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Opinion: Agency Watchdogs Can Do Much More Than Bark and Bite

For inspectors general, collaborative approach would lead to better oversight

Disgraced former GSA head Martha Johnson prepares to testify before Congress in 2012 after an inspector general report revealed her agency’s “excessive and wasteful” spending on short ribs, artisanal cheese and souvenir carabiners. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Disgraced former GSA head Martha Johnson prepares to testify before Congress in 2012 after an inspector general report revealed her agency’s “excessive and wasteful” spending on short ribs, artisanal cheese and souvenir carabiners. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Americans’ trust in our government institutions is near all-time lows.

Some of the cynicism — and criticism — stems from more than a decade of hyperpolarization. But much of the distrust is due to high-profile government scandals, such as the initial failure of the website, insufficient care at Veterans Affairs hospitals, and the General Services Administration’s over-the-top Las Vegas conference.

Stepping in with growing force are inspectors general at government agencies, who have become instrumental in providing the oversight needed to restore trust in our institutions.

Congress created inspectors general, or IGs, 40 years ago through the Inspector General Act of 1978. The goal was simple: IGs were to be independent and objective officials who conducted investigations within the executive branch; promoted efficiency and effectiveness; rooted out waste, fraud and abuse; and kept Congress, the agency and the public informed about governmental operations.

The role of IGs has evolved and grown over the past four decades. But the IGs of 2018 need a new playbook that promotes proactive collaboration with their agencies and with Congress to improve real-time government oversight. This collaboration would represent a monumental step toward a better functioning government to meet the needs and expectations of all Americans.

The Bipartisan Policy Center on Monday released a new report that contains the unanimous recommendations of former government leaders, IGs, public administrators and senior congressional staff, who make up its Task Force on Oversight and Inspectors General.

Key among those recommendations is a call for a more collaborative approach to oversight by IGs, agency heads and Congress.

Beyond the scandals

IGs aren’t just watchdogs for Congress’ oversight needs. They also assist agencies in better accomplishing their missions. IGs make recommendations to improve the effectiveness of programs in addition to identifying potential risks for fraud and abuse.

Unfortunately, the relationship between IGs and the agencies they watch over has become overly adversarial. Many agencies view interactions with the inspector general as a net negative that can only bring bad press, which incentivizes concealing smaller issues until they become disasters.

Additionally, IGs have overemphasized their desire for complete independence to the detriment of forming working relationships with top agency staff. This distance between IGs and agency staff results in missed opportunities to improve federal programs and operations, especially before months or years are lost to inefficiency.

Finally, interactions between Congress and IGs tend to be most frequent when big scandals capture the public’s attention. A better way to improve government is to build more frequent opportunities for IGs to share their work with Congress.

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Seat at the table

It is time for a culture shift. IGs need to be brought into agency management discussions, particularly through participation in regular high-level management meetings, while still maintaining their independence.

These meetings would give IGs insight into current priorities and activities, potentially allowing them to warn about risks or to recommend alternative approaches to achieve agency goals. And IGs themselves have substantial expertise in areas such as fraud reduction and IT security. That knowledge can help agencies efficiently start new initiatives. None of this would be possible if IGs do not have a seat at the management table.

IGs need to adjust their approach as well. While independence is fundamental to their role, it can be taken to the extreme, leading to their irrelevance. IGs who keep too much distance between themselves and their agencies limit their ability to catch problems before they occur and risk losing touch with what is happening there. They can only be reactive rather than proactive. At times, IGs may not be able to maintain a close working relationship with the agency, such as during investigations of the agency head or senior leaders. But these circumstances do not reflect the clear majority of IG work.

Congress and IGs also must find more effective avenues to share information about government operations. IGs are already steady fixtures at congressional hearings, but both institutions would benefit from more frequent staff-level discussions to keep everyone on the same page.

Working constructively with agency management and Congress doesn’t mean sacrificing independence.

Congress specifically intended for IGs to be independent, to speak truth to power, and to carry out their work in a neutral, nonpartisan manner. IGs are dedicated civil servants who believe deeply in their role to support effective government. It’s time to modernize the institution for the next 40 years.

David Williams, a member of BPC’s Task Force on Oversight and Inspectors General, served as inspector general at five federal agencies from 1989 to 2016, including the U.S. Postal Service, the Department of Treasury, the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration.

Dan G. Blair is a senior counselor and fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. He previously led the National Academy of Public Administration and served as deputy director and acting director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is a D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Follow BPC on Twitter or Facebook.

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