Commentary: Inspectors general must be independent to be effective
By POGO's Beverley C. Lumpkin
Inspectors general are often the Rodney Dangerfields of the federal government: They get no respect. A report released in late February by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) found many IGs are under-resourced to the point they have difficulty accomplishing their statutory mission.
POGO strongly supports the concept of inspectors general — the idea of having an independent office within a federal agency to root out waste, fraud, abuse and other misconduct, while reporting both to the agency head and to Congress. However, our reporting reveals that too many of the 64 statutory IGs lack the tools necessary to achieve independence. And we concluded that an IG without independence is an impostor: “Calling someone who lacks independence of agency leadership an ‘inspector general’ not only confuses the press and public, but can also create pitfalls for potential whistleblowers. The sincere … whistleblower may believe he or she is approaching an independent arbiter and end up sadly mistaken.”
That dual-reporting responsibility can be difficult. Back in 1988, then-State Department IG Sherman Funk testified before Congress that he often felt as if he was “straddling the barbed wire fence.” One IG told POGO that whenever he walks into an agency meeting, everybody groans because they know they’re either going to hear something they don’t like or will have to take actions nobody wants. When you leave the job, he said, you can’t expect any nice letters of referral.
POGO sent out a questionnaire seeking basic information about structure and resources of the IGs’ offices and received 49 responses from the 64 statutory IGs. We learned that quite a few lack sufficient staff to accomplish their mission: 13 offices had six or fewer staff members. For the 34 IGs who are not presidentially appointed and never face Senate confirmation, there is virtually no budget transparency, and agency chiefs have been known to retaliate via IGs’ budgets in retribution for unwanted audits or investigations. Even when their funds have been appropriated, some IGs are not allowed to spend their own money without approval from their agency heads.
We also found that a number of IGs lack their own dedicated in-house legal counsel. For some of the smallest IG offices, there may not be enough work to justify a full-time permanent counsel position; however, POGO strongly believes the solution must never be to rely on the advice of the agency general counsel. Surprisingly, we found the Defense Department inspector general lacks its own counsel; we believe that represents a profound conflict of interest for any agency, but the consequences may be even more significant at such a large department.
Our investigation also found that a number of IGs had trouble posting their own reports on their own Web pages. Often there was not a clear and direct link from the agency home page to the IG’s page. But worse, in some cases, IGs were expressly forbidden to post without agency approval. There were other forms of interference with IGs’ ability to function independently, including the existence of other units within the agencies whose missions conflict with that of the IGs, and general counsels who excised portions of IG reports that they interpreted as violating the Freedom of Information Act or other laws.
POGO acknowledges there have been reports of IGs running roughshod over their staffs, consorting too much with agency chiefs, and various other forms of unethical behavior or misconduct. Those reports, of course, always excite the attention of the Congress, the media and the public: A “watchdog gone wrong” story will always sell. But we have found that the other side of the equation has received too little attention. This report focused on issues of IG independence. As we turn our sights onto questions of IG accountability, performance and effectiveness, we call on Congress to enact strong legislation aimed at shoring up the IGs’ independence.
Only when the optimal balance between accountability and independence has been attained will the inspector general system be able to accomplish its mission.