After the start of the Civil Works program in 1824, Congress and cabinet officials oversaw the Army's involvement in Civil Works projects. Congress authorized projects, appropriated funds, requested reports, and oversaw progress. The bonds between Civil Works projects and Congress were the strongest in the years leading up to World War II. During that conflict, the executive branch's control over Civil Works drastically increased, and in 1943 the Bureau of the Budget became the chief monitor of the nation's Civil Works program.
Despite the executive branch's growing oversight role, the secretaries of the Army showed little interest in Civil Works functions in the years after WWII. As a result, the responsibility for civil functions never found a permanent home within the Army Secretariat. In 1950 the Secretary of the Army assigned the responsibility for Civil Works to the newly created Assistant Secretary of the Army, General Management. In 1952 the mission moved again, this time to the Under Secretary of the Army. Two years later, responsibility for Civil Works transferred to another newly created secretariat, the Assistant Secretary of the Army, Civil-Military Affairs. In 1958 this assistant secretary became the Assistant Secretary, Manpower and Reserve Affairs, and in 1961 Civil Works moved once more, this time to the Assistant Secretary of the Army, Financial Management. Oversight of the Civil Works program continued to bounce around throughout the early 1960s until a 1965 Civil Works Study Board, appointed by the Secretary of the Army, recommended that his secretariat participate fully in civil matters. To ensure the Civil Works program received both adequate responsibility and oversight, the board recommended the creation of an Assistant Secretary of the Army specifically for Civil Works. The study board argued that as a proponent of the Army's Civil Works function, the new assistant secretary could provide a more forceful voice before Congress, strengthen the planning and review process, and garner heightened visibility for Civil Works projects within the executive branch.
The 1970 Flood Control Act finally authorized the position, but President Nixon hesitated to appoint a secretary because he was considering the creation of an entirely new agency--the Department of Environment and Natural Resources--of which Civil Works would have been a part. It was not until the Ford administration that the president finally filled the position after years of debate. On March 20, 1975, Victor V. Veysey was sworn in as the first Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, ASA (CW); he served until January 1977. Veysey interpreted the position to be largely advisory and saw his role as that of an "honest broker" to intermediate between the Corps of Engineers and others involved in water resources. His was a stance later assistant secretaries emulated. Veysey remarked that he did not order the Army Corps of Engineers, the ASA's primary workforce, to do anything. The engineers, he said, took their orders from the Chief of Staff, but the ASA (CW) could attempt to influence directions, policy, and procedures for civil works projects. Not long after Veysey left office, the ASA (CW) came under fire from Defense Secretary Harold Brown, who wanted to reduce the size of the secretariat and eliminate the position. President Jimmy Carter, who also questioned the necessity of numerous water projects and had environmental concerns about them, did not fill the secretary position for his first two years in office. However, in 1979, President Carter appointed Michael Blumenfeld as ASA (CW). Blumenfeld vowed to develop new, environmentally sensitive principles and standards for water projects.
Following the Carter administration, William Gianelli served as Ronald Reagan's first ASA (CW) and was also the first assistant secretary to have a civil engineering education. He focused on regulatory reforms and emphasized cost-sharing to take some of the financial burden off federal entities. Gianelli's successor, Robert Dawson, continued to develop the cost-sharing program and also focused on the legislation that would become the Water Resources Development Act of 1986. By this point, the ASA (CW) had become much more than the advisory position that Veysey envisioned. Gianelli and Dawson assumed prominent roles in the direction of the Civil Works program. Robert Page, who became the Acting ASA (CW) in May 1985, continued streamlining civil projects and attempted to introduce private-sector management practices. His emphasis was on providing cheaper products, and providing them faster, without sacrificing quality. Nancy Dorn became the first female secretary and served from 1991 to 1993. She also focused on management and preferred improving the Army's existing Civil Works missions to seeking new ones. Dorn left office after the administration change in 1993, succeeded by President Clinton's ASA (CW), H. Martin Lancaster. Lancaster sought to reduce the duration and cost of Civil Works project studies and to broaden the scope of Army engineering and construction through a reimbursable Support for Others Program. He also provided consistent support for the Everglades restoration initiatives. Joseph Westphal served as the next ASA (CW) from 1998 to 2001. He became a driving force behind comprehensive river-basin-wide planning efforts, which included a variety of recreational and environmental preservation initiatives. His successor, Mike Parker, maintained similar advocacy efforts and pushed for higher Civil Works funding but resigned after six months in office. Les Brownlee inherited the ASA (CW) duties after Parker's departure until President George W. Bush nominated John Paul Woodley, Jr. in 2003. Woodley focused on enhancing performance measures, streamlining the regulatory process, and improving communications.
The most recent ASA (CW)s have expanded the Civil Works mission both at home and overseas. They have taken on projects to restore coastal wetlands, most notably the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, which was part of the Water Resources Development Act of 2000. Since 2001 the Army has called upon the water resources, environmental, regulatory, and emergency response expertise developed through the Civil Works program to support reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today the ASA (CW) continues to establish policy and provide supervision for the development of the nation's water and wetland resources and for the conservation, navigation, flood risk management, and shore protection efforts undertaken by the Army.