Forty years ago, the U.S. Congress enacted the Inspector General Act of 1978. This landmark law established a greater stature for government oversight by our federal watchdogs. Congress granted the government agency inspectors general (IGs) new authorities. The new law promised more powerful, independent, and effective oversight than under previous law.
Federal IGs have played an important role over the past four decades, investigating agency mismanagement, waste, fraud, and abuse, and providing recommendations to improve federal programs and the work of federal agencies. What we spend on IGs results in substantial financial savings, with a reported return-on-investment of almost seventeen dollars for every dollar spent on IG activities.
On this anniversary of the passage of the original Act, now is the time policymakers should ask this simple but important question: Is the work of the IG community fulfilling the promises of four decades ago?
The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) established a review group that included former federal inspectors general and POGO staff in order to determine what is working well, what needs improvement, and which provisions of the Inspector General Act need revisiting. The review group explored key issues IGs are facing and developed ideas for improvements. The examination resulted in a set of recommendations for strengthening current inspector general policies, practices, tools, procedures, authorities, and requirements.
POGO’s recommendations address the need for strong and consistent leadership, a higher prioritization of major issues affecting the nation, such as harm to the public’s health, safety, and constitutional rights, and how to best work with and support whistleblowers.
The IGs face many challenges, and our recommendations require action by several players. For some, Congress will have to make changes to current law and set appropriate funding levels. Other recommendations could be implemented by the IGs themselves under existing authority. Still others require the White House to take action.
One of the most glaring problems that needs to be addressed is IG vacancies. Some IG positions remain vacant for years. Our recommendations emphasize the importance of the President and Congress making it a priority to fill these positions. Both must be committed to nominating and vetting qualified candidates who are willing and able to address the nation’s major issues.
Too often, the IGs suffer from inadequate or inconsistent budgets. Resource constraints can directly affect the ability of IGs to conduct effective and consistent oversight. This is most apparent when an agency receives a large surge in funding that must be spent quickly, such as “emergency” funding for the Department of Defense during wartime or for disaster agencies during a hurricane. However, the agency’s IG does not usually see a similar increase. Congress needs to recognize the importance of proportionally funding IG oversight.
There are some recommendations that require relatively small actions, yet would yield large returns very quickly. For example, IGs have recently improved Congressional and public access to their reports by establishing Oversight.gov, a website containing recently released IG reports. However, more can and should be done to ensure even greater access to the important work of the IGs.
Other challenges facing the IG community will need further collaboration to solve. For example, we have presented specific steps for improving whistleblower protection and the use of whistleblower disclosures. However, we recognize that the complex issues raised by whistleblower laws and procedures, often involving governmental entities other than inspectors general, will require additional considerations in order to develop recommendations.
The Project On Government Oversight is grateful for the insights, guidance, and knowledge of the former inspectors general who participated in the review group.
- Earl Devaney – former Inspector General of the Department of the Interior, as well as former Chair of the Recovery Board. He is currently retired.
- Clark K. Ervin – former Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security. He is currently a partner at Squire Patton Boggs.
- Gordon Heddell – former Inspector General of the Department of Defense, as well as Department of Labor. He is currently Executive Director of the Gordon Heddell Group.
- John Roth – former Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security. He is currently the Chief Compliance and Ethics Officer at Bittrex.com.
- Dave Williams – former Inspector General of the United States Postal Service, as well as U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Social Security Administration and Department of the Treasury. He is currently a Distinguished Professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.