When IGs attack, what's an agency leader to do?

When a dispute between a federal agency executive and an inspector general goes public, there is often a serious issue at stake. As the saying goes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

That is not always the case elsewhere in Washington. Politically motivated argument has become almost deafening in Congress in recent years, with tactics that include stonewalling, brinksmanship, personal attacks and harsh rhetoric. Fair or not, those activities get attention.

Disagreements between agency leaders and their IGs are less visible in the press and tend to be more straightforward. Even so, the federal IG world is complex and quirky. The inspectors’ authorities and reporting responsibilities vary somewhat, with personalities, loyalties and politics all coming into play.

Not surprisingly, many former and current federal employees are reluctant to discuss their workplace relationships with agency IGs.

“In the private sector, you might get fired, but in a federal agency, the IG has the authority to criminalize, and you can go to jail for a workplace issue,” said a former employee of the Veterans Affairs Department who asked not to be named. “The IGs can be completely harsh and unreasonable.”

On the other hand, IGs can be perceived as too easygoing. “Our IG hardly investigates anything. He is friends with the director,” complained another federal employee. If IGs are perceived as weak, it discourages whistleblowers, the employee added.

As with any workplace relationship, the best tactic for smooth communication might be to keep emotions out of the discussions as much as possible, said Cynthia Post, a psychologist in Silver Spring, Md. “I think neutrality, transparency and keeping expectations clear are good rules of thumb,” she said.

But of course, that’s easier said than done. Let’s look at how some recent IG/agency spats are playing out.

Dispute: In October 2010, Justice Department IG Glenn Fine, who has since stepped down, blasted the FBI’s troubled Sentinel case management project. Although the agency officially agreed with the report’s recommendations, FBI Associate Deputy Director T.J. Harrington sent a strongly worded letter accusing the IG of relying on outdated cost estimates and failing to comply with generally accepted auditing standards.

Outcome: Still waiting for the final shoe to drop when Sentinel is deployed.

Dispute: Earlier this year, the Secret Service clashed with the Homeland Security Department’s assistant IG, Frank Deffer, on his recommendations that the Secret Service’s CIO be given more authority and report directly to DHS’ CIO. Deffer backed off quietly on the latter issue after being informed that, by law, the chain of reporting at the Secret Service ends with the head of the agency.

Outcome: Undercover for now, unless there’s a major information leak or other IT crisis at the agency that forces the dispute to the surface again, like James Bond in a wetsuit.

Dispute: In two reports this year, the National Archives and Records Administration’s IG, Paul Brachfeld, expressed his opinion that the search capabilities of the new $430 million Electronic Records Archives have profound gaps. Agency officials came back with a long and complicated explanation of the varieties of documents and searches, along with a rather pointed suggestion that the IG and some of his staffers might have gotten the wrong idea about what the archive is meant to do.

Outcome: Simmering but not boiling over yet.

Dispute: In two recent reports, Social Security Administration IG Patrick O’Carroll Jr. scolded the agency for failing to develop a long-term plan for customer service. Agency officials initially agreed, but three months later, in a surprisingly sharp retort, they said thank you, but we prefer staying flexible.

Outcome: Stay tuned. This one could flare up again, especially if “flexibility” turns out to mean “No Accountability 4 Us.”

Dispute: In September, the Environmental Protection Agency’s IG, Arthur Elkins Jr., issued a major report — costing nearly $300,000 — alleging that the agency did not follow its own peer-review procedures in 2009 when it concluded that current and projected concentrations of greenhouse gases threaten the health and welfare of current and future generations. Agency officials insisted that all the science they used was peer-reviewed, but the IG said they had also considered non-scientific sources in the assessment. In addition, officials disagreed about what review procedures were required.

Outcome: Watch out — additional explosions are likely.

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Reader comments

Tue, Dec 13, 2011 NARA Employee

Specific to the NARA issues identified by the reporter, as someone involved in the ERA program I would suggest that interested parties actually find out how they would be able to locate, identify and access an electronic record that presently resides in the base ERA system, it's not at all clear to me that it can be done and I work here!

Fri, Dec 9, 2011 Interested Party

Ironically, most of us Gov. workers are conflicted on this subject. Most of us WANT the IG to succeed in rooting out REAL waste and fraud. On the other hand, they are often so desparate to find something they can report as waste to justify their inflated budgets that they get overzealous. Some IGs even manufacture things to report by aggregating a number of inconsequential oversights into what they call a "pattern" most of which are no pattern at all. Additionally, in my opinion, most IGs are overstaffed. In our agency there are 14 IG staff to oversee 350 staff. That's more of a supervisor than an auditor, and it takes away focus from the real work as we have to waste a lot of effort on the "care and feeding" of the IG. I support reasonable audits, but this is rediculous. Finally, the press does everyone a diservice by not checking out their "facts" sufficiently. The whole $16 muffin thing should be completely laid at the feet of the media looking for headlines and not doing sufficient fact checking. I know, I know...deadlines and all of that. We, as a nation, need to find a way of focusing on real waste and real corruption without giving the IG the perverse incentive of more money and more staff for finding imaginary deficiencies. Maybe a third-party review that takes money away from IGs for overblown/overstated audit reports and gives more money for finding real wrongdoing. What do the rest of you think about actually soving the problem?

Fri, Dec 9, 2011

I've enjoyed all the comments. My desire would be for each IG to add the cost of the audit to every audit they perform. I've read many of the reports and I don't see the cost savings that they project. I sometimes thing they waste more than they find (BTW I've never seen fraud or abuse).

Thu, Dec 8, 2011 Jake Suktytzy

It seems clear that some Feds fear the IG. I welcome the IG. Too many Feds believe they are a law upon themselves. All feedback is viewed as hostile. Fine, as anyone knows, was one of the best IGs in town. He caught the FBI and other institutional miscreants redhanded many a time. It is ironic staff idiocy squished a little mud his way at the end. Most IGs lack his skill and perseverance and motivation of pure patriotism to ride herd on a bunch of people who do know appreciate for whom they work.

Thu, Dec 8, 2011 DEFENDER OF THE FREE WORLD

I tend to agree with the majority of these comments here. Just the other day, I was accosted by the gas station attendent(I was in uniform) who proclaimed he was a big OWS supporter and asked me about the fraud of $ 16 a muffin the government pays for. Of course as many of us know who have had been involved in setting up or running conferences know that costs are lumped together and charged to one category to simplify the bill which is what happened in this case. The IG that investigated this case did not really push the truth back out to the public and kinda of let the story stay as government fraud instead of set the record straight.

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