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Answer Man: Name That Agency

By John Kelly
Monday, March 14, 2005; Page C11

W hen did the General Accounting Office become the Government Accountability Office? Or are they two separate entities? If it is only a name change, the new name implies a very different function. The old name makes the office sound like a bunch of accountants; the new name makes them sound like watchdogs who are on our side monitoring government spending. What's the story?

Herb Golden, Bethesda

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If the typical U.S. government agency were a person instead of a government agency, it would be a simple matter to show its personal growth and maturity. For example, if the GAO was actually a person named "James," it could be known as "Jimmy" for the first few years of its life, "Jimbo" as a teenager, "Jim" as a young adult and "James" as a sober and respected middle-aged man.

For better or worse, many federal agencies go by oddly opaque names that usually end up as a clutch of initials. Sometimes the agency's mandate changes. Sometimes it's society that changes. In either case, a new name is called for.

The GAO started life as the General Accounting Office. On July 7, 2004, it officially became the Government Accountability Office.

"The old name was never really reflective of who we are and what we did," said Dave Walker, comptroller general of the United States. "And as time went on, there was an even bigger disconnect."

(By the way, isn't that a great title: comptroller general of the United States. You must do my bidding! I comptrol you!)

"We were never in the accounting business, and many people thought we were responsible for keeping the government's financial statements," Dave said.

So, what is the GAO responsible for? "Our job is to help the Congress maximize its performance and to ensure the accountability of the federal government for the benefit of the American people."

While it does the occasional audit, most of what GAO does is evaluate government programs and analyze policy to see what works and what doesn't. Dave said the old name scared off a lot of people who might have enjoyed working for GAO.

"We did it to help us in recruiting, especially for the attorneys, MBAs and economists who can very much relate to the word 'accountability' but not the word 'accounting,' " he said.

Sometimes a name changes to reflect a change in times. For most of our country's history, the part of the government responsible for fighting wars was called, unsurprisingly, the War Department.

"War Department" doesn't leave much doubt as to what it's all about, but it can sound a bit belligerent. So in 1947, something called the National Military Establishment was created. Two years later, it became the Defense Department, and the War Department was subsumed into the Army. "Defense" sounds, well, more defensible than "war."

Other name changes: In 2003, when it moved from Treasury to Justice, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms became the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. They still call it "ATF," though, as opposed to "ATFE." (Answer Man has spent some time around ATF agents. They love explosives, so it's nice to see that reflected in the name.)

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