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White House Releases 'Unprecedented’ Guidance to Agencies on Cooperating With Watchdogs

Strengthening communication and establishing liaisons for inspectors general offices are some of the new action items for agency leaders. 

The White House instructed agencies on Friday on how best to cooperate with their watchdogs who often have contentious relationships with those they oversee. 

There are 73 inspectors general across the government, many of whom now serve on the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. President Trump and his administration took numerous controversial actions toward the oversight community, which not only includes IGs––permanent and special purpose ones–– but also the Government Accountability Office and congressional oversight commission, which was established by the CARES Act for coronavirus relief. 

“In recent years, there have been concerns that executive branch agencies have not consistently provided their IGs with the full cooperation and access to which they are entitled under the law,” wrote Shalanda Young and Jason Miller, acting director and deputy director for management, respectively, for the Office of Management and Budget, in a seven-page memo to agency and department heads. “It is the president’s expectation that executive departments and agencies will restore and respect the integrity and independence of their respective agency inspectors general and work with the Congress to ensure that IG offices can exercise their vital oversight role.” 

In order to develop this new guidance, OMB sought input from the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, which conducted a review this past spring and found many agencies do not communicate properly about the role of IGs. Young and Miller, who serves as CIGIE executive chair, outlined the following actions for agencies’ leadership: 

  • Meet routinely with IGs “in a non-audit setting” to have candid conversations, such as about what resources the IG office needs to best do its job; 
  • Designate a senior official to be a liaison to the IG’s office and who could also liaise “between agency leadership and OMB to identify potential issues that could benefit from a cross-agency approach led by CIGIE;”
  • For all significant new and existing programs, develop “front-end collaboration” with IGs to “strike the balance right between efficient results, equitable access and program integrity, including minimal waste, fraud and abuse.” This is what the White House has been encouraging agencies to do for implementation of the American Rescue Plan, said the memo;
  • Foster environments in which employees are not afraid to voice concerns and report wrongdoing as well as communicate to them their whistleblower rights and protections; 
  • Communicate to IGs when they take on programs with “added risk,” especially to “expand access to underserved communities, or to leverage new technology,” wrote Miller and Young. “This engagement with IGs can help inform IG recommendations to be placed in context, constructive and actionable;”
  • Be responsive to IG reports with recommendations and work together on disagreements. If needed, OMB can hold meetings between agencies and the IG office to resolve disputes on recommendations. 

“The guidance issued today by OMB is unprecedented and will enhance the ability of [Offices of Inspectors General] to conduct the independent oversight that is needed to serve the interests of the American public,” said CIGIE Chair Allison Lerner, who is also the National Science Foundation IG.

A problem across presidential administrations has been the lack of confirmed leadership in IG positions. Government Executive reported in March and then June about experts’ calls for IG nominations to be more of a priority under the Biden administration.

As of Friday afternoon, there were 12 vacancies, with the longest lasting 2,717 days. Of the 10 that require a presidential nomination, President Biden has nominated seven individuals. Under Biden four inspectors general have been confirmed, two as recently as Thursday night. 

While many of the Trump administration’s actions were seen as unprecedented, Professors Kathryn Newcomer and Charles Johnson wrote in their book, “U.S. Inspectors General: Truth Tellers in Turbulent Times,” that many presidents have had contentious relationships with IGs.