What does an auditor general do?

Acting U.S. Comptroller General and General Accountability Office (GAO) head Gene Dodaro testifies before Congress in July 2009.
Acting U.S. Comptroller General and General Accountability Office (GAO) head Gene Dodaro testifies before Congress in July 2009.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Images

Every year, the federal government takes in trillions of dollars in tax money and spends it on a variety of programs and projects. Every U.S. state takes in billions of tax dollars as well. Is there someone keeping track of how the government is spending all that money, making sure it's used effectively, and watching out for waste? Someone who acts as a sort of accountant for the government? Luckily, the auditor general takes care of all of this.

An auditor general is sometimes known as a comptroller, or just controller. (For the record, the word "comptroller" was originally two French words combined into a single word. It's technically pronounced like "controller," though you may hear it pronounced phonetically) [source: Merriam-Webster]. Auditors general exist at virtually every level of government, and many corporations have them as well. The most important auditors general work for state governments. The U.S. federal government has one as well -- the Government Accountability Office (GAO) is headed by the Comptroller General of the United States.

Becoming an auditor general requires you to either be appointed or elected to the position. Each state has a different method of choosing their auditor general. The Comptroller General of the U.S. is appointed by the president for a 15-year term, subject to congressional approval. State auditors general may be appointed by their state legislatures, by committees within a given legislature or by the governor. Some states elect their auditor general, which works just like any other state-level elected position.

The job of the auditor general revolves around tracking government finances, so accounting experience is a must. Most auditors general have accounting degrees and years of governmental management experience. Often they work their way up through a state's accounting department (often known as the Office of the Auditor General), even serving as deputy auditor general before being appointed to the top job. It's rare to see someone appointed to an auditor general position directly from a career in the private sector, since getting a political appointment requires some political connections. Many auditors general also have worked in local or state politics.

For elected auditor general positions, there might not be any specific qualifications. While a solid background in accounting would seem like a good way to attract voters, someone with little experience in the field can get elected if they have a reputation for cutting down waste and corruption -- or they have a large election fund.

Now you know how to become an auditor general, but what does an auditor general actually do?