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Holding the Government Accountable

Inspectors General: Accountability is a Balancing Act

Executive Summary

In February 2008, POGO released its first report on the federal Inspector General system, entitled Inspectors General: Many Lack Essential Tools for Independence. In that report we 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 we have been examining the other side of that essential equation: Accountability.

While the first report's findings and recommendations were relatively clear-cut, the findings and recommendations in this report are necessarily more nuanced. In fact, it may be that our single most important recommendation will be that IGs, as well as their stakeholders in the administration, Congress, and public, continually and thoughtfully review whether they have achieved the appropriate balance in a number of areas, including:

Quantity vs. Quality. The IG law requires Semi-Annual Reports from each OIG, covering the preceding six months' activities. The law in fact spells out, page after page, the numbing list of statistics, facts, and figures that are required. But POGO urges IGs to be more thoughtful in their reporting, so that the meaning behind the numbers is evident, and the reports exhibit some balance between quantity and quality.

Prioritizing: Big Windows vs. Little Windows. Former CIA IG John Helgerson told POGO, "We have to wash the big windows and ignore the little ones." But some OIGs spend inordinate amounts of scarce time and resources on small-window issues. We acknowledge that small issues can sometimes grow into something large and ugly, so exhort IGs to periodically reassess whether they are putting their energies and resources into overseeing the most significant issues facing their agencies.

Inward vs. Outward Focus. It is no secret that there are many different federal agencies with significantly different missions. However, it may not be quite so obvious that the 67 statutory IGs, in overseeing their respective agencies, should reflect the agency's focus with their own. For example, HHS spends roughly 85 percent of its budget on programs such as Medicare and Medicaid; and the IG for HHS spends about 83 percent of his budget helping the Department ensure that those programs are not defrauded. POGO's concern is that the remaining 17 percent must be spread so thinly over all the important issues of FDA, CDC, NIH, and public health emergencies. Once again, POGO does not say the percentages should be rigid or the mirroring exact, but we do strongly recommend that IGs periodically review whether their emphasis is in balance.

Impact: Roar, Don't Squeak. It should go without saying: an OIG must have impact to be successful. Its reports and actions must make a difference in its agency's programs and activities. We would frankly like to see IGs shouting their findings from the rooftops. Instead we all too often find OIGs hiding behind such protestations as, "we don't leak" or "IGs don't talk to the press." We don't need any more showboats in Washington, and no agency chief will appreciate first learning about problems from a blaring headline. But if an IG is doing his or her job exposing or even preventing waste, fraud, abuse, and misconduct, then we want to hear about it. An IG report falling silently in the forest is just a waste of trees. POGO strongly urges IGs to do much more outreach—to the public as well as to Congress.

Shameful: Whistleblowers and IGs. Easily our 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.
  • The entire IG community should engage in a review of how it treats whistleblowers, including how it handles hotline callers. This means having a well-trained and experienced unit dedicated to conducting thoughtful examinations of both the disclosures made and of any allegations of retaliation.
  • 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.

Click here to read the full report.