The Wastebusters that Government Needs

The scandal at the General Services Administration illustrates the value of inspectors general. Trust in government is at stake, so why are so many federal IG positions vacant?
by | April 9, 2012

Whatever happened to the junkyard dogs? The offices of the federal inspectors general were created during the Carter administration, but it was Ronald Reagan who famously said that he wanted his administration's IGs to be "as mean as junkyard dogs," aggressively attacking fraud, waste and abuse. But today, nearly a third of the presidentially appointed IG positions are vacant.

Federal inspectors general are back in the public eye, of course, because of the recent report by the General Service Administration's IG, Brian Miller, revealing "over-the-top" wasteful spending and numerous violations of procurement regulations in connection with a lavish GSA conference in 2010 in Las Vegas. The report led GSA Administrator Martha Johnson to fire two of the agency's top officials before tendering her own resignation, and U.S. Rep. John Mica, the Florida Republican who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, announced that he will hold hearings on the matter.

The congressional hearings will provide some interesting political theater, but probably not much new information. A more interesting question, to which we do not know the answer, is why so many of the federal IG positions are vacant. After all, Congress and the public learned about this particular fiasco because an aggressive IG leading a corps of professional auditors dug out the facts and reported them.

At the state and local levels as well as in Washington, a strong and independent audit function is an essential element of honest, competent government. Beyond the loss of the money involved when honesty and competence fall short, the corrosive effect of fraud and abuse on citizens' trust in their governments is just too much to bear.

A number of the most important federal agencies, including the departments of State, Interior, Labor and Homeland Security, have been without a permanent inspector general for years. To be sure, the work of those offices continues under the direction of acting IGs, and many of the folks in that role are competent, capable professionals. But it's not sufficient. The fact that a permanent inspector general has been appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate carries with it a certain gravitas. A person in the role of acting inspector general is essentially a caretaker who cannot shape and mold the strategic direction of the office, cannot be as aggressive in conducting audits and investigations, and will not be given the same respect and deference as a permanent IG.

I don't know why the positions haven't been filled, but if you believe in transparency and accountability, this is a problem. The Obama administration has been strong in supporting the accountability community, and federal IGs are viewed by many as having done a good job, for example, in implementation of the stimulus program. These positions are, rightly, difficult to fill, and it may be that the administration is working hard to fill them but that the poisonous political atmosphere has impeded the process in ways that we cannot see. But whatever the reason, there needs to be a full-court press to get some nominees sent up to the Senate and to get them confirmed.

What these dogs guard isn't junk. It's honest, competent government, and we need them at full strength. Bring 'em on.

Mark Funkhouser  |  Director, GOVERNING Institute
mfunkhouser@governing.com  | 

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