The History of GAO - After World War II

After the war, GAO recognized that it could best serve Congress and the nation by doing broader, more comprehensive audits that examined the economy and efficiency of government operations. It soon cut the size of its workforce and changed its approach to doing its job. The agency began to shift away from the central auditing it had done for 25 years. GAO transferred some of its responsibilities, such as voucher checking, to the executive branch. Instead of scrutinizing every government fiscal transaction, GAO began to review financial controls and management in federal agencies.

Starting in the late 1940s, GAO also worked with the Department of the Treasury and the Bureau of the Budget (now the Office of Management and Budget) to help executive branch agencies improve their accounting systems and controls over spending. With the move to comprehensive auditing, GAO further reduced the number of audit clerks and began to hire accountants. By 1951, when GAO moved into its new headquarters across the street from the Pension Building, its staff numbered just under 7,000--less than half the number that had been on the payroll at the end of the war.

The 1950s saw a rise in government spending because of the Cold War and the build-up of U.S. military forces in Europe and Asia. GAO's work increasingly focused on defense spending and contract reviews. Although the agency first began doing field work in the 1930s, it formally established a network of regional offices in 1952. GAO also opened branches in Europe and the Far East. Various national crises affected GAO's work in the 1960s and 1970s. During the Vietnam War, for example, GAO opened an office in Saigon to monitor military expenditures and foreign aid. And in 1972, some of GAO's reviews touched on Watergate.

Congress also found that it needed more information on how well government programs were meeting their objectives. Congress asked GAO to evaluate the Johnson Administration's Great Society anti-poverty efforts in 1967. GAO also did important work in areas such as energy policy, consumer protection, the environment, and the economy. In 1974, Congress broadened GAO's evaluation role and gave it greater responsibility in the budget process. The agency's staff, mostly accountants, began to change to fit the changing work. In the 1970s, GAO started to recruit scientists, actuaries, and experts in fields such as health care, public policy, and computers. In 1986, GAO assembled a team of professional investigators, many with law enforcement backgrounds, to look into allegations of possible criminal and civil misconduct.