Following a series of government scandals in the 1970s, U.S. Congress passed the Inspector General Act, mandating the establishment of independent inspectors general (IGs) in federal agencies. Today, there are more than 70 IGs serving organizations large and small across the federal government. Thirty of those are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
These men and women are leading teams of auditors, inspectors, and investigators with the avowed mission to promote economy, efficiency, and effectiveness in their respective agencies, and to prevent and detect fraud and abuse in programs and operations of the agencies they serve. I know something of this community, because I once served as Deputy Inspector General of the U.S. Postal Service and as Inspector General of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
For much of the 42 years since passage of the IG Act, federal IGs have diligently carried out their important missions — mainly out of the public eye and the crossfire of political debate. However, over the past few months, a number of IGs have been removed from their posts, with ambiguous explanations as to why. There is widespread apprehension, including bipartisan concern in Congress, over these actions involving one of the most important institutions in government.
At a time when the U.S. is facing extraordinary crises, including combating COVID-19, leaders in both the White House and on Capitol Hill should be unified in supporting IGs and their independent and unrestrained pursuit of government accountability.
Over the years, I have spoken out often on the importance and value of the nation’s IGs in their oversight role. As a former IG, I may appear biased. But the U.S. Inspector General model is admired and respected around the world for ensuring independent oversight of the efficiency, effectiveness, and transparency of government operations. Importantly, for more than 40 years, IGs have been guardians of the public trust in government, a vital component of the republic.
Political forces often square off when scandal erupts, in U.S. cities and towns and in the nation’s capital. There is frequent and vehement disagreement over the cause or impact of government missteps and, on the federal level, it is often not until a government agency’s IG renders a report on the facts that the real issue becomes clear to all sides. It is for that reason that I also often refer to IGs as arbiters of the truth.
To those who contend that the president has overstepped his authority in removing IGs, I would direct them to the IG Act, which states unambiguously, “An Inspector General may be removed from office by the President.” The law does require that the president communicate his reasons to both houses of Congress within 30 days. However, likely for constitutional reasons, the IG Act does not place any restrictions on the exercise of that authority. To be sure, other presidents have removed IGs, as has been their prerogative. I believe such a move should be taken only in the rare instance of incompetence or malfeasance. The nation needs fiercely independent IGs who can exercise their authority without fear of retribution.
In exercising their statutory responsibilities, IGs will inevitably step on someone’s toes. I know I did. Government officials can be particularly sensitive to reports that are critical of policy formulation and execution. In 2015, under a different administration and Congress, I wrote a blog post that addressed negative reactions to IG reports:
It is commonly accepted that the IGs’ mission to ferret out waste, abuse, and corruption in government is important, and there is generally glowing praise for these watchdogs. The same is often expected of government audit organizations around the world. However, in far too many instances, when one of these watchdogs has to report that there is inefficiency, ineffectiveness, fraud, waste, or mismanagement, suddenly not everyone is happy to have them around.
Indeed, the love affair with watchdogs at all levels of government, as well as their capable corporate counterparts, has not been without a few spats. Over the years, legitimate and timely work by IGs and other government audit bodies has been stalled, disrupted, or otherwise maligned by targets of queries, their supporters, or others who fear getting caught up in those investigations or called out by audit reports.
Reactions by government officials vary when the watchdogs bark, including stonewalling investigations and spinning the facts in the media ahead of the release of findings. In some instances, the response is simply to try to muzzle the watchdog.
Another way to quiet the watchdogs is to replace them with friendlier breeds or to delay replacing them at all.
Independence, objectivity, and free and unfettered access to agency operations and records will only strengthen the credibility of IGs and enhance and bolster public confidence in our system of government.
The federal IG system is not perfect, but it remains one of the strongest systems of oversight in the world in terms of its ability to monitor and gain insight into government agencies. Our message to public officials should be crystal clear: While you may not always like what IGs have to say, their presence adds credibility to everything government does.
As Christi Grimm, former acting Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, put it so eloquently in recent testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform: Independence “is a cornerstone of the IG Act and a foundational element of the work of any IG. It is what allows us to bring our objective judgments to bear on problems without worrying about whether those that run the program are hearing what they want to hear.”
Especially in these challenging times, when our focus must be on coming together, I call on elected leaders from both parties to affirm their confidence in the independence and value of the nation’s IGs and to reassure the nation that independent IGs are valued for their roles in promoting effectiveness and integrity in the federal government.
As always, I look forward to your comments.