Holding the Government Accountable

Open Government Closed, Watchdogs Shut Out

collage of website shutdowns

With the government shutdown in full swing, you sort of expect these messages, but actually receiving them is still surreal:

"Out of Office Reply: Due to the government shutdown, OSC is currently closed. I will respond to your email message when OSC reopens. Thank you."

The OSC is the Office of Special Counsel, and it’s responsible for fielding complaints about waste, fraud, and abuse in the federal government, along with protecting our nation’s whistleblowers. But with watchdogs such as the OSC out of the office, who’s watching the “essential” employees, contractors, and industry?

During the shutdown, furloughed employees are not allowed to volunteer at their jobs, even if they want to. We spoke with Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner and she said, “Unfortunately, we are only able to follow up on disclosures of substantial and specific dangers to public health and/or safety.” She added, “We have cases of potentially millions of dollars in taxpayer waste that are just sitting now.” The OSC just had a record-breaking year of results, working incredibly efficiently to issue more corrective actions than ever before. The Project On Government Oversight’s Director of Public Policy Angela Canterbury said, “At a time when we should be celebrating more accountability thanks to the OSC, instead Congress has left taxpayer dollars and civil servants completely vulnerable to wrongdoing.”

Unfortunately, whistleblowers trying to seek relief from retaliation they’ve suffered are also in limbo. The Merit System Protections Board (MSPB) released a press statement on September 30 in advance of a potential closure. It explains that the MSPB planned to cease all functions in the event of a shutdown, leaving investigations into whistleblower retaliation and other misconduct languishing.

A particularly telling line of the press release states:

If you have any questions about this policy, please contact the Office of the Clerk of the Board or the appropriate MSPB Regional or Field Office before or after the shutdown.

Before or after, but not during—no one will be there to field your call.

We did a quick survey of agency websites to see how other watchdogs are faring as government agencies furlough workers. Many inspector general offices are completely shut down, with others maintaining only minimal functionality until the government reopens.

The Department of Defense Office of Inspector General (OIG) is closed “due to a lapse in funding.” The Interior OIG announced that it would “cease all services” in the event of a shutdown, and its website is no longer available. The Department of Justice OIG website instructs employees to check the Office of Management and Budget website for guidance on reporting to work. The Social Security Administration will be retaining about half of its Inspector General staff to keep open the fraud hotline, maintain IT infrastructure, and continue law enforcement. A broad list of who will and won’t be working in each agency is available on CNN’s website, along with notes on what agency functions will be available through the shutdown.

Interestingly, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) is running at full strength—which we are glad to see, given the rampant corruption exposed by the SIGAR. According to CNN, the funding for SIGAR comes from “multiyear appropriations which expire September 30, 2014,” and the IG has developed a funding plan that will come into effect if carryover funding runs out.

Additionally, the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) has implemented a shutdown plan. Though CIGIE is not funded through appropriations like agency OIGs, the plan “provides for an orderly complete shutdown of CIGIE staff operations in the event of non-availability of funds.”

And inspectors general aren’t the only watchdogs affected. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is also closed for business, as “the vast majority of GAO personnel” are being furloughed. The investigative arm of Congress, GAO is responsible for fielding bid protests for federal contracts. During the shutdown, the only means of filing a bid protest will be by email (even the mailroom is closed). Without GAO ruling on bid protests, contracting misconduct could go unchecked during the shutdown.

The Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) ombudsman responsible for fielding complaints and questions about FOIA, is shuttered as well. With continued failings of the FOIA process, OGIS plays an essential role in access to government information. But it seems like OGIS wouldn’t have much to do, anyway—several of the agency FOIA offices are closed. This means the already enormous backlogs will grow larger.

Not surprisingly, the National Security Agency (NSA) has also declared its FOIA office as nonessential. As Matthew Yglesias so wryly put it, “Spying is essential, disclosure about spying is nonessential.” In the aftermath of the Edward Snowden whistleblowing disclosures on spying on Americans, it is disappointing that the NSA has not changed that messaging.

A common theme among shutdown announcements is that all deadlines will be extended by the number of days the government is shut down. This is entirely reasonable given the circumstances, but if you take a second to think about how many additional requests will build up as the shutdown endures, the chance of a significant backup is high.

“The public’s right to know what the government is doing and its ability to hold the government accountable are essential. The irony is that the failure of Congress to agree on a budget has shuttered the entities that actually save taxpayer dollars.” Canterbury said. “Worse, Congress has created an environment in which waste, fraud, and abuse can flourish—not to mention threats to public health and safety.”

Congress—get it together. End the shutdown.