Holding the Government Accountable

Exploring the Lived Experiences of Inspectors General

Matthew Harris, an adjunct professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland University College, recently completed an in-depth dissertation titled Inspectors General: Exploring Lived Experiences, Impediments to Success, and Possibilities for Improvement. He spoke to Inspectors General (IGs) at both the state and federal level and got their thoughts on everything from budgetary limitations to federal vacancies to the misunderstood role of the Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

Harris’s study examined the experiences of nine federal IGs and nine state or local IGs, some currently holding the position, others retired. He kept their names and personal information anonymous so the IGs could speak freely. Harris interviewed each IG about their on-the-job discoveries, difficulties, and recommendations for improving the role of all IGs.

Six IGs found that there is a lack of understanding of the role and responsibilities of the IG by the public and by their respective agencies, and that the misunderstanding was significant enough to affect their operations. A few IGs suggested education programs or a mandatory visit from a Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) representative to incoming agency heads. IGs found that having to explain the independence and proper role of the IG took time and effort away from other projects.

Another impediment to success was external pressures, whether political, organizational, or public. Six IGs said they not only experienced external pressures but also that they were significant enough to interfere with the job. Harris wrote: “The participant explained that agency officials often questioned the IG’s authority, and that he/she had also experienced intimidation attempts….‘I don’t know that you really meant to say this, and here’s why.’ FIG 5 noted: ‘That is a huge challenge. The agency has tried to set us aside and diminish our role, we’ve experienced that.’”

But the chief impediment in accomplishing their mission, as identified by seven IGs, was a lack of budgetary and resource independence. “Participants noted that they had increased areas of responsibility and oversight, but that despite these additional responsibilities their budgets remained constant.” Furthermore, one IG, who had his/her budget cut by 50 percent, noted that budget cuts were “an example of how IGs can be punished.”

The IGs were also asked to identify methods that could be implemented to strengthen their role within their agency. While not every IG agreed that their budgets were constraining, they did all mention flexibility in the budget as a needed legislative improvement. Having budget authority and independence as well as the chance to defend their budget would be tremendously empowering for IGs.

Four IGs expressed the need for a stronger emphasis on IG recommendations, reporting that agencies often fail to implement the strategies and suggestions put forth by the OIGs. One IG recommended a policy where the agency would have to report to Congress specific reasons for not following IG recommendations. Furthermore, six IGs were frustrated by the lack of resources that prevented them from taking preemptive action against the agency problems they’re charged with monitoring, like fraud, waste, and abuse.

Harris also found that four IGs were concerned that the eight current vacant federal IG positions bring into question the effectiveness and leadership of OIGs. This is an issue that POGO finds so troubling that our Where Are All the Watchdogs? database was set up to track how long these positions have been vacant. The State Department has been without an Inspector General for over five years, the Department of the Interior has just hit its four-year vacancy anniversary, and the positions at the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Labor have all been vacant for over a year.

Harris’s exhaustive research provides a glimpse behind the curtain into the professional lives of IGs at every government level. Their candid observations, concerns, and recommendations should not be taken lightly.