The government’s 73 inspectors general provide “an excellent return on taxpayers’ investment in their work and have become a critical part of the checks and balances in our democratic system,” the Bipartisan Policy Center said in a report released on Monday.
But “agency heads and inspectors general often keep too much distance” from one another, resulting in missed opportunities, said former Office of Personnel Management deputy director Dan Blair, who coordinated a year of research for the paper, at a Monday panel discussion. “It’s time for a culture shift.”
Released to mark the 40th anniversary of the 1978 Inspector General Act, the report from a task force, titled “Oversight Matters: What’s Next for Inspectors General,” tapped the expertise of several former IGs, members of Congress and agency heads to offer recommendations on how IGs can better “address issues before they blow up and become headlines,” said Blair, who previously headed the National Academy of Public Administration.
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The complexities of the IG’s “dual hat” role—reporting to Congress while working independently inside their agencies—have led to confusion about oversight responsibilities.
“This special relationship empowers IGs to notify Congress when an agency or department attempts to thwart their responsibilities under the law,” the report said. “The task force finds that Congress can better leverage the work of IGs to encourage agency action on IG recommendations” to reduce waste, fraud and abuse.
“While strict firewalls remain in place between the IGs and their agencies’ leaders,” the report said, “today’s complex government requires IGs to interact routinely with agency management to identify risks and head off failures before they occur.”
The relationship between IGs and agency heads is delicate, panelists said. “Generally, department and agency leaders are wary of hearing from the IG. It feels like ‘60 Minutes’ showing up on your doorstep,” said John McHugh, a former House Democrat from New York and Army secretary. “It’s not a happy day.” But the drift toward less communication between watchdogs and agency heads has gone too far, he said.
Dan Glickman, a former House Democrat from Kansas and Agriculture secretary in the Clinton administration, noted that his predecessor, Mike Espy, resigned amid charges of accepting illegal gifts that arose in part because of an inspector general investigation. (Espy was later found not guilty). When Glickman arrived at USDA, he met with the IG and included the IG as an observer at his senior staff meetings, Glickman said. “We didn’t always agree, but we never had a moment of mistrust.”
Dave Williams, former IG for the Postal Service, said, “If we did a word cloud of the IG Act, the biggest word would be ‘independent.’ No one would believe an investigation if it were done by the subject of the investigation,” he added. To achieve justice and do the IG job properly, he added, “it sometimes really wrecks the place, taking out someone who was [perceived as] essential.”
Williams noted that Justice Department IG Michael Horowitz recently delivered a report on the FBI’s handling of the 2016 investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails “that in another country might have got him killed.”
Arnold Fields, former Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, said no one at the Defense Department ever got in his way. But “reporting to agencies is like being in the family of a police officer. He pulls over his parents in the morning, then sits down with them that evening to have dinner.”
The Bipartisan Policy Center’s task force offered recommendations for Congress, the IG community, agency heads and the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency. Among the recommendations:
Released separately on Monday was a report by the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, which noted 13 current IG vacancies. Of these 13 open slots, four have no nominee, six have a nomination awaiting Senate consideration, and three require only an appointment by the head of an agency.
“These numbers are not an aberration, but represent a fairly consistent pattern over the past decade,” the report noted.
Acting IGs are less effective than permanent ones, POGO argued, because “permanent IGs undergo significant review—especially the IGs that require Senate confirmation—before taking their position. That vetting process helps instill confidence among Congress, agency officials, whistleblowers, and the public that the office of the IG is truly independent, and that its investigations and audits are accurate and credible.”
The POGO report was done in consultation with notable former IGs such as Williams, Earl Devaney, Clark Ervin, Gordon Heddell and John Roth.
“POGO’s recommendations address the need for strong and consistent leadership, a higher prioritization of major issues affecting the nation, such as harm to the public’s health, safety, and constitutional rights, and how to best work with and support whistleblowers,” the report stated.
“Too often, the IGs suffer from inadequate or inconsistent budgets,” POGO added. “Resource constraints can directly affect the ability of IGs to conduct effective and consistent oversight.”
In addition, the report argued that “Congress should amend the Federal Vacancies Reform Act to allow temporary or acting IG appointments for those positions awaiting presidential appointment, under certain conditions and in a manner consistent with constitutionally mandated separation of powers.”