Independence, accountability and the Office of Inspector General
Two longtime federal IT leaders explore the balancing act required to maximize IGs' effectiveness.
Editor's Note: Alan Balutis and Don Upson are long-time friends who sit on different sides of the political fence. Both have served in government and now work in the private sector -- Balutis as a distinguished fellow at Cisco Systems and Upson as the founder and president of the Government-Business Executive Forum. Between them they have won 13 Federal 100 awards.
This is the first in a series of Point-Counterpoint articles they will be doing for FCW that will focus on current management challenges.
Washington today is a city of too many leaks, "gotcha government," and Republicans and Democrats alike too often overly partisan.
The answer? Many in Congress, the media, even the executive branch embrace "independence" as the key guidepost to truth, justice and the solution to pressing issues: independent counsels, special commissions and inspectors general. Too often, policy differences in today's charged atmosphere produce calls from one side or the other for some form of "independent" review, or greater independence added to one authority or another.
Our focus with this column is on independence, accountability and IGs -- but we start with this proposition: "Independence" in American government was not what our Founding Fathers either envisioned or desired in constructing our government's framework. Accountability, on the other hand, was.
Accountability means checks and balances. It means everyone has a boss, be you a member of Congress, a Supreme Court justice or president of the United States. Processes exist for each to override the other when circumstances warrant -- elections, super-majority votes, the constitutional amendment process.
When the balance between independence and accountability is skewed, problems arise and unintended consequences occur.
The Office of Inspector General was created in 1975 because of the perception by members of Congress that waste, fraud and abuse were rampant in the Department of Health and Human Services. A "pilot" IG placed in HHS validated this presumption and led to enactment in 1978 of the Inspector General Act.
This act has been amended several times over the past 40 years. Law enforcement, subpoena and search warrant authorities have been added, and the number of IGs expanded. Today, IGs function in all departments and every major Federal agency -- around 70 in total.
Let me add some "good news, bad news" to that, Don. There are currently 73 IGs, 34 of whom require appointment by the president. The rest are appointed by the agencies themselves. This administration has been slow to fill top cabinet positions, and this is true for the IG positions as well.
The president has yet to fill 12 vacant inspector general spots at federal agencies including the Defense and Energy departments, Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, and Office of the Director for National Intelligence. The Interior Department has been without a permanent IG since Feb. 23, 2009. The CIA vacancy dates to Jan. 31, 2015. Acting IG's have filled those roles but typically don't have the enforcement clout or standing to make lasting changes. A recent Wall Street Journal editorial deemed them as "temporary and toothless".
In the minds of many, the envisioned IG independence/accountability balance today is skewed too much in favor of Congress. IGs too often are viewed by the executive branch as "insider threats," whose reporting is designed today for "gotcha" findings that can provide fodder for sensational congressional hearings.
These beliefs engender suspicion and do not serve government well. That these perceptions exist is as much the fault of the executive branch -- in its failures to include and regularly interact with the IG community as part of mission operations -- as it is with Congress for adding more IG authorities and encouraging sometimes-sensational IG reporting.
I read a rather well done article recently by Glenn Fine, currently the acting IG at DOD and formerly the IG at Justice. In it, he outlines "Seven Principles of Highly Effective Inspector Generals." I looked back at it when I saw your comments, Don. Principle 1 was "Remain Independent." Accountability wasn't mentioned, although to be fair it may be implied in Principle 4: "Provide potential solutions."
President Trump has an opportunity to restore the balance originally envisioned in the IG Act between accountability and independence. IGs play an important role in identifying wasteful and mismanaged operations, and they are rightfully obligated to report to and work with Congress. They also were envisioned to support the president and executive branch through identifying wasteful practices, fraud and abuse.
Unlike with previous administrations of both parties, the opportunity exists today for more disciplined and regular interaction between cabinet officers, agency heads and their respective IGs. President Trump also would be well served in meeting throughout the year with the Council on Integrity and Efficiency -- the statutory governmentwide IG forum.
That role – on behalf of the president – falls to the Office of Management and Budget's deputy director for management. But that position is currently vacant as well.
When appointed and confirmed, that person should focus first on two things: hiring and retaining the best IGs, and purging or reining in those who won't help "restore honesty and accountability and bring change to Washington" (a mildly paraphrased quote from the Contract with the American Voter") because it might undermine their "independence."
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