The General Accounting Office (GAO) serves as the investigative arm of Congress. Its overall mission is to examine and report on all matters relating to the receipt and disbursement of public funds. It was established by the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 to independently audit government agencies. Since that time Congress has expanded the GAO's audit authority, adding new responsibilities and duties and strengthening its ability to operate independently. The GAO operates under the direction of the comptroller general of the United States, who is appointed by the president with Senate confirmation and serves for a term of 15 years.

In pursuit of its mission, the GAO conducts a wide variety of activities. These range in practice from auditing the management of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to commenting on airport site selections and the diversity of computer software. The GAO in recent years has issued reports critical of the Federal Aviation Administration's ocean traffic system, insurance reserves of the Veterans Administration, contractor accountability in U.S. Department of Energy contracts, and the royalty collection system of the Minerals Management Service. On the positive side it has given government operated Amtrak's finances approval after a thorough audit.

Audits and evaluations of government programs and activities form a major part of the GAO's work. The GAO may conduct such audits in response to requests from committee chairpersons in Congress as well as from individual members of Congress. Some audits are required by law and others are conducted on the basis of standing commitments to congressional committees. In addition the GAO may undertake audits independently in accordance with its basic responsibility to support Congress.

The GAO also supports Congress by providing it with current, accurate, and complete financial management data. It prescribes accounting principles and standards for the executive branch of government. It advises other federal agencies on fiscal and related policies and procedures. It also prescribes standards for auditing and evaluating government programs. The comptroller general of the United States works with the secretary of the Treasury and the director of the Office of Management and Budget to develop standardized information and data processing systems.

Under the Government Performance and Results Act, agencies of the executive branch of government were required to submit annual performance plans starting with fiscal year 1999. The GAO reviewed all of the agencies' plans for fiscal 1999 and made suggestions toward improving those plans in a report titled, "An Agenda to Improve the Usefulness of Agencies' Annual Performance Plans." The GAO also issued a companion report, "The Results Act: Assessment of the Governmentwide Performance Plan for Fiscal Year 1999."

The GAO also provides legal advice and services to members of Congress. The comptroller general may issue legal advice concerning government programs and activities and for proposed legislation as well. The GAO also functions to resolve bid protests that challenge the awarding of government contracts. It provides legal services to help adjudicate claims against the government and to assist government agencies in interpreting laws covering the expenditure of public funds. GAO investigators may assist auditors when they encounter possible criminal and civil misconduct in the course of their work.

The GAO may report its findings by giving testimony before congressional committees, giving members of Congress oral briefings, and issuing written reports. All of the GAO's unclassified reports are available to the public. Every month a list of reports issued or released by the GAO during the previous month is given to the members and committees of Congress. Copies are also furnished to a wide range of interested agencies, state and local government officials, foreign governments, members of the press, libraries, and nonprofit organizations.

[ David P. Bianco ]


Mihm, Christopher. "Improving the Usefulness of Agencies' Annual Performance Plans." Public Manager: The New Bureaucrat, fall 1998, 13.

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