Government Watchdogs Face New Obstacles

It’s getting harder for the people who check up on government to do their jobs.
February 2019
(Shutterstock)
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

There’s little question in our minds that most men and women who work in government are honest, fair and reasonable. The same mindset holds true for Paul M. Nick, past president of the Council of Governmental Ethics Laws. “After 22 years in the business,” he tells us, “I can say that the vast majority of public officials want to do the right thing.”

Still, to paraphrase an early 20th-century humorist, Finley Peter Dunne, “You trust your mother, but you still cut the cards.”

In state and local government, there are a variety of ways to cut the cards to ensure that taxpayer dollars aren’t being wasted or spent fraudulently. Among the most important players are inspectors general, performance auditors, evaluators and ethics commissions. Their function is critical. But how well are they able to do their job?

There are, we can tell you, challenges. For starters, these oversight groups are aided by whistleblowers who alert them to violations of the law. But -- and this is a big but -- while two-thirds of states have statutes protecting whistleblowers, there’s still a widespread fear of retribution. That’s just the beginning of the hurdles faced by oversight organizations.

Among the 200 state and local inspector general offices in the U.S., capacities and roles vary. In some states there is just one IG office -- and that one may be dedicated to Medicaid. Other states have a number of IG offices, notably Florida, which maintains over 30 for different agencies, ranging from transportation to health. Generally speaking, the role of an inspector general is to prevent and eliminate fraud, waste and abuse in government. The IG is typically appointed by either a mayor or a governor.

Part of the challenge here is that when an IG is selected by politicians, there is a potential for conflicts of interest. This possibility turned into a reality in Louisiana. According to reports from Stephen Street, president of the National Association of Inspectors General and Louisiana’s IG in 2012 and again in 2016, legislators were dismayed over an investigation of improprieties on the part of politically popular public officials and tried to defund the IG offices. “They would never admit that was their true motivation,” he says. “They claimed it was for budget problems.”

Still, the threat of that kind of action can create a chilling effect on the degree to which an oversight office moves forward.

In addition to the fear of being defunded, there is the concern about their findings being ignored. Performance auditors, for example, may find that recommendations they make after auditing an agency are, in effect, invisible. In large part that’s because there’s little real pressure on city or state leaders to pay attention. The same can be true of evaluators’ reports.

One solution is to create the needed pressures. The most obvious way to do this is to engage the public through publicity about audits and evaluations. But that route has its hurdles. Although her city does a great job on that front, Alexandra Fercak, senior management auditor for Portland, Ore., maintains that a big part of the reason her colleagues elsewhere don’t get publicity is that they don’t want it. “A lot of audit shops have been horrified when I talk about how we push things out to the media,” she says. “They think that’s just wrong, and that their city council wouldn’t like it.”

As to ethics commissions, many are formed in the wake of a scandal. These bodies are often stymied by the lack of enough funding to seek out bad players in government. They have to rely on the press to dig up the dirt, and only then can they follow up.

But that’s a bit like building a house on a foundation of mud. The number of state and local investigative reporters has declined. That adds to the hurdles state and local government oversight groups face in keeping tabs on their agencies, officials and functions.