Restrictions on accessing records across agencies are hamstringing government watchdogs -- but there's hope for a change.
“For us, for the IG community, this is probably the most important issue out there,” says Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz.
The issue: getting across-the-board exemptions from restrictions on “computer matching” – comparing federal records across agencies electronically. It’s an exemption inspectors general have been advocating for a while.
Under current rules, inspectors general (with the exception of the Health and Human Services Department’s IG) are kept in narrow siloes, and if they want to collaborate with other agencies’ investigators, they have to run official requests up the very chains of command they’re critiquing.
“The Computer Matching and Privacy Protection Act … prevents IGs from performing computer matching to compare Federal records of one federal agency against other Federal and non-Federal records without first getting approval from the IG's agency,” noted the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in a recent report. “This not only hampers IGs' ability to investigate fraud and perform audits, but also interferes with IGs' independence since the agency can disapprove or restrict any request for computer matching.”
“[Following CMPPA guidelines] is time consuming … and inconsistent with our independence,” Horowitz told the attendees at the Data Transparency Coalition’s Data Act Summit on June 10.
Horowitz noted that there’s hope in the form of pending House and Senate legislation that could provide the crucial exemption, enabling the 72 inspectors general, who employ some 14,000 people across the federal government, to much more readily share data.
He gave an example of the potential benefit: “I can sit down with the Labor Department inspector general and say, ‘Who at the Justice Department is getting both a paycheck from the Justice Department and a disability check from the Labor Department?’”
Horowitz noted, “If we can get that kind of authority, it will help us keep doing what we’re doing within our agencies” – identifying fraud, waste and opportunities for improvement – across the whole breadth of government, collaboratively.