May 18, 2020

The Government Watchdog You Might Not Have Heard Of

By Rachel Orey and Michael Thorning

Only 17% of Americans trust the federal government to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time.” For those circumstances when government is, in fact, doing something demonstrably wrong or ill-advised, all of us should be heartened to know that government has watchdogs in place to sound an alarm. The critical work of inspectors general (IGs) do not usually make the front page, but recent political developments surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and medical shortages have resulted in a new public focus on IGs and government oversight.

The media has been quick to discuss everything from audits to inspector general reports, executive oversight, fraud, and malfeasance. But what are inspectors general? What do they do, and why do they matter?

There are roughly 73 inspectors general across the whole of the federal government who collectively employ more than 13,000 staff tasked with ensuring government is efficient and effective. IGs are intended to be selected without regard to their political affiliation, thereby allowing them to conduct nonpartisan government oversight.

While inspectors general provide an essential oversight role in the federal government, it is ultimately up to Congress to oversee the executive branch. As such, it is Congress’ responsibility to protect and preserve the critical, independent oversight role that IGs play in government.

What do IGs do?

Under the Inspector General Act of 1978, IGs are tasked with preventing and detecting waste, fraud, and abuse relating to their agency’s programs and operations. Inspectors general are assigned to posts throughout almost all of the executive branch. For instance, both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Defense have an Office of the Inspector General that oversees the organization’s operations.

IGs conduct “a variety of oversight activities including audits, investigations, evaluations, and inspections.” Agencies or departments are supposed to comply with requests for documents, data and other information. Once these oversight activities are complete, IGs report their findings to agency heads alongside recommendations for corrective action. IGs are also required to submit a semiannual report to Congress detailing their actions and recommendations.

Why do they matter?

Americans aren’t fond of government waste, and IGs are “one of the most effective tools for accountability in government.” In fiscal year 2019 alone, inspectors general are estimated to have saved Americans roughly $29.23 billion in inefficient or potentially fraudulent spending. IGs have an outstanding return on investment, with every dollar spent on IGs resulting in roughly twenty-two dollars saved.

Much of the power and importance of IGs come from their nonpartisan nature. IGs are intended to provide government oversight independently and without partisan bias. While IGs must report findings to both their respective agency and to Congress, they are expected to operate independently of those bodies.

Inspectors general tend to do most of their work out of the limelight, but this does not make their work any less important. IGs were critical in uncovering many well-known scandals, including a $2 billion dollar health care fraud involving illegal opioid dosages, as well as the doping scandal of Olympic athlete Lance Armstrong.

How can Congress support IGs through this pandemic?

Last month, BPC’s Inspector General Task Force sent a letter to congressional leadership urging them to work with inspectors general to monitor the more than $2T in CARES Act funding. While this letter was specific to conducting oversight of stimulus funds, many of the recommendations made would improve government oversight in both present and post-pandemic reality.

Congress should take the following steps to protect IG’s essential oversight role:

  • Ensure that all IGs (including the Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery) are able to communicate freely with Congress, regardless of executive branch directives
  • Call IGs before oversight hearings for informed, nonpartisan perspectives
  • Take more opportunities to highlight open recommendations from IGs at hearings and in other public forums
  • Respect IG’s independent and nonpartisan nature by never pressing for incomplete audit or evaluation results

Congress created IGs for three reasons: to help them conduct oversight; to identify waste, fraud, and abuse; and to help improve the functioning of government. Now, more than 40 years after the creation of IGs, Congress must take decisive action to protect the essential and nonpartisan role that IGs play in government.

Is Congress Working for You?