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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.

By Paul Light

 |  December 2, 2010; 10:27 AM ET |  Category:  Change management , Federal government leadership , Public leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Want to actually trim government bloat? Start with the hidden workforce | Next: What the next round of federal cuts should look like

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Many IG investigators and investigative managers are not FBI wannabes but rather former FBI and IRS, Secret Service and ATF agents as well as Air Force OSI and Army CID Agents who bring considerable experience to the IG community.

Additionally, there are young investigators starting out with IG organizations who are eventually accepted into FBI or Treasury offices.

While every organization has its wannabes, standards for IG criminal investigators have improved over the years.

Posted by: citd | December 8, 2010 4:17 PM

I worked as an auditor and assistant inspector general for 32 years before retiring. For the most part the dollar results reported by Offices of Inspector General cannot be converted to budgetary savings. In fact, many of the dollars are court ordered restitution and fines resulting from criminal investigations and the sums may never be collected. "Questioned costs" and "questioned costs sustained" vary greatly. In addition, questioned costs may relate to previous year's appropriations and have nothing to do with future year's budget considerations. "Funds put to better use" are very subjective and often disputed by agency management much more strongly than the auditors' actual recommendations for corrective actions. In addition, most offices report no monetary impact from their work. I always thought members of Congress and their staff did not adequately understand the IGs' reported numbers and put too much weight in what was reported. Congressman Issa probably should ask for a very candid briefing from the leaders of the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency to explain these numbers and what ought to be done with them.

Audits and evaluations related to the return on investments would be needed to achieve budgetary savings. Benchmarks would need to be developed. In addition, Congress will need to be more explicit about what it expects from programs being funded. The IGs are not focused on this type of work.

Posted by: Viewpoint2 | December 7, 2010 10:17 PM

I worked in an IG office in the 90's and the leadership started fabricating results. Through a peer review (other IG offices inspecting each other) this fabrication was uncovered and many in management at the IG resigned. The real question here is what circumstances made those SESers decide fabricating results was a good idea ?

Posted by: mnbvcx | December 6, 2010 7:25 AM

Paul - I've read every book you've written on government. As a 40 year Fed, when you wrote the OIG's were doing the job, the OIG's were at their peak. IG's are independent emperor's or empresses answerable to hardly anyone. Most are nominated by Agency heads. They waste money with the best of them.

The Investigators include many FBI wannabes who are getting pensions the same as FBI types.

The auditor, evaluators or whatever you want to call them are leaderless with little focus. The pay (grades) have jumped substantially in the last 10-15 years with little to show for it.

The original IG Act was the right thing to do but things have gone down hill the last 15 years.

Posted by: JuanValdezz | December 5, 2010 9:57 PM

The IG system is just another way agencies have to cover up their crimes. One complaint I sent to the Department of Labor OIG complaining that a VETS investigator was sabotaging a complaint investigation was dismissed by return mail by the OIG with the comment that the person I had complained about was the best investigator VETS had. Two years later, the Merit System Protection Board dismissed my appeal for lack of jurisdiction because that investigator had not mentioned the Veterans' Employment Opportunity Act in his letters, even though I had cited that law in each of my complaints. Another reason for the dismissal was that this investigator did not put dates on his letters. The IG does not want to become a whistleblower by finding that anybody in his agency did anything wrong. The system is a big waste of money because of the high salaries paid to those clowns.

Posted by: cwheckman | December 4, 2010 5:15 PM

Thank you, Paul Light, for the thoughtful article. With Rep. Issa's leadership congress has an opportunity to improve the role inspector generals have in government accountability. Let's rebalance measuring cost savings "outputs" in favor of achieving more valuable "outcomes" of improving the design of government programs and making them more efficient, accountable, and cost efective. Please keep us informed.

Posted by: CongressObserver | December 4, 2010 7:26 AM

Thanks for actually recognizing some organizations that are working hard and doing well. Remember, however, that the IG's must be backed up by motivated, well-trained compliance staffs within the individual agencies. I retired almost 3-years ago from just such a staff at an agency within the USDA. Over the years I worked closely with many different IG investigators under Phyllis Fong and her predecessors and found them all to be well trained, experienced, and motivated.

Again, thank you for recognizing the IG's, but don't forget all the other agency personnel who contribute technical program information and assist in those investigations.

Posted by: Corn-Cop | December 4, 2010 7:16 AM

JARLWOLF is right. This is the problem with the whole government; including the inconsistency among IG offices. They think if they watch closer, right tighter rules, and so on, that more problems will come to light or be solved. ALL government workers, from the President to the least office cleaner, either has a work ethic or he doesn't; either cares more about doing their job correctly, than their job; can face up to that politician with strength and fortitude to do the RIGHT thing for their country, or gets by without making waves! The word WAS metrics; now it's EFFICIENCIES! How do we save the taxpayer's money! We don't save it by building more committees for oversight; filling out spreadsheets at every level meant to show how well we manage; or by saving a few dollars here and a few dollars there to prove we're in this for the long haul. The problem is; no one in government is in this for the long haul. We didn't have a plan when we threw away all that stimulus, we don't have a plan to make government more fiscally responsible, we don't have a clue how to dig out of this hole. As long as public officers continue to work first to keep their job, and second to do their job; and give these kind of jobs to appointees as OJT (there should be NO appointees, only duly elected officials and civilian employees), there will be no REAL change in goverment!

Posted by: dragonlady45 | December 3, 2010 12:38 PM

First order of business is to pass a law that allows a criminal investigation of a govt contractor or as HHS-Medicare calls theirs,(business associates.) yesterday, i was told again by them that they can't stop what US atty's are calling the biggest organized crime and racketeering scandal in USA history as it involves the theft of the Medicare trust fund by contractors. Not even internal audits are allowed. Every entity, whether a person or company needs to be equal before the law. Holding a govt contract should not exempt anyone from criminal liability if the law is broken. US atty's can't prosecute or 'deal' until a Federal law enforcement entity refers the case in. If you or I rob a bank, we go to jail. But if the thief is a subsidiary of an international conglomerate that just happens to get a govt contract; they have full immunity to rob the public treasury until the country is bankrupt. Also, first levels of appeals are suppose to be done by these contractors and too often those just 'disappear' meaning that justice is denied by anyone 'harmed' has no constitutional right to have a constitutional right to have the facts of the appeal revewed and even when the case gets to the level where a federal administrative judge does the review the govt contractor is allowed to withhold pertinent info and even the decision or claims file and those prevalent offline, hidden, unsecured computer systems have to done away with. This is all well documented and I ask anyone of faith to pray for Congressman Issa as he attempts to return the power of govt back to "we the people.'( others keep him in your positive thoughts) Linda Joy Adams

Posted by: LindaJoyAdams | December 3, 2010 12:26 PM

One might want to start with the DOT-OIG. It is the tar-pit of IG offices within the govt. Complaints go in and they disappear. No comment, no status, no investigation. The must bury them in the tar-pit. Promotions and raises to one of the most dysfunctional investigatory agencies we are paying taxes to keep in operation.

Posted by: flyinsafe | December 3, 2010 9:11 AM

While Article 1 gives Congress control over the budget, I have been wondering about all these "oversight" committees and what is: 1) the actual cost of the committee operations and staff; 2) the specific constitutional authorization of these committees; and 3) the ratio of oversight costs to actual savings in the executive and judicial branches to the costs in oversight committee authorizations.

Posted by: JarlWolf | December 3, 2010 9:04 AM

I love collective buying!!! Want to get food at the lowest prices? Then the place is called "Printapons" find them online

Posted by: cherylpowell1 | December 3, 2010 12:02 AM

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