Inspectors General (IG) offices inside the federal government root out waste, fraud, and abuse and make government agencies function more effectively. Given this role, an IG who lacks independence is unlikely to be effective. Yet, after reviewing the responses of 49 IG offices to a survey sent out to all 64 statutory IGs, POGO has discovered some disturbing issues affecting the most fundamental ability of IGs to be independent.
At this writing, there are 64 Inspectors General that fall under either the Inspector General Act of 1978 and subsequent amendments, or parallel authority in other legislation. When Congress created the IG system, particular attention was paid to ensuring that IGs would be independent by requiring them to report both to their agency heads and to their respective oversight committees in Congress.
POGO’s survey shows that many elements come into play when assessing the independence of IGs, including:
- IG Candidate Selection. In the past, an internal vetting process by the IG community helped ensure that IGs were highly qualified, but the process is no longer used. In recent years, candidates for IG positions reportedly have less auditing and investigative experience and are more politicized.
- Budget Line Items and Authority. Legislation in 1988 required the budgets for presidentially-appointed IGs to appear as separate line items in their agency’s budget. But for the 34 IGs who are not presidentially-appointed, more than a few believe their offices suffer without this line item listing and access to Congressional appropriators. Their budgets are dependent on the good will of their agency heads, and the IGs have virtually no recourse when their bosses decline to seek or increase funds for their offices. For example, agency chiefs have retaliated against IGs for unwelcome reports by refusing to request, or threatening to withhold, funds for the IGs’ offices.
- Staffing and Spending Authority. Many IG offices simply do not have enough staff to effectively perform their mission. Thirteen IG offices responding to POGO’s survey had six or fewer staff members. In addition, several IGs must gain agency approval to spend their allotted funds. One IG told POGO he had suffered retaliation from his agency head for an unwanted investigation in the form of the refusal to promote a highly qualified senior member of the IG’s staff. Another said her agency chief must approve all expenditures, even contracting audits.
- In-House Counsel. Many IGs, including the Department of Defense, lack their own in-house legal counsel and may be forced to use the agency’s general counsel. However, an agency general counsel’s role is to protect the agency, which is at odds with the IG’s role. General Counsels also have the power to undermine IG investigations through decisions such as criminal referrals and redactions from IG reports.
- Ease of Website Access and Use. Several IGs said they had trouble posting reports on their own web pages without prior approval from agency management. This interference inhibits IG communications with Congress, agency employees, and the public.
- Unfettered Investigative Authority. Several agencies have, in addition to their IG office, another investigative unit whose functions overlap with the IG. This has created problems at the Justice Department, where the IG is barred from conducting certain investigations, and the State Department, which lacks a formal agreement with the Bureau of Diplomatic Services to prevent interference.
POGO’s recommendations to improve the situation include the following:
- Combine the PCIE and ECIE into one Council of all IGs.
- Remove the Deputy Director of OMB as the Chair of the combined Council of IGs.
- Create a resource pool of professional employees for smaller IG offices.
- Extend the language for PCIE IG qualifications to DFE IGs.
- Revive the IG candidate selection committee.
- Set fixed terms of office for PCIE IGs.
- Make clear that an Inspector General may only be removed prior to the end of his or her term for cause.
- Establish separate budget authority and transparent public budgets for all IGs.
- Clarify the law so that once an IG’s budget has been approved, expenditures can be made without further approval.
- Forbid IGs to receive cash awards or bonuses, but raise their pay.
- Require IG offices either to have their own counsel or to use another IG’s counsel.
- Make clear that IGs should rely on their own in-house counsel for advice about how FOIA applies to IG reports.
- Ensure direct and clear links to the IG’s web page, and provide IGs autonomy over the content on the web page.
- Expand IGs’ subpoena power.
- Amend the Program Fraud Civil Remedies Act to apply to DFE IGs.
- Refrain for now from consolidating any of the smaller IG offices.