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By Steve Kelman

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Improving the inspector general

Magnifying glass

With aggregated budgets of about $2 billion and a total of 12,000 employees, the Offices of the Inspector General (IGs) are not a tiny presence in government. Their amazing ability to attract media attention for various lurid exposes (even when, as is typical, on closer inspection by knowledgeable people there is less there than meets the eye) gives them influence in Washington even beyond their budgets and numbers.

IG’s certainly do good work, particularly on the criminal and fraud-detection side. Their audits of wasteful spending – the bread and butter of their media coverage – are a mixed bag, sometimes on-target and sometimes merely sensationalistic.  Many of their other audits are basically reports on agency compliance with various rules. These are again very much a mixed bag – partly, the rule violations are often trivial, and partly, obeying the rules is typically only a small part of what it means to have a good, effective program.

Now, however, voices are beginning to be raised suggesting that diversification of the IG role could increase their ability to contribute to effective and efficient government. In a recent column called "Making the IGs Part of the Solution," Gadi Dechter of the Center for American Progress – a Democratic-affiliated think tank that has shown an admirable interest in improving public management – urges that IGs should not just be exposing what doesn’t work but also what does work.

The purpose is not (certainly not just) to give a more balanced picture of government, but to point out practices being applied in one place in government that could usefully be transferred to other places in government. (Full disclosure: My wife Shelley Metzenbaum, who is in charge of federal performance measurement out of OMB, is quoted several times in the column.)

Dechter’s column cites two examples – a Commerce IG study of telework in the Patent and Trademark Office concluding that this could save money while maintaining quality, and a State Department IG study of efficient practices used at some U.S. embassies.  In both cases, the information would be valuable to other organizations, or other parts of an organization, trying to improve their own performance.

There is another way I think IGs could contribute to improved agency performance. The more performance measurement becomes part of the way the government does business, the greater the temptation to cheat on measurement reporting.  The auditing industry in the private sector (which provides a role model for IGs) grew up there to police companies on behalf of shareholders, given the incentives to game profit or other business performance measures, because those performance measures were so important. IGs should take a cue from the commercial audit industry to make auditing of the quality of government performance data an important part of their mission.

Will this ever happen?  It is sadly hard to be optimistic. Getting headlines for sensationalize waste reports is so much more fun. In Dechter’s column, the Project for Government Oversight, the interest group advocating IGs uber alles, poured cold water on his suggestion.

But I have to assume most IGs actually believe in good government. The British National Audit Office follows the kind of approach advocated here – criticizing, but also seeking to praise and spread good practice. There have to be more IGs out there who would rather be more effective at improving government, even if it meant a few fewer headlines, right?

Posted on Nov 09, 2012 at 12:09 PM

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Reader comments

Fri, Nov 9, 2012

A worthy goal, but amending the law does not amend their incentive structure. Will highlighting effective practice getting a young auditor promoted? Or will exposing waste?

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