Can IGs and agencies agree to a code of conduct?

Steve Kelman argues "The Art of the Deal" offers a possible path to more constructive oversight.

Shutterstock image: executive handshake.

The behavior of IGs is a hot button for many feds. When I published a blog post last week, called The empire strikes back, occasioned by IG reports on 18F, it provoked a fair bit of reaction. For two days it was the most-viewed article on the FCW.com website, and I received a number of emails, mostly (but not exclusively) sympathetic to my worries.

Particularly noteworthy was an email from Dan Chenok, director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government, calling my attention to a 2015 report his center published on the topic, called Balancing independence and positive engagement: How Inspector General work with agencies and Congress. Based on a number of interviews with IGs, agency, and congressional leadership, the authors -- Kathy Newcomer, director of the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration at George Washington University, together with Charles Johnson and Angela Allison -- discussed some general principles for improving relations among these three players.

At the end of my blog last week, I said I wanted to work with public administration academics, in consultation with IGs and agency folks, to develop an open letter to IGs on issues regarding the role of IGs in federal management. I am still planning to work on this over the next months, and the thoughts I have at this point are really just a few personal ideas, based on the IBM report and the emails I received. But I want to get those ideas out to encourage further discussion.

I thought of Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal when I was considering possible recommendations for IGs and agency leaders. I think we should be aiming at some sort of deal for a code of conduct, signed by agency leader-IG pairs. Much like for Trumpian real estate negotiators, this would not be an agreement among colleagues with a lot of common values and a history of collaboration, but more like a deal among adversaries who nonetheless share some common interests that might make an agreement on a code of conduct possible.

Think of this as an IG-agency grand bargain. It would mean agencies giving IGs some things they want in exchange for IGs giving agencies some things they want. Ideally, everything to which the parties agreed would be in the public interest -- even if not something one side would readily have accepted – and thus such a deal would promote better government management.

Several commitments signatory IGs might make to signatory agencies as part of such a deal come to mind. One is for IGs to commit to using respectful language in their reports, shorn of loaded accusations such as that an agency trying to “circumvent” or ignore rules. (Readers: Any other examples of disrespectful language come to mind?) This would help deal with one of the hurtful aspects of many IG reports.

A second is that IGs should look for appropriate opportunities to praise an agency for something it has done right. Perhaps a performance goal might be that the agency’s IG issues at least one (hopefully more) “clean bill of health” report each year, highlighting an investigation or audit that did not turn up problems. This would address the worry in agencies that they get skewered for misdeeds while achievements go unnoticed, which produces imbalanced incentives emphasizing caution over proactivity.

What would agencies give IGs as part of a deal? My suggestion is a commitment that they will comply with all IG information requests rather than questioning and trying to fight some of them. This would address IG concerns about lack of access to information they believe is important for their activities.

All three of these changes would, in my view, make for better government management.

Were such a deal eventually reached, it would not be a formal treaty, with dispute-resolution procedures and so forth. Compliance would be voluntary. An agency, for example, that found a specific information request totally unreasonable could refuse to comply, and the agency IG could, if it chose, then withdraw from the agreement. (There would also of course also be nothing to stop new agency or IG leadership from abandoning the agreement.) The hope, though, would be that both sides would see the benefits of the agreement and that over time substantive cooperation might increase.

Thoughts from agencies and/or IGs about proceeding down this path?

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