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FBI Associate Deputy Director T.J. Harrington sent a strongly worded letter accusing the IG of relying on outdated cost estimates and failing to comply with generally accepted auditing standards.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.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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