In 1978, Congress ushered in a post-Watergate reform that, at the time, was a radical innovation: to ensure effective oversight of agency programs, Congress would place independent Inspectors General inside a dozen federal agencies to root out waste, fraud, abuse, and misconduct. Through the Inspector General Act of 1978 (IG Act), Congress conferred on these 12 internal watchdogs the authority to conduct audits and investigations of agency programs and operations, with the goal of making government more accountable and transparent to the public. By design, these watchdogs would be of the agency, with access to all the agency’s records and all the institutional insight that comes with reporting to an agency head. But they also would report directly to Congress, and be subject to congressional oversight themselves, to ensure the independence and objectivity necessary to effectively police an agency from within.
Crucially, Sec. 5(c) of the IG Actalso required that IG reports be made public, except where prohibited by law, in recognition of the public’s right to know how their government was both spending their tax dollars and using the powers and authorities that the public had entrusted to its leaders. The IG Act thus enshrined the principle famously stated by Justice Louis Brandeis: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
Today, with the work of IGs and others in the oversight and accountability community regularly in the headlines, we risk forgetting the fierce debate that surrounded the creation of the IGs and other post-Watergate statutory reforms like the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 and the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, legislative solutions that some saw as testing the doctrine of the separation of powers. While these reforms have largely become part of the fabric of today’s federal government, IGs and others in the oversight community know that our independence and statutory authorities are constantly being challenged and tested. In 1981, during the first presidential transition following passage of the IG Act, President Ronald Reagan fired every federal IG appointed by President Jimmy Carter; a bipartisan public backlash prompted him to rehire a number of them and, in the 38 years since that event, the removal of a federal IG by a President has been exceedingly rare. It has come to be recognized that IGs, who by law must be appointed based on their professional qualifications and without regard to their political affiliations or views, should not be removed from office simply because there is a change in administrations.
More recently, there was a sharp dispute about the meaning of the words “all records” in the IG Act, with some agencies interpreting the language to deny IGs access to documents necessary to do their jobs. Congress weighed in on the side of the IG community with bipartisan passage of the Inspector General Empowerment Act of 2016, ensuring full and prompt access to all agency records and strengthening the protections against agency interference that are key to IG oversight.
The once-radical idea is working. IGs have earned a well-deserved reputation as effective, trustworthy, and independent advocates to promote government efficiency and integrity. Each year federal IGs identify billions of dollars in potential taxpayer savings, conduct investigations that root out corruption and promote government accountability, and make thousands of recommendations to improve government operations. Recent examples include the Department of Health and Human Services OIG’s September 2019 report, Care Provider Facilities Describe Challenges Addressing Mental Health Needs of Children in HHS Custody;the Department of Veterans Affairs OIG’s March 2019 report, Review of Opioid Monitoring and Allegations Related to Opioid Prescribing Practices and Other Concerns at the Tomah VA Medical Center, Wisconsin; and the Environmental Protection Agency OIG’s July 2018 report, Management Weaknesses Delayed Response to Flint Water Crisis.
These successes result not only from the hard work of OIG employees, but perhaps most significantly from the willingness of agency employees to speak honestly about weaknesses and problems with agency programs during our audits, evaluations, inspections, and reviews; to fully cooperate with our investigations; and to act on our recommendations to improve program operations. In this regard, whistleblowers play a critical role, acting as the eyes and ears of government programs where they see waste, fraud, abuse, and misconduct. Our message to them is that we are there for them—they must be able to report to us without fear of retribution and know that there are statutory protections and remedies if retaliation occurs. Recently, the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, which was created by Congress in 2008 and is comprised of all 74 federal IGs, issued a report about the importance and impact of whistleblowing, Whistleblowing Works: How Inspectors General Respond to and Protect Whistleblowers.
We in the oversight community recognize the important role that our work has played in reforming government, as well as the responsibilities that we have to the public we serve. We are proud that what began as a controversial experiment in 1978 is now a firmly rooted part of government infrastructure, with over 13,000 employees working in the 74 Offices of Inspector General. And that means we need to think about the future of our oversight profession and its continued evolution. That is why the launch of the Oversight Project blog is so important.
Our future leaders—students and scholars focused on ideas of good government and looking for creative and innovative ways to improve outcomes—will have an important public forum to review and critique our work. With its attention to both newsworthy developments and long-form analysis, we look to the new publication to invigorate and focus our future leaders on issues of oversight and accountability. This blog can act as an incubator of innovative approaches to oversight work, and provide an opportunity for our community to reflect on our own challenges, successes, and opportunities for improvement. In this way, we place the Oversight Project in the company of other innovative developments in the community, such as the 2017 rollout of Oversight.gov, a website that consolidates into one place all public reports from federal IGs as a means of improving the public’s access to independent and authoritative information about the federal government.
In partnership with and service to the public, we as IGs and our partners in the oversight and accountability community can work together to strengthen and maintain a system and structure where the public understands that government waste and abuse of power will be uncovered at the earliest possible time, brought to light, and addressed. The push towards greater transparency will only grow stronger in the years ahead. The Oversight Project has a crucial role to play in that process and we look forward to following your work closely.