McDonough: The need for IGs

Recent attacks on agency inspectors general are misguided during a time of diminished oversight

Although people dislike having an inspector general looking over their shoulders, they should remember that IGs are the only officials in the executive branch who call attention to the significant acquisition problems in the federal government. IGs have identified problems with the General Services Administration’s $17 billion schedule contract program. They have also highlighted problems with successive failed modernization programs in the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Defense Department. Billions of taxpayer dollars have gone down the drain.

In most cases, contracting officers are unable to do much about those problems.

There are four reasons.

1. Lawmakers have weakened the government contracting workforce. That’s a trend that began in the Carter administration.The contracting workforce has declined to a level that, in March, GSA Administrator Lurita Doan appointed someone to lead GSA’s Office of Acquisition Policy who has no procurement experience. That role is especially important because the person in that position works with procurement officials at the Defense Department, NASA and the Office of Federal Procurement Policy to help formulate contracting policy governmentwide.

2. A fuzzy line exists between the government and its contractors.Now companies,
rather than the government, evaluate the performance of other companies that support the government. Later, those same companies might be partners in future procurements.

Companies supporting the government operate without serious accountability in many cases. Even in instances of poor performance, they still receive bonuses and award fees. If the contract falls apart after award at great cost to the government, there is no real accountability. Rarely will anyone lose their job or status.

3. We have a mistaken government policy that allows a few companies to grow through mergers and acquisitions to the point where they have excessive freedom in the government market. In many cases, major procurements are de facto solesource procurements with few bidders.

4. Major companies supplying products and services to government have more power than government contracting officials. Sitting across the negotiating table from a government-contracting officer are companies so big that little can hurt them or get their attention. If its interests are threatened, a major company can muster several in-house lawyers and lobbyists on contract to start work immediately. Those lawyers will face a part-time, generalist lawyer assigned to the government-contracting officer.

For those reasons, agencies are outgunned whenever a company decides to fight. It is like a lone individual holding up a book of regulations in both hands while facing an armed brigade.

IGs are the taxpayers’ best friend because their job is to protect the government from waste, fraud and abuse. The job of IGs is to present reality, whether it is success or failure. It’s a job no other executive branch organization performs. In that sense, they are best friends of contracting officers and the taxpayers, and they contribute to good government.

McDonough led GSA’s then-Office of Information Technology Policy, which was responsible for providing regulations, policy and oversight of government IT resources. He can be reached at frank@frankamcdonough.com.

About the Author

McDonough, an independent management consultant, left government in 2003 after a 35-year career in various senior management positions. He can be reached at frank@frankamcdonough.com.

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