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Panelists at Urban Institute Discuss the Art of Watchdogging

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Last Wednesday, the Project On Government Oversight’s executive director Danielle Brian spoke on a panel of government oversight experts at the Urban Institute’s standing-room-only event “Watchdogs, Investigations, and Evaluations: Using Art and Science to Improve Government.” The event focused on government efficiency and effectiveness, and the challenges of making it so.

The opening speakers, Daniel Feldman and David Eichenthal, focused on the recently published book by the pair, The Art of the Watchdog: Fighting Fraud, Waste, Abuse, and Corruption in Government, a comprehensive guide to the practice of oversight and auditing at each governing level from county to federal.

Mr. Eichenthal was introduced and praised by his former boss Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) who as then-Mayor of Chattanooga, hired Eichenthal—a Democrat from New York—to be his director of performance review. Eichenthal defined the “art” of the watchdog as the decision-making over where and when to devote investigative resources, which requires a certain “doggedness” and “deep intolerance for injustice.” Mr. Feldman followed, emphasizing the importance of the Inspectors General position. He argued that IGs, who naturally win political capital by “catching bad guys,” should use this capital to make the politically unpopular point that increasing funding for an agency is sometimes what is needed to improve operations in agencies with serious financial needs. He also pointed out that when IGs expose misbehaving government officials, it can have the unfortunate side effect of sometimes increasing the public’s frustration with government and its desire to just eliminate it. He further pointed out that the government’s response to the public’s angst is frequently to outsource work to contractors—which often result in even bigger problems.

This “kneejerk distrust of government” was a concern echoed throughout the event, especially by Danielle. She said her greatest fear is that the work of oversight professionals will simply feed the public’s growing anti-government sentiment. She also agreed with Mr. Feldman, who had pointed out that efforts by agencies to outsource government functions to private contractors often result in more severe mismanagement problems and, in many cases, higher costs.

The subsequent panel—Danielle, Government Accountability Office Financial Markets Managing Director Orice Williams Brown, and Governing Institute Director and former Mayor of Kansas City Mark Funkhouser—agreed that success in the government oversight sphere means getting results from oversight work, not simply pointing out problems. The panelists focused part of their discussion on what they see as a pervasive problem in oversight: a general aversion by watchdogs to politics and the media. Auditors tend to shy away from press attention and political involvement, both of which are considered by some to be grandstanding or unprofessional. But the Urban Institute panel stressed that press attention of oversight reports is a necessary factor in instigating change, and actively engaging in political dialogue is a duty of the watchdog. Mr. Funkhouser described the “activist auditor” as a champion of government oversight who focusses on both the micro and macro successes of their work: the internal auditing metrics and meaningful improvement in the operations of government, respectively.

Danielle noted that POGO’s relationship with the press has changed dramatically over time. Twenty years ago, POGO was entirely dependent on mainstream media outlets to reach the public. Now, POGO can also communicate with its supporters more directly through social media and this blog in order to incorporate a necessary macro-perspective in its reporting.

The speakers gave the audience a better understanding of how the oversight community plays an important and productive role, not only in saving money, but also often in making people safer. The challenge will be to push our watchdogs to more effectively apply the “art” of oversight in order to better achieve their potential.

By: Max Johnson
Intern, POGO

Max Johnson photo At the time of publication Max Johnson was an intern with the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: Government Accountability

Related Content: Congressional Oversight, Inspector General Oversight

Authors: Max Johnson

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