforts.
Unlike large executive branch departments that manage federal lands or maintain extensive facilities and systems across the country and, in some instances, around the world, GAO is a relatively small agency that depends almost totally on one type of resource to achieve its strategic goals and objectives: its people. GAO’s staff, numbering about 3,300, are arranged in 13 research, audit, and evaluation teams and staff offices and mission support units (see fig. 1).
Approximately three quarters of GAO’s staff are based in its main office in Washington, D.C. The rest are deployed in 11 field offices across the country (see fig. 2). Staff in these offices provide a “frontline” presence and broad-based coverage throughout the United States, gathering information and firsthand insight and perspective on government programs and operations in different regions and cities. Through its field office structure, GAO has been able to attract and retain top talent from across the country.
To achieve its strategic goals and objectives, GAO must maintain a workforce of highly trained professionals with degrees in many academic disciplines, including accounting, law, engineering, public and business administration, economics, and the social and physical sciences. To maximize their productivity, GAO must make steady investments in information technology (IT). It must also ensure the safety and security of its people, information, and assets. The strategies GAO will use to ensure that it has the human capital it needs to carry out its responsibilities and that its human capital, business processes, IT, and other resources are well managed and secure are covered under the fourth strategic goal of this plan.