Government watchdogs should be on the alert for successes, not just scandals.
The internal government watchdogs known as inspectors general spend their days examining the federal bureaucracy for crooked contractors, wasteful spending and $16 muffins.
With an army of 12,000 workers and an aggregate budget of around $2 billion, their feared audits and investigations annually identify tens of billions of dollars in questionable costs and lead to thousands of successful criminal prosecutions, indictments, contractor debarments and firings.
Which makes the several dozen presidentially appointed inspectors general uniquely qualified to champion all that’s innovative, effective and excellent in the federal government. Congress should demand they do just that.
This counterintuitive idea, which has been making the rounds in the Obama administration, is not as crazy as it sounds. After all, the people who work for inspectors general are experts in accounting, procurement and the arcane operations embedded deep in every agency. They’re politically independent, so even the media trust them to tell the truth.
If inspectors general devoted even a small fraction of their energies to identifying and exposing what works in government -- in addition to what’s rotten -- they could help Congress and the White House figure out how to best keep critical government services running as well as possible in an era of massive budget cuts.
“IGs should be identifying what works already,” says Daniel Feldman, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor who researches government oversight. “Part of their mission is to advance efficiency and economy in government.
You wouldn’t know that by looking at their typical work product. Of the more than five dozen semiannual reports to Congress delivered last spring from inspector general offices, only a handful spilled any ink on which programs get an unusually high return on taxpayer investment, or which management techniques effectively slashed costs without sacrificing services.
A review by the Center for American Progress found that only four of more than 60 IGs highlighted for lawmakers best practices or innovative practices in agencies. The sprinkling of good news that was reported was often buried and didn’t attempt to explore whether pockets of effectiveness could be scaled up or replicated across the agency -- or throughout the government.
“We’ve got a bias in the system to the negative,” says Shelley Metzenbaum, the Office of Management and Budget’s official in charge of federal performance and personnel management.
To be sure, a healthy dose of negative bias is appropriate when safeguarding the public interest. After all, catching a single crook on the public payroll is arguably more important than pointing out the good offices of even 1,000 law-abiding public servants.
But when independent watchdogs neglect to highlight money-saving solutions they encounter on their watch, they rob the public of reliable information that could be used to expand such programs. And a relentless focus on the negative contributes to the widely held view that government is inherently untrustworthy, which helps anti-government ideologues who would starve government of resources the public actually needs and wants.
“The policy problem is getting more oversight officials to pay attention to what government does that works,” says Metzenbaum, who has begun to reach out to inspectors general to explore if this idea might work. “Spreading what works across government boosts the public's return on investment. It enables us to deliver more mission for the taxpayer's money.”
It won’t be an easy sell, even among good-government advocates. “While I love the concept of pointing out things that work, I would argue against the IGs doing it,” says Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit watchdog group. “IGs already are stretched for resources to tackle the challenges . . . and the agency already has a press office that can brag about what works.”
The problem with the press office, of course, is that people distrust it, particularly the press. Inspectors general, on the other hand, operate largely independent of political leadership and so are perceived as credible. And the rare occasions when IGs do highlight what’s working in government shows the potential of having a trusted independent entity look for solutions, not just scandals.
For example, the Commerce Department inspector general’s office confirmed in 2012 that letting patent office workers examine patent applications from home resulted in their processing more fee-generating applications -- while saving taxpayers millions on real estate costs. The State Department’s inspector general office, which is unusual for routinely searching out innovative practices within the department, recently reported on a variety of time- and cost-saving operational techniques being deployed in farflung consular offices that could be replicated around the world.
Eleanor Hill, a former Defense Department inspector general, says most inspector general offices probably encounter similar effective government initiatives during the course of routine audits and inspections. So why don’t they point them out? “No one requires them to do that on a regular basis,” she says.
There’s a simple fix for that and it needn’t detract from inspectors general’s core mission of rooting out waste, fraud and abuse. Congress should simply amend the 1978 Inspector General Act to also ask agency IGs to include in their semiannual reports examples of particularly effective, innovative or cost-saving initiatives that are worth noting.
State’s inspector general already has developed a good definition of an “innovative practice,” which other IGs could adopt: It must be proved, with hard data, to work; it must be new or innovative; and it must be replicable across an agency or throughout the government.
To address concerns such as those raised by POGO’s Brian, Congress could direct inspectors general to spend no more than 5 percent of their resources on identifying and validating effective practices within agencies. (Of course, any increased funding for inspectors general would probably pay for itself.)
That’s all lawmakers have to do. Once Congress starts asking watchdogs to be on the lookout for things that work, the burden will shift to the White House and agencies to make good use of that information.
At a time when we’re demanding the federal government to do more with less, isn’t it important to know what should be expanded -- not just what should be slashed?Gadi Dechter is the managing director of economic policy at the Center for American Progress.