Wagner: Don’t blame the IG

In a recent commentary in Federal Computer Week [“The need for a new way,” March 12], columnist Steve Kelman suggests that inspectors general focus on the negative and ignore the positive, thereby encouraging people to avoid potentially risky behavior to the detriment of service delivery. The government workforce is already viewed as excessively rules driven and inwardly focused, so those
characterizations make a bad situation worse.

Although I find much to agree with in Kelman’s comments, it seems unfair to blame IGs. It reminds me of a common government response to the media’s focus on bad news: If only the press would cover all the good things the government does, we would have a more balanced picture.

Like the press and government managers, IGs are products of their environment. They respond to incentives and do what they have been asked to do. Right now, that environment puts a premium on trumpeting mistakes, not celebrating successes.

There are always tensions between government programs and the oversight of those programs. Too much second-guessing and obsessing over process drive paper exercises that offer few benefits. However, with too little oversight, programs lose their edge, or they focus on the wrong things. Many people would support closer review of how the government manages projects, but for cases involving information technology security, many feel the ratio of paper to protection is out of whack. We might need a little less documentation and a little more testing.

I agree that the emphasis on reviewing versus doing seems out of balance. Last July, I participated in a forum sponsored by the Government Accountability Office and moderated by David Walker, the comptroller general. The topic was federal acquisition challenges and opportunities in the 21st century. One area of significant concern was the degree of after-the-fact second-guessing. For example, there were more auditors of Hurricane Katrina contracts than there were contracting officers to handle the deals in the first place. Negative publicity makes it harder to recruit the people we need to avoid the problems we have. The knowledge that whatever one does in a time of crisis will be reviewed in a time of calm chills risk-taking.

And it is going to get worse because IT tends to make everything visible. The digital crumbs we leave behind represent a rich lode of information that can be used to point out what we should have done better.

So what do we do about it? I think we should talk. All of us want the government to be successful, and if GAO can convene a diverse group to look at our grand challenges, so can the rest of the federal government.

I suggest the various communities involved get together and see if we can come up with a set of fundamental best practices that strike a better balance. We’ve done it in the past. As a government employee, I remember being told that it was important to review every voucher even though each $10 of review saved only 10 cents. How is that for a cost/benefit ratio? Nowadays we do statistical sampling instead. This issue is much more complicated, but it’s the same question of balance.

Wagner recently retired as acting commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Acquisition Service after more than 30 years in government.

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