Why agency IGs are more bark than bite

The obstacles are many, but the Open Standard's Matt Rosenberg argues that database innovations could help build public awareness of IGs' vital work.

Shutterstock image.

Note: This commentary originally appeared on the Open Standard -- Mozilla's new online journal on "open, transparent, and collaborative systems" -- and is republished here under that site's Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 license.

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In September, nearly four dozen U.S. Inspectors General signed a letter to Congressional committee leaders protesting the lack of transparency and access to material needed for their watchdog investigations. Yet it's not usually inaccessible information that cuts the impact of the Inspectors. It's the indifference of their parent agencies and Congress to the important findings they do produce.

Consider the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Inspector General, which reported that NRC's failure to flag construction project changes at Southern California Edison's San Onofre nuclear plant -- tied to steam generator malfunctions -- led to the site's shutdown.

Not the first time

The incident at San Onofre was not a first. In October of 2013 the NRC's IG reported the agency was failing to adequately regulate "active component aging" at nuclear plants nationwide, and recommended ways to improve oversight. Serious stuff, tied to heightened risks of reactor shutdowns, safety equipment failures and other potential safety risks. Yet in July of this year the IG had to issue a stern written warning to the NRC that its response to the report had been too dismissive. In 2007, the NRC's IG warned the NRC it was then seven years overdue in addressing recommendations to improve safety oversight of uranium fuel production centers and other "major fuel cycle facilities."

It's part of a broader problem. In early 2009, the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform reported that 13,800 IG recommendations made in reports from 2001 through 2008 had not been implemented, costing the nation $26 billion in identified savings. In a new version of that report issued in 2013, the totals had jumped to 17,000 IG recommendations not fully implemented, at a cost of $67 billion.

Where do numbers like this come from? A few clues.

IRS goofs exceeding $100 billion

The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration reported in 2012 that the Internal Revenue Service made improper payments to taxpayers totalling at least $100 billion in Earned Income Tax Credits from 2003 to 2011. And that IRS projected another $35 billion to $45 billion in such errors for 2012 to 2014.

In December 2012 The Health and Human Services Department's Office of the Inspector General released a report with the fairly bristling title of "Compendium of Unimplemented Recommendations." That constitutes a major throwdown for these nerdy guys in grey suits with gravy-stained ties and a cramped three-bedroom in Bethesda. You can practically hear the angst leaping off the 166-page tome. Small wonder. It details how programmatic waste at HHS could be cut by $23 billion per year if the agency would pay attention to the IG.

"What do you call someone with all of the authority to hold public officials accountable, but none of the power to enforce anything? An Inspector General," wrote Kevin Baron in a Foreign Affairs piece detailing the Pentagon's shucking off of findings from the Department of Defense Inspector General.

"What do you call someone with all of the authority to hold public officials accountable, but none of the power to enforce anything? An Inspector General"

In a widely-cited 2009 report, the Project on Government Oversight recommended that, "To have impact the IGs work must be shouted from the rooftops…" But on how to improve digital awareness of IG watchdog work, POGO left the public stranded on first base with the pro-forma recommendation that at each agency IG reports should be "promptly posted on the IG's website."

Bill to improve IG reports system stalled

Arkansas Republican Rick Crawford sought to go POGO one better with a bill introduced last year that would have required centralization of IG reports from dozens of agencies at one site, under the Office of Management and Budget. Crawford said, "The American people should be able to easily find these reports and the resources to understand and use them."

Could IG online document libraries be even more accessible and engaging than envisioned in Crawford's bill, which later stalled in committee? The way IG reports are warehoused online -- in ever-growing reverse-date compendiums of scanned .pdf documents that would mostly be doorstop-thick documents if printed -- all but guarantees today's headlines become tomorrow's digital landfill.

Open data experts say there are better ways to skin the cat.

Data catalog approach makes sense

"One of the biggest misconceptions of those publishing lengthy PDF tomes is that their contents are going to be found and used. Data catalogs such as those commonly used to publish open data would allow IG reports to be made available in raw text form for easy searching along with the publishing of key attributes common across most reports, such as estimated dollar loss and resolution status, as actual data that can be searched, indexed, filtered and more -- all in a web browser and with fairly modest investment on the back end," said Steve Spiker. He's Executive Director and Founder of Open Oakland, a volunteer-driven "brigade" of Code for America. Spiker also praised the National Institute of Justice's crimesolutions.gov site for its user-friendly approach to parsing voluminous research on what works in crime prevention programs.

If IGs each published standardized JSON or RSS feeds for their entire archive (not just the most recent X reports), this would allow others to download, centralize, and syndicate their work so much more easily.

Enter the civic hackers

Eric Mill is a former software developer for the Washington, D.C. based transparency nonprofit The Sunlight Foundation, who was hired by the U.S. General Services Administration to advance open data and public engagement. Speaking for himself, not GSA, he said, "Over the last year, I've led a volunteer-driven project to download every U.S. federal IG report. This means writing web scrapers to reverse engineer each website and download the report and as much metadata as we can get. A month or so ago, we completed this task, and have every published report for 65 IGs, totalling around 40 gigabytes when all downloaded. This data currently is used to power Sunlight's Scout search engine, and an unlaunched, work-in-progress dedicated website."

Mill added, "My experience from doing this is that you get a huge benefit from basic metadata: title, description, unique ID, URL(s) to report document(s), and publication date. If IGs each published standardized JSON or RSS feeds for their entire archive (not just the most recent X reports), this would allow others to download, centralize, and syndicate their work so much more easily….Including links to each document involved helps immensely. Adding additional metadata" on variables such as "dollar loss, resolution status, type of recommendations, would certainly make this information even more useful."

Innovations in the U.K., too

The U.K. government has piloted several document-oriented databases. Thousands of standard HTML U.K. government documents on policies and announcements have been given the database treatment and are searchable by topic, department and keywords, such as "public comment."

One employee involved told The Open Standard, "IMHO these are near-miraculous achievements. They required the best wranglers of internal politics I've ever met, the most nuanced writers, and rock solid backing and support from the very top of the shop. The tech was easy."

"A huge .pdf mountain which we hate"

The U.K. government employee added, "Yet we still have a huge .pdf mountain which we hate, and do our best to segment and slice. But to stop the remaining .pdf mountain getting any higher requires that Word documents stop being the default way government communicates with itself. We've made a start with HTML and Open Document Format becoming our adopted open standards for documents.

Levels of inter-departmental and inter-agency alignment and agreement will need to be be Herculean…to…agree on standards," he said.

Nathaniel Heller, founder of the transparency and ethics nonprofit Global Integrity, said it's important to figure out "how to get away from PDF ghettos as a way of transmitting information." He added, "what's really needed for this sort of dense information -- and IG reports are a classic example -- to be made more useful to, say, my mother is context, analysis, and summaries…My gut is that it takes someone, whether an IG office itself or other infomediaries, to tell us a bit about why a particular case should matter."

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