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Strengthening Checks and Balances

Independence of Inspectors General is Essential

On September 7, the Partnership for Public Service (PPS) and Grant Thornton released a report titled Walking the Line, which discusses the balancing of the independence of inspectors general (IGs) with their effectiveness in working with the agency they oversee. As the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has stated before, IG independence is crucial for their ability to provide objective and uncompromised reviews of their agency, reviews that benefit the government and taxpayers. And while we are aware that there can be too much of a good thing, we want to reiterate the importance of this independence in the wake of the recent PPS report.

Walking the Line does an excellent job discussing the issues faced by agencies, IGs, and Congress in working together effectively. It urges agencies to respect the independence of IGs, IGs to be cognizant of good-faith efforts by agency employees, and Congress to fill IG vacancies quickly and with high-quality candidates, all recommendations that we support. PPS and Grant Thornton also did a thorough job of reaching out to a diverse set of stakeholders, including POGO, and incorporating these stakeholders’ perspectives and ideas into their analysis. PPS addressed the different points of view of the agencies and IGs admirably, and POGO agrees that in some respects IGs need to better work with their agencies to help make the government more effective and free from waste, fraud, and abuse.

But, as the PPS report touches upon, “striking the right balance between meeting the needs and concerns of agency leaders and maintaining impartiality and independence can be difficult.” Robert Shea, former associate director for the Office of Management and Budget and current member of Grant Thornton’s public sector practice, highlights this dilemma well: “Inspectors general who try too hard to please the agency leadership may compromise themselves, while IGs who maintain too much distance may find themselves locked out.”

PPS and Grant Thornton spoke to various IGs about how closely they work with their agency’s leadership, and some of the answers are concerning. Peggy Gustasfson, the Small Business Administration IG, David Montoya, the Housing and Urban Development IG, and Daniel Levinson, the Health and Human Services IG, all referenced meeting with agency leadership on a monthly or bi-weekly basis. While PPS took an understandably neutral stance on the various IG answers, the independence of IGs is one of their strongest qualities and such close entanglement with agencies should not be mentioned without stronger qualification about the value of this independence, its significance in the establishment of the IG system, and the danger of getting to cozy with agency management.

Congress felt that agencies, like everyone else, could not objectively oversee themselves, and thus introduced the IG system, with arguably decent results. Inspectors general were created to be internal watchdogs with dual reporting duties, reporting not only to the head of their agency but also to Congress about agency waste, fraud, abuse, and misconduct. IGs are uniquely positioned to serve as Congress’s eyes and ears within the executive branch, giving Congress the information it needs to conduct effective agency oversight and pass meaningful legislation. And they’re incredibly effective at saving tax dollars: according to a report by the Center for Effective Public Management at Brookings, the average return for IG offices was $13.41 for every dollar invested from 2010-2014, with some IGs returning over $40 per dollar invested.

While the dual reporting system gives IGs the strength to address problems that agencies might have a perverse incentive to hide, it also creates a tension that not all IG offices can withstand. POGO has seen case after case in which agency heads obstructed their IGs by withholding resources and restricting access to information. This is why it is troubling to see a potential push for IGs to become more closely integrated with their agencies. While it is important for IGs to work with their agencies effectively, their primary goal is to be a watchdog keeping the agency in check, not a lapdog doing the agency’s bidding.

It is also important to note that there have been more than a few cases of out-of-control IGs protecting the agency by blocking investigations and steamrolling over agency employees. Thus, some agency whistleblowers have been rightfully fearful and apprehensive about working with their IGs. This highlights why it’s so important for Congress to watch the watchdogs, facilitate interactions between IGs and agencies, and keep IGs accountable.

POGO has worked for years to improve the IG system and support legislation to make IGs both more independent and accountable. Both of these qualities are needed for IGs to be most effective. The PPS report and the discussions it is encouraging are helpful steps toward assisting the IGs, agencies, and Congress better “walk the line between improving agency programs and operations, and respecting each other’s needs and concerns.”