The Rigorous Process for Producing “Fact-Based” Information

Photo of Someone Checking Files“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.

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Our 4th Comptroller General, Joseph Campbell—an Auditor, Not a Bowler

Photo of Joseph Campbell, Comptroller General, 1954-1965President Dwight D. Eisenhower nominated Joseph Campbell as the 4th U.S. Comptroller General of the United States more than seven months after Lindsay C. Warren retired.

The nomination came as a surprise to many involved—including Campbell. As part of our latest look back at GAO history, today’s WatchBlog shares Campbell’s legacy.

Life before GAO

Unlike previous Comptrollers General, Joseph Campbell was not an attorney. After serving briefly in the U.S. Army during World War I, he graduated from Columbia University and worked in public accounting at private firms in New York City.

He later returned to Columbia, first working as the Assistant Treasurer and then Vice President of the university. During this time, Campbell became well acquainted with Eisenhower, then president of Columbia.

At the time of his nomination, Campbell was a member of the Atomic Energy Commission, and was considering resigning from it to return to Columbia. When he told Eisenhower about his plans, the President asked him if he would like to become Comptroller General.

Although Eisenhower’s nomination came as a surprise to Campbell—and to many others since he had not been considered a possible candidate—he wholeheartedly accepted the nomination on September 30, 1954.

An independent GAO = No bowling with audited agencies

Campbell, like the first Comptroller General John R. McCarl, felt very strongly about safeguarding GAO’s independence. During his term of more than a decade, Campbell maintained a strict distance from the executive agencies GAO audits and investigates.  

In fact, one senior GAO manager at the time commented that, after Campbell became Comptroller General, “you could not socialize with the agency people. You sure couldn’t socialize with any of their contractors”—which this official learned when his staff joined a bowling league at the Bureau of Public Roads. Campbell heard about the league and confronted the manager, who later recounted the conversation:

“[Campbell] asked me whether I wanted a career as a bowler or an accountant. I told him I wanted to be an accountant. He said “Okay, then get your crew out of that bowling league,” which we immediately did.”

Photo of Joseph Campbell Presenting some DataAdding up the savings for Congress

Campbell also started measuring GAO’s assistance to Congress in terms of quantitative accomplishments—such as reports issued, testimonies given, and money saved. In 1962, he reported that GAO saved nearly $162,875,000, a return of $4 for every $1 invested in the agency. Today, we continue to report on our accomplishments. But now we return about $124 for every dollar invested in us.

At one congressional hearing, the ranking representative from Texas at the time said:

“I don’t know of any agency of the Government that the Congress feels any closer to than the General Accounting Office. Certainly there is good reason for that…Congress feels whenever it wants exact information where the chips will fall where they may, we can always depend upon the reports and investigations and the invaluable help of the General Accounting Office.”

And we continue to provide such insights.

“Tough, Inquisitive, Independent”

Campbell retired from his position in 1965 due to rheumatoid arthritis. Because of his poor health, his departure from GAO was quiet. However, the press praised his time as Comptroller General. The Albuquerque Tribune, described him as “tough, inquisitive, independent.” The Chicago Sun-Times wrote that his retirement was “sad news for the American taxpayer.”

After his retirement, Campbell’s health improved. Eventually, he and his wife settled in Sarasota, Florida where he died at the age of 84 on June 21, 1984.

[Content for this blog post comes from the book, Defender of the Public Interest: The General Accounting Office, 1921-1966 by Roger R. Trask, published by the U.S. General Accounting Office (1996).]

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December Podcast Roundup – Podcasts You May Have Missed

Watchdog Report Podcast LogoWe were busy podcasting all last year! And if you’re not subscribed on iTunes or our RSS feed, you’re missing out. Today’s WatchBlog catches you up on podcasts you may have missed last month.

Protecting the Electric Grid: Severe solar storms could create disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field that lead to extensive power outages. We reported on some of the technologies intended to protect the U.S. electrical grid from such geomagnetic disturbances. Listen to Tim Persons, GAO’s Chief Scientist, discuss these storms and the risk to our electric grid.

Image Showing Space Weather (Coronal Mass Ejection) Can Cause Geomagnetic Disturbances on Earth

TSA’s Pipeline Security Program: The U.S. interstate pipeline system delivers oil, natural gas, and other hazardous products throughout the nation. These pipelines are vulnerable to accidents, operating errors, and malicious physical and cyber attacks. Listen to Chris Currie, a director in our Homeland Security and Justice team, discuss the weaknesses we found in how TSA manages its pipeline security efforts.


Photo of GAO's Homeland Justice and Security Director, Chris Currie, in the Podcast Studio

Information Systems Security and Intrusion Protection: How is the government doing at protecting against cyberattacks? We found that federal agencies have gotten better at preventing and detecting intrusions into their information systems, but they still remain vulnerable to attacks. Listen to Greg Wilshusen, a director in our Information Technology team, discuss the need for agencies to improve implementation of government-wide practices for securing their information systems.


Photo of Someone Working on a Computer

2018 Update to GAO’s State and Local Government Fiscal Outlook Model: We recently updated our annual report on the fiscal health of state and local governments. Our outlook suggests state and local governments will have an increasingly tough time covering their bills over the next 50 years. Listen to Michelle Sager, a director in our Strategic Issues team, discuss long-term fiscal trends and challenges these sectors may face.

Simulation Table Showing State and Local Government Sector Operating Balance as a Percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), 2008 through 2067

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A Lot of Government Information Is Freely Available

Photo of websiteFrom health and education statistics to budget and spending information, the federal government produces a lot of information, or data. Agencies are making more and more of this data open for everyone to use. Our recent report identified 5 key practices that can help the government’s open data reach a wide range of users. Today’s WatchBlog explores these key practices.

What is open government data?

Open government data is government-produced information that anyone can freely use, modify, and share for any purpose. For example, the Treasury Department publishes open data on its new website, which provides detailed information to help track government spending.

Open data can foster accountability and public trust by giving citizens information about government activities and results. It can also promote private sector innovation and help industries generate revenue, such as by providing demographic, financial, or geographic information. For example, some real estate websites use Census data to provide information on the neighborhoods where homes for sale are located.

How can agencies make their data more useful?

For open government data to be most useful, it needs to be presented effectively. We found that managers of open government data programs can consider 5 key practices to ensure that their data is as transparent as possible.

For example, the government can engage with users by asking them for feedback and using it to make changes to the website. We found that the Treasury Department has a variety of ways for users to provide feedback on, including an online community forum and in-person interviews.

Photo showing Treasury contractor interviewing a member of the public at the Capitol Visitor Center

In addition, to facilitate data discovery for all users, open data managers can make sure the website is easy to navigate; provide data visualizations, such as charts, graphs, or maps; and allow users to easily search the data; among other things. We found that makes the data easy to discover by offering a variety of ways to explore, search, download, and understand the information. For example, users can generate maps based on their search results showing the amount of federal spending by state, county, or congressional district.

Image showing example of a map of advanced search results for Social Security retirement insurance (as of September 2018)

However, Treasury could help the website better address our key practices and other requirements. For example, the website doesn’t fully meet legal search requirements because users cannot search the data by city or by certain accounting codes. We recommended that Treasury better align with these search requirements, among other things.

To learn more about key practices for making open government data websites like more transparent, check out our full report.

  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Triana McNeil at
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact
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Gifts that Keep on Giving—and Saving

Photo of Christmas tree and U.S. CapitolIt’s the holiday season and gift-giving is in full swing. So, today we’re taking a look back at how our work for Congress keeps giving—and saving.

Did you know we saved the government over $75 billion in FY18? That’s a return of about $124 for every dollar invested in us! Read on for more of our work that keeps on giving long after the holidays are over.

Making a High Risk List, checking it twice

Image of GAO's High Risk List logoSince the early 90s, coinciding with the start of each new Congress, we’ve released our biennial list of programs and operations that are “high risk” due to their vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, or are most in need of transformation. Our most recent High Risk update was in February 2017. There are now 35 High Risk areas, ranging from Enforcement of Tax Laws to Improving Federal Oversight of Food Safety, to most recently, Management of Federal Programs That Serve Tribes and Their Members and the Government-Wide Personnel Security Clearance Process.

With the federal government’s $4.1 trillion in outlays funding a broad array of programs and operations in FY18, solutions to high-risk problems potentially save billions of dollars, improve service to the public, and strengthen government performance and accountability. Over the past decade, progress to address our High Risk list has accounted for over $288 billion in such savings. Our 2019 High Risk list will be released this coming February.

‘Tis the Tax Filing Season

Photo of IRS form 1040For more than 30 years, we have reported annually on how well IRS provided service to taxpayers and processed their tax returns during the filing season. Along the way, we have made dozens of recommendations leading to savings of hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars and improved taxpayer service.

  • Saving Taxpayer Dollars: Tax credits offer benefits to many taxpayers, but figuring out if you are eligible to claim those credits can be difficult. Sometimes taxpayers make mistakes. Based on our filing season work, Congress has passed legislation to help IRS better catch such errors and save taxpayer dollars. For example, in 2015, the Congress passed legislation that should enable IRS to verify taxpayers’ claims for higher education tax benefits by using information from educational institutions—which has saved $290 million already and should yield an additional $504 million in financial benefits through fiscal year 2021.

A happy and (fiscally) healthy new year

Each year we issue an update on the nation’s fiscal health. Our report discusses significant changes to the nation’s fiscal condition during the prior fiscal year, long-term simulations of the federal debt, and fiscal risks placing additional pressure on the federal budget. We also identify steps that federal agencies can take to improve things, such as eliminating duplication, overlap, and fragmentation in federal programs. Our new fiscal health report will be issued in early 2019.

Check out our February 2018 video explaining the nation’s financial condition and future, and ways to improve it.

Agencies’ Wish Lists

Our three “Quick Look” reports on major acquisition programs at NASA, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Defense include quick, graphics-rich, 1- or 2-page analyses of the most expensive items on those agencies’ wish lists, including big toys like submarines, fighter jets, and space rockets. And our Quick Looks keep giving—we issue updates each year. Last year, we gave DHS a candy cane for strengthening its portfolio management policies, but we told DOD it had better watch out as new programs begin to enter the production phase where costs are most likely to grow.

Photos of DOD, NASA, and DHS major acquisition programs

Our 2019 Quick Looks will continue to track the cost, progress, and performance of projects like NASA’s plan to return to human space flight, the Coast Guard’s effort to build heavy polar ice breakers, DOD’s Ford Class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, and the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter—the most expensive and ambitious weapon acquisition program in U.S. military history.

The man with the (money) bag

Photo of Department of Treasury buildingWe report yearly on the status of unwinding the government’s assistance to the financial sector during the 2007–2009 financial crisis. Just over 10 years ago, Congress responded to turmoil in the financial markets by creating the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Through TARP, the Treasury Department disbursed a total of $440 billion—including $245 billion in capital investments to banks—to help stabilize the financial system, restore economic growth, and mitigate foreclosures. Our work not only helps provide transparency and accountability of TARP, but more importantly, we saw the implementation of a GAO recommendation that resulted in billions of cost savings for the federal government. We also recently blogged about our past reports examining how much government money actually went to the banks.

We also annually assess the impact of financial services regulations, including those put in place since the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act. Since the financial crisis, federal financial regulators have issued hundreds of rules to implement reforms intended to strengthen the financial services industry. Our blog post highlighted our recent work on how regulators have been meeting requirements to maintain a level playing field for small financial entities. Previous annual reports have covered other topics including how well agencies coordinated implementing rules to govern the financial sector and the extent to which the regulations affected the largest U.S. financial institutions.

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VA’s Suicide Prevention Media Outreach Campaign (video)

Photo showing dog tags and American flagAfter military service, many veterans struggle with mental health conditions and other hardships that put them at higher risk for suicide. The Department of Veterans Affairs reports that an average of 20 veterans die by suicide each day. Preventing veteran suicide is one of VA’s highest priorities.

Since 2010, VA has conducted national outreach to raise awareness about suicide prevention resources for veterans. Watch our new video and read our report exploring trends in VA’s outreach activities and ways to improve its oversight and evaluation of the program.

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Are the Navy and Marine Corps Ready for the Future? (video)

Photo showing Navy shipsThe Department of Defense has faced conflict, budget uncertainty, and reductions in force structure, making it less prepared to handle its operations. Since 2015, we’ve made 45 recommendations to help the Navy and Marine Corps prepare for the future.

We recently testified on the two services’ readiness challenges, including personnel shortfalls, maintenance delays, and aging aircraft. Fully addressing these challenges will require years of sustained attention. Watch our video and read more in our report on rebuilding Navy and Marine Corps readiness.

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Airline Passenger Protections

airplane Are you one of the millions of passengers flying over the holidays? Do you know your rights if your flight is cancelled or overbooked, or if your checked bag doesn’t arrive when you do?

Today’s WatchBlog explores airline consumer protection issues and the Department of Transportation’s actions to protect passengers. Listen to our podcast and read on for more.


Have Airline Services Improved?

Airlines’ treatment of passengers has come under scrutiny following several high-profile incidents, including the forcible removal of a passenger from an overbooked flight. Despite such incidents, Transportation’s data on denied boardings and mishandled baggage suggests that service has generally improved since 2008, particularly since 2014.

Figure Showing Measures of Airlines' Service, 2008 through 2017

At the same time, however, we found that the rate of passenger complaints that Transportation received increased about 10 percent from 2008 to 2017 for airlines we reviewed.  These complaints were most commonly about flight delays and cancellations, though in recent years, Transportation has increasingly received more complaints about disability issues, oversold flights, and fares. But complaints that Transportation received only account for a small percentage of total complaints—officials estimated that airlines receive 50 complaints for every 1 complaint lodged with the agency.

How does the Department of Transportation protect consumers?

Transportation can issue and enforce consumer protection requirements. For example, Transportation recently published new rules or expanded existing rules by restricting long ground delays, increasing compensation for passengers who are denied boarding, and requiring certain airlines to post information on their websites about their fees and on-time performance.

To help airlines understand and comply with these and other consumer protection requirements, Transportation conducts 5 key activities:

  • Issuing guidance and consulting with airlines.
  • Processing passenger complaints. Staff received and responded to more than 18,000 passenger complaints in 2017.
  • Inspecting airlines at airline headquarters and airports to assess their compliance with consumer protection requirements. Staff conducted airline compliance inspections at 18 airports in 2017.
  • Investigating potential consumer protection violations. Staff initiated 287 investigations of airlines in 2017.
  • Enforcing airlines’ compliance with consumer protection requirements through warning letters, consent orders, and financial penalties. Although Transportation levied nearly $18 million in financial penalties on selected airlines from 2008 to 2017, the airlines paid out only about half of that amount. The remaining amounts were either credited to airlines for service improvements for passengers, or potential future payments.

Transportation also has an aviation consumer protection website, which provides tips for avoiding common travel problems and information on topics like unaccompanied minors and family seating.

While Transportation has taken steps to protect airline passengers, we identified a number of additional actions it can take to ensure airlines’ compliance with consumer protections and to educate consumers. These include developing performance measures for compliance activities, improving procedures to more consistently categorize complaints, and seeking feedback directly from consumers about what they know about their rights.

To learn more, check out our full report

  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Andrew Von Ah at
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact
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Snapshots from the Audit Trail

Our Watchdogs track the way agencies spend federal money—and take snapshots along the way as physical evidence on the audit trail.

Today’s WatchBlog highlights some of the best photos from our audit teams as they fanned out across the country and overseas to follow the money.

TSA officials at a Cuban airport

In August 2016, the first scheduled commercial flight in over 50 years made the trip between the United States and Cuba and new agreements allowed daily scheduled flights between the two countries. We reported on how TSA ensures the security of U.S.-bound aircraft from Cuba.

Figure Showing Transportation Security Administration Inspector Preparing to Board an Aircraft at Frank Pais Airport in Holguin, Cuba

Marine debris in the Florida Keys

In 2017, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and the California wildfires created unprecedented demand for federal disaster help. Congress provided at least $120 billion in supplemental funding for these disasters. We reported that the timing and scale of the disaster damages nationwide caused shortages in available debris removal contractors and delays in removing debris.

Figure Showing Marine Debris in Florida Keys Canal Following Hurricane Irma in 2017

Capital project needs at HBCUs

We identified significant capital project needs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities to ensure well-maintained, safe, and functional facilities. This photo depicts a public HBCU we visited where much of their building space had suffered damage from severe weather and other causes.

Figure Showing Capital Project Needs at an Historically Black College and University

Wildlife products seized in Miami

The illegal wildlife trade—estimated to be worth $7 billion to $23 billion annually—is pushing protected and endangered animal species to the brink of extinction. The United States and Asia are key sources of demand for a variety of wildlife.

Figure Showing Wildlife Products Seized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Port of Miami

Safe handling of synthetic opioids

Federal agencies have developed guidance for safely handling synthetic opioids. The Drug Enforcement Administration’s guidance notes that if a first responder encounters a situation where the scene is highly contaminated from fentanyl (a substance 100 times stronger than morphine), then he or she needs to wear a specialized full-body suit with a self-contained breathing apparatus, such as this one.

Figure Showing an Example of a Specialized Full-Body Suit Used to Respond to Scenes of Gross Fentanyl Contamination

Volume of paperwork

Throughout the life of a major disaster declaration, jurisdictions, including tribes, are required to maintain paperwork to document the recovery projects. This photo shows an example of the volume of paperwork needed to support and close out the recovery projects associated with a landslide in Washington State, according to the tribal and state officials involved.

Figure Showing the Amount of Paperwork Submitted to FEMA to Close a Major Disaster Declaration Following a Landslide in Washington, 2013

Baby turtles on the move

In our previous work on DOD adaptation to climate change impacts, we noted how these impacts may have caused a protected turtle species to nest on a part of the beach where it previously had not nested, limiting where the military can train. This photo illustrates this type of impact.

Figure Showing Movement of Sea Turtles Across a Department of Defense Beach

What does “smaller than 5 millimeters” look like?

Microbeads are plastic pieces smaller than 5 millimeters that are added as exfoliants to health and beauty products, such as some cleansers and toothpastes. These tiny particles may pass through some water filtration systems and end up in the oceans and the Great Lakes, posing a potential threat to aquatic life.

Figure Showing Microbeads Smaller than Five Millimeters in Diameter

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Podcast Roundup – Podcasts You May Have Missed

We’ve been busy podcasting! And if you’re not subscribed on iTunes or our RSS feed, you’re missing out. Today’s WatchBlog catches you up on some of our recent podcasts.

Rural Hospital Closures: From 2013-2017, 64 hospitals in rural areas in the United States closed their doors. These closures mean limited access to quality healthcare for many Americans. Listen to James Cosgrove, a director in our Health Care team, talk about trends in rural hospital closures—including how financial stress, geography, and increased competition from other providers have affected these closures.


Photo of a Hospital Entrance Sign

2017 Hurricanes and Wildfires: The damage caused by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and the California wildfires in 2017 led to $120 billion in supplemental funding from Congress. Hear Chris Currie, a director on our Homeland Security and Justice team, talk about the federal response to these disasters and key recovery challenges.


Photo of Chris Currie, a GAO Homeland Security and Justice Director

Adolescent and Young Adult Substance Use: Around 1 in 6 adolescents and more than 1 out of 3 young adults used illicit substances in 2016. Most young adults who develop substance use disorders begin using in adolescence. Hear John Dicken, a director on our Health Care team, talk about federal grants for substance use prevention, treatment, and recovery among adolescents and young adults.

Photo of a Bag of Pills Exchanging Hands

Afghanistan Security Equipment:  The United States has spent nearly $84 billion in Afghan security since 2002. That investment includes equipment, as well as the training necessary to operate and maintain that equipment. Listen to Jessica Farb, a director in our International Affairs and Trade team, discuss the Afghan Security Forces’ ability to operate and sustain the equipment they bought.


Photo of U.S.-Purchased Equipment for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces

Weapons Systems Cybersecurity: DOD plans to spend around $1.66 trillion on its portfolio of major weapons systems—including weapons that are more computerized and networked than ever before. But as technology advances, so does the threat posed by cyber-attacks. Tune in to Cristina Chaplain, a director on our Contracting and National Security Acquisitions team, as she discusses the state of cybersecurity for DOD’s weapon systems.


Embedded Software and Information Technology Systems Are Pervasive in Weapon Systems (Represented via Fictitious Weapon System for Classification Reasons)

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