When the head of an agency actually listens to the findings of an Inspector General (IG), great things can happen. A June 2017 report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) prompted Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to acknowledge and denounce the Department of Defense’s (DoD) dismissive attitude towards reigning in its overspending of taxpayer dollars, and to highlight the good work done by SIGAR.
The official memo to DoD leadership, dated July 21, discusses SIGAR’s report on camouflage uniform misspending in Afghanistan, while also pointing out and decrying DoD’s “complacent mode of thinking” when it comes to spending in general. Mattis found that SIGAR’s report highlighted two truths about DoD work:
1) Every action contributes to the larger missions of defending the country
2) Procurement decisions have a lasting impact on the larger defense budget
Mattis uses these truths to reinforce the importance of effective spending at DoD, and wants to use SIGAR’s report and the instances of misspending it found as a “catalyst to bring to light wasteful practices – and take aggressive steps to end waste in [DoD].”
While this is potentially great news and a marked shift in DoD rhetoric, it is important to note that stating a problem exists is not the same as taking concrete action to fix it. Just last year, DoD was working to discredit SIGAR over a report on a $43 million gas station in Afghanistan, rather than working to fix the problem. Moreover, the $28 million in misspending that this most recent SIGAR report focused on and that drew Mattis’s attention is nothing compared to the waste, fraud, and abuse occurring in the larger defense budget (over $300 billion of which was spent on goods and services in 2016). It is important to remember that DoD is not known for its willingness to proactively address its spending issues, but is rather known for actively resisting efforts to increase transparency and accountability. (See, for instance, POGO’s work on DoD’s reluctance to examine its contracts for improper payments & DoD still not being able to pass an audit.)
It will take more than this memo for DoD to change the way it spends taxpayer money, but publically acknowledging the truth of SIGAR’s findings and trying to leverage that work for change—rather than fighting against and resisting the IG at every turn—is an important first step.
It is even more important, however, that DoD truly works towards achieving effective spending on an agency-wide scale.