Strengthening the inspectors general
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) announced his new oversight agenda last week by promising a broad attack on government fraud, waste and abuse. In doing so, he both elevated the Government Reform and Oversight Committee agenda to new heights and rejected the slow-drip strategy of constant harassment marked by his predecessor, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ill.), who peppered the Clinton Administration with more than a thousand subpoenas.
Burton was mainly interested in investigating trivial scandals that might make the headlines. Issa wants something much more. He actually wants to take his committee back to a more aggressive oversight role designed to improve government performance. That's good news.
To this end, Issa promised to strengthen the federal government's obscure Offices of Inspector General to ferret out waste, setting a target of at least $40 billion in cuts. It is not clear, however, that the offices have either the capacity or inclination to play this role.
The inspectors general (IGs) who lead the offices have been in the headlines before. After the offices were created in the late 1970s, they were front and center in the Reagan Administration's eight-year war on waste. Driven forward by presidential pressure, they embraced a "gotcha" mentality by massing relatively small audits into relatively small inventories of savings. They even adopted a new category of savings called "funds put to better use," as part of a "body count" effort to generate these savings.
As I wrote in 1992, the IGs were not doing a bad job, but the wrong job. Their real mandate involved a wide invitation to prevent waste; and reporting simultaneously to Congress and the president, they had more than enough authority to audit and investigate any subject they wanted. If they saw something going wrong in a bill or regulation, they were to say something. Prevention was the real key, not gotcha audits. But the Reagan administration wanted dollars, and most of the IGs complied.
Twenty-some years later, many of the offices are still in gotcha mode. There are exceptions to the rule, especially in offices led by gutsy inspectors general such as Glenn Fine at Justice (who recently announced he will resign), Phyllis Fong at Agriculture and Mary Kendall at Interior. Daniel Levinson also makes the cut at Health and Human Services because of his ongoing effort to repair the damage done by his predecessor, Janet Rehnquist, who tore the flagship office apart.
However, the IGs and their offices are uneven. Some are very good, others weak, and still others in recovery under new leadership. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is steadily improving these days under its new IG, Paul Martin who entered office after a long and controversial battle between Congress and the Bush administration's ineffective IG Robert Cobb.
But other offices remain adrift and uncertain after years of politicization by Democratic and Republican presidents alike. Moreover, many of the offices were decimated by deep staffing cuts during the Clinton administration's "reinventing government" campaign, largely because they were widely seen as just another barrier to innovation.
The cuts took their toll. Few of the offices have even a handful of personnel that monitor performance. Some do have offices of inspections that delve into evaluation of what works and what does not, but most are drowning in backlogs of other work. Many just don't have enough capacity to implement their current agendas, let alone launch an entirely new program designed to reduce duplication and overlap across agency programs.
If Issa wants the offices to identify poorly performing programs, he should take a hard look at the IGs and their offices first. He also should talk to Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) for sure--she engineered a major bill last year to strengthen IG independence. But the offices will need more staff and a good dose of courage to do the new job, which should include more aggressive reviews of the tepid measures that most agencies use to judge performance. He also might start with a serious winnowing of the current cadre of IGs. Some were appointed solely for the campaign experience, and others for their compliance. He should target them for exit, and empower the rest.
December 2, 2010; 10:27 AM ET |
Federal government leadership
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