The Project On Government Oversight today released its second report on the Inspector General system. The first report, published in February 2008, considered the factors affecting IGs’ independence, and determined some of the best practices, policies, and changes in the law necessary to bring the system into optimal balance between the two essential values of independence and accountability.
Since that time POGO has been examining the other side of that essential equation: Accountability. The subject of this report, Inspectors General: Accountability is a Balancing Act, focuses on holding them accountable both for their conduct and the quality of their work. The report also addresses another critical factor of a successful OIG: Impact and the importance of IGs' letting Congress and the world know about their important work. POGO urged the IG community, particularly at a time when transparency and accountability have taken on greater urgency, to review its priorities.
"This isn't a broken system, but now more than ever we need to make sure our IG system is robust. In the end many of our findings come in the form of nagging questions the IGs should be regularly asking themselves rather than in formulas and checklists. On any number of significant issues affecting their work, it's all a question of balance," said Danielle Brian, Executive Director, POGO.
POGO's report calls on IGs to constantly review how they present their findings and whether their reports can be made more meaningful; how they focus their scarce resources on external or internal activities of their agency; and whether they engage in periodic reassessment to be sure they are capturing the most significant issues facing their agencies.
The most troubling finding was that IGs, the very offices charged by Congress with receiving complaints about agency problems, all too often treat those complainants or whistleblowers as mere afterthoughts. Even IGs who give lip service to the importance of whistleblowers and their disclosures often fail to protect them from retaliation by their managers. Here is one issue on which POGO does not demand balance; we strongly urge all OIGs to treat the information from genuine whistleblowers with the significance it merits, and treat the complainants with the dignity and protection they deserve.
POGO's Recommendations include:
- All IGs should be cognizant of their impact, and focus more on outcomes than outputs.
- IGs should regularly review their focus to determine if they are appropriately balancing their programs and activities based on the most significant issues facing their agencies.
- Congress should consider revamping the reporting requirements of the Inspector General Law so that Semi-Annual Reports (SARs) are more meaningful and reflective of the information that Congress and the agencies actually need and use.
- Even in the absence of a change in the law, IGs should focus their SARs on the most significant audits, investigations, and inspections or evaluations, while briefly summarizing the others.
- Congressional offices should carefully reconsider the impact of mandates on the ability of OIGs to perform their missions.
- The Integrity Committee should make explicit recommendations at the end of an investigation conducted under its auspices.
- The Integrity Committee should not be chaired by the FBI's designee to the IG Council. That FBI official should instead be an advisor to the Integrity Committee. The Chair of the Committee should be an Inspector General with experience in investigating sensitive matters.
In the end, it is important to remember that because Inspectors General are accorded extraordinary independence in order to do their jobs, they must also be held to the highest levels of accountability. Holding IGs accountable is a job that needs to be embraced more thoughtfully by Congress, and accomplished more effectively by their peers through the IG Council’s Integrity Committee. It is a mistake to leave this task largely to agency heads, given their natural incentive to muzzle their IGs. Watching the watchdogs is an essential factor in keeping this vital system in balance.