Since fiscal 2015, the federal government’s 73 inspectors general have identified $87 billion in potential savings that could be realized if agencies eliminated questionable expenditures and made more efficient use of federal funds.
While agencies have adopted many of these findings and addressed issues of waste, fraud and abuse revealed in IG audits and investigations, thousands of recommendations issued every year are not implemented.
The Health and Human Services Department’s inspector general, for example, is tracking more than 1,200 open recommendations. As of May 2017, the HHS IG’s open recommendations included reducing tens of millions of dollars in Medicaid and home health care fraud; protecting Medicare beneficiaries from opioid addiction that cost the Part D drug program in excess of $4 billion in 2015; and clamping down on millions of dollars in improper payments to a child care and development fund.
To have maximum impact, inspectors general must rely on the agencies accepting and acting on their findings—not always an easy task—or on Congress applying pressure to ensure that reforms are implemented.
If Congress and the IG community can find ways to improve communication and work more collaboratively, government will function more efficiently, and the American people will be better-served.
In the summer of 2017, the Partnership for Public Service and Grant Thornton convened congressional staff and members of the IG community to discuss how to strengthen their working relationship. One takeaway from these discussions was that many important issues go unaddressed because of a lack of clear and consistent communication between the IG offices and those working on Capitol Hill.
Lawmakers and their staff members are busy, often with little time to read lengthy and detailed IG reports, and as a result, some issues identified by the IGs simply do not get attention. In other instances, issues identified by the IGs just do not take priority because of the crush of other business.
Moreover, congressional committees, where so much legislative work gets done, can get bogged down in partisanship, with IGs sometimes asked to provide information separately to minority and majority staff members. This doubles the engagement demands of IGs on Capitol Hill, and makes it harder to get everyone on the same page. According to one IG, there have been occasions when “staffers won’t be in the same rooms at the same times. They don’t want to talk to each other.”
To deliver on their shared goal of improving government, inspectors general and members of Congress should be more strategic and creative in how they communicate with each other.
IGs, for example, could do a better job of getting the attention of lawmakers regarding important issues by pulling together recommendations from several audits and presenting them in “alerts,” newsletters or “key issues” documents. Additionally, it might be helpful to develop high-risk lists that let congressional overseers know which agency programs are most vulnerable to waste, fraud, or abuse.
Targeted outreach can also bear fruit. Some IGs have been successful by contacting specific members of Congress when they have uncovered waste, fraud, and abuse in a particular region or individual program that affects the lawmaker’s constituents.
With limited staff and resources on both sides, some IGs have found that tailoring findings to provide the bigger picture and some perspective could be helpful. For example, if IGs identify similar issues across the federal government, they could work together to convey that information to congressional committees and might be more likely to get a positive response. New tools like the Oversight.gov web portal, which allows users to text search most IG reports on one website, could help IGs and Congress identify problems and concerns that exist across the federal government.
Similarly, congressional committees would be aided in setting their agendas if they could be informed in advance of some of the major issues that IGs are exploring. “If I know what you’re focusing on, we can focus on it, too,” one staffer said. “Then we can shine a big spotlight on the issue and act as voice multipliers.”
In short, members of Congress want IGs to help them address government waste and fraud, and the IGs certainly want the clout of Congress to draw attention to their findings and get their recommendations implemented. Improving how they work together would foster a more effective government, and help both lawmakers and the watchdogs better meet their obligations to the public.
Mallory Barg Bulman is Vice President, Research and Evaluation at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service.
Carlos Otal is National Managing Partner for Grant Thornton Public Sector.