Not every good idea is a good idea

On Sept. 14, 2020, the United States Postal Service Office of Inspector General (“OIG”) published Next Generation Connectivity: Postal Service Roles in 5G and Broadband Deployment (“5G report”).[1] The 5G report argues for the USPS to obtain partners to set up 5G, broadband, and edge computing infrastructures in post offices across the United States to help deploy broadband more rapidly in rural and tribal areas. The 5G report does not analyze or review existing USPS programs or operations,  however. Instead, it argues that USPS should implement an entirely new program. As such, separate from the recommendations themselves, the report raises the question of whether OIG is doing oversight or something else entirely.

When an OIG recommends a new program for its host agency, there is a significant risk of compromising its independence. According to the GAO’s Government Auditing Standards (Yellow Book), a program auditor must be independent, meaning that a reasonable and informed third party should be able to conclude they exercise objective and impartial judgement. Threats to an auditor’s independence include self-review, bias, and management participation. Writing a report that proposes new programs for an agency is not technically an “audit,” but it still puts the author actively into management, similar to that cautioned against by the Yellow Book. OIG’s job should be to review the policies and programs enacted by management, not to create or recommend new policies and programs except ones about oversight. Should a program recommended by OIG be set up, then OIG could fairly be seen to have a conflict of interest when auditing the new program. This may lead a reasonable and informed third party to believe that the OIG might be biased in favor of the program’s continuation regardless of flaws due to the OIG’s previously stated convictions. Even if the OIG is independent and can review, audit, and investigate the new program with an unbiased eye, the appearance of independence is lost.

Congress assigned OIGs the responsibility to provide independent oversight to an agency or governmental department primarily to stop waste, fraud, and abuse. Proposing a new policy or program for an agency is only allowed if that program prevents and detects fraud and abuse while promoting economy, efficiency, and effectiveness. Setting up 5G and broadband hotspots in post offices across the country might promote economy, efficiency and effectiveness, but it does not prevent or detect fraud and abuse. This is another reason to question whether the 5G Report is outside OIG’s scope of authority.

Lastly, if a report limits an OIG’s independence and is outside the OIG’s purpose and authority, then the OIG misused the money and resources expended on the report. Congress appropriates this money for the OIG’s training and operations. The OIG must use the money according to the IG Act. If an OIG uses the money set aside for these purposes for any other reason, then the OIG misapplied money intended for reviewing the agency. The 5G Report is arguably a very good idea ‑‑ for the USPS to have issued. But it is not something on which OIG should focus. Recommending new programs threatens OIG independence, and it should be avoided.

[1] 5G is the fifth generation technology standard for broadband cellular networks, which cellular phone companies began deploying worldwide in 2019, and is the planned successor to the 4G networks which provide connectivity to most current cellphones.